I seem to have been writing about J & A Mitchell quite a lot recently, but since last weekend marked the 12th Anniversary of the opening (re-opening?) of Mitchell’s Glengyle distillery, I figured that warranted another post. At least it is about Kilkerran this time rather than Springbank!
At the time, it was quite a novelty - it was one of the forerunners in the wave (now practically a tsunami) of new Scottish Distilleries, and the first distillery to open in Campbeltown in well over 100 years. The original Glengyle distillery had been founded in 1872 by William Mitchell, who ran it until 1919, when it was sold. It closed its doors a few years later in 1925. Although all the distilling equipment was removed, and the stock sold off, the distillery buildings themselves remained pretty much intact over the intervening years, being used first as a rifle range, then as an agricultural depot.
The story goes that Mr Hedley G Wright, current chairman of J & A Mitchell Co Ltd, during one of his visits to Springbank, had noticed that the buildings were for sale and commented, “Hmm, my great-great uncle used to own Glengyle. I think I should buy it.” I may be paraphrasing slightly but you get the idea! Buy it he did (in November 2000), and the ambitious plan to create a brand new distillery within the walls of the old one began.
The first time I saw the soon to be new Glengyle distillery, in 2002, it was an empty shell. A very large empty shell! Over the next couple of years though, I, along with all the other staff at Springbank, gradually watched the new distillery come to life under the direction of Mr Wright and Frank McHardy, who was Springbank Distillery Manager at the time.
The stills and mill were sourced second hand - the stills from Ben Wyvis distillery and the mill from Craigellachie - although the shape of the stills was altered somewhat to give the distillery character they wanted. The rest of the equipment was new though - the very large stainless steel mash tun was brought down by road (I’d have hated to be stuck behind that lorry on the way down to the town!) and fitted by Forsyths of Speyside. I vividly remember watching the washbacks be built on site - now that was impressive! If you’ve ever been to a cooperage and watched them building casks, it was like that but on a much, much larger scale. The noise of 5 or 6 guys hammering the huge hoops into place around the newly installed washbacks was something else! I also remember the first time the new washbacks were filled - and the water just poured out the bottom! They do that apparently, until the giant staves absorb enough water to expand into place and make them watertight. That’ll be why they were filled with water first then, won’t it? (That’s also why wooden washbacks are kept full of water when not in use, so that they don’t dry out and start leaking).
It’s all the more remarkable then to think that at one point in time, Springbank was considered to be at the forefront of innovation and modernisation! In an article that Hedley G Wright, the current Chairman of Springbank, wrote for The Wine and Spirit Trade Record in 1963, he stated, “Springbank Distillery today has changed in several features from olden times. The company has been one of the pioneers of mechanisation within the distilling industry and the movement of barley and malt is now performed entirely by belts screws and elevators…The actual maltings have been rationalised so that there is only one set of floors and one kiln where formerly there had been two independent maltings…The green malt is dried on a pressure kiln of modern design and this item of equipment has been found to give a superior quality of malt and also effect considerable economy of time and fuel"
Then fermentation, “The actual washbacks are made of Scottish ‘boat-skin’ larch wood, for it is the belief of the proprietors that a steel wash back, although less expensive to install and maintain, gives a distinct taint to the final whisky, in an analogous manner to the distinctive tone given to a violin by the use of steel strings.”
Then distillation, “The wash is pumped into a large copper still which is heated by a coal fire underneath and also, simultaneously, by an internal steam coil through which superheated steam is passed. This method of heating a wash still is the traditional Campbeltown technique and has been used at Springbank for as long as records indicate; it is thought that no distilleries outside Campbeltown use this method.”
Today is an exciting day - I have finally managed to get my hands on some of the new Springbank Local Barley! Now, I must admit, my expectations are fairly (unreasonably?) high for this one as one of my favourite drams of all time is the 1966 Local Barley, which I first tried way back in 2003 at the Vienna Whisky Fair when the lovely chaps from the Austrian Whisky Society very kindly gave me a dram from their bottle in the bar after the show. I remember being absolutely blown away, not just by the whisky, but by the fact that a group of people I had never met before that weekend would share such an old, rare whisky with me, just because they thought I would like it and be interested to try it.
Released this month, this is retailing at around £95 a bottle, although I have seen some bottles sell at auction (yes, already!) for more than double that. Which brings me on to a rant that I have now and again when the subject of escalating whisky prices comes up. As consumers, we often complain that whisky is too expensive, that prices just keep rising. Which is true, but look at it from the producers point of view. How annoying must it be to see someone (or many someones in this case) buy your bottles, not to drink and enjoy, but to immediately flip at auction, making themselves more money per bottle than both the producer and retailer combined? If the market is willing to pay that higher price, then it is totally understandable that the producer would want to increase their share of the profits to allow them to reinvest in the business.
Using this Springbank Local Barley as an example, if Springbank were to charge an extra £20 a bottle (equating to an increase of about £50 on the retail price I would think) they would net themselves an extra £180,000 on a limited release of 9000 bottles such as this one. That’s a whole lot of man hours or casks or tonnes of barley that they are missing out on. In a way then, I think it is quite admirable that Springbank are only charging £95 a bottle for their latest Local Barley Release. I never thought I’d see the day when I considered £95 quid a reasonable price for a bottle of 16yo whisky but considering the price they could be charging (at least if auctions are anything to go by) and the increased costs associated with the local barley releases (small batch, lower yield, higher production costs etc) I think they’re doing pretty well.
From Washback to Photo Block
I love these photo blocks by Campbeltown photographer Will Anderson - I spotted them when I was in the Campbeltown Cadenhead's Whisky Shop the other day and was very jealous I hadn't thought of it first! (Mind you, my photography skills are not quite up to Will's standard so probably just as well it was him that thought of it and not me.)
They're made using bits of an old Springbank washback and (unused) bungcloths which gives them a really nice chunky, rustic style. It's great to see bits of old distillery kit being given a new lease of life - some of the washback has also been used for shelving and displays in the recently expanded whisky shop. Lot of wood in a washback though so I wonder where else we're going to see it pop up - will keep you posted if I spot it in any other incarnations!
For some reason our copy of the 4th Edition of Scotch Missed by Brian Townsend arrived some 10 days before the official release date so thought I’d do a wee preview review for anyone out there considering buying it. When I say ‘our’ copy, I really mean my husband’s copy (but what’s his is mine, right?) - he is a total whisky geek and has had this on order for months now. We already have the first edition in the house so I admit I was initially skeptical about why he needed two copies of the same book. Having perused the new 4th Edition over the last couple of days though, I can see why as it is not the same book at all!
I’ll rephrase that. Parts of the book are the same. It is after all a book about Lost Distilleries so once they are closed, there’s not really anything else to add. There are however a number of striking differences between the two editions (I should point out here that I haven’t read the 2nd and 3rd editions, published in 1997 and 2000 respectively, so cannot include them in my comparisons. Don't know why they are missing from our whisky library, Mark must have slipped up somewhere!)
Firstly the design and layout is so much better! (I’m interested in design ok, I like things to be aesthetically pleasing). Divided into geographical sections, the lost distilleries are accompanied by a very eclectic mix of images; old and new photos, bottle shots, old marketing postcards and posters. Most of the distillery entries also have a picture of the old OS map showing the location, which I love. I would love it even more if the maps were zoomed out a bit more so you could situate the distilleries better in comparison to existing roads etc but that’s just me being very picky.
Secondly the content has also been updated. Yes, as I already mentioned, a lot of the content is the same but there is quite a lot of new stuff too - some 30 extra distilleries have been added since the first 1993 edition; from Brora and Port Ellen, two iconic closed distilleries mothballed in the 80s which I would have expected to be included in the first edition but weren't (maybe they were still classed as mothballed rather than lost) to the half dozen mothballed in 1992/1993 and the more recent closures such as Caperdonich and Port Dundas. However there are also a handful of very old (ie closed in the second half of the 1800s) distilleries which have been added and three ‘lost and found’ distilleries which have risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes since the first edition; Annandale, Glengyle and Imperial/Dalmunach. Interestingly over half of the new additions have some connection to Diageo, or UD/SMD/DCL as was, so I would imagine the author has had access to the Diageo archives since the first edition!
My only criticism, and this is me being very picky, is that I would have liked to see more photos from the present day to compare with what was there before. Admittedly this is not very interesting when the buildings have been completely razed to make way for a supermarket or housing scheme but when there are some vestiges, or indeed complete buildings, left of the original distillery it would be interesting to see. A wee photo of the new Annandale, Glengyle and Dalmunach distilleries would have made a nice addition I feel. As would one of Parkmore, which is described as, ‘externally the most perfect survivor of the late 1890s boom in distilleries’, but there is no photo showing how it looks now. (Incidentally, local chat in Dufftown, where I used to live, attributed the closure of Parkmore to problems with the water supply, possibly due to the limestone quarry nearby, but this may just be local gossip). As I say though, this is me being picky, and there are limits to how many photos one can reasonably fit in a book.
All in all, a very enjoyable read, written in an accessible, engaging style. One for the history buffs rather than the casual drinker though. And definitely worth buying even if you already have the first edition!
Inspired by the book, I had a wander round Campbeltown this afternoon and took some photos of our lost distilleries. Some are more recognisably still distilleries than others!
Okay, so admittedly a housing scheme and a supermarket don't make for the most interesting 'lost distillery' photos. Let's try again...
The Glen Scotia renaissance
Walking along High Street in Campbeltown the other day I was stuck by how nice and well cared for Glen Scotia was looking these days. I’ve lived in Campbeltown, on and off, all my life and believe me, Glen Scotia has never looked so good! In fact it always used to look a bit forlorn and neglected, to the point where even the locals weren’t exactly sure whether it was in production or not.
However, since the newly formed Loch Lomond Group took over in early 2014, all that seems to have changed. Along with the shiny new paint job and signage there is now a brand new shop/visitor centre and distillery tours available. Neither is very clearly signed (although plan in place to correct this) from the outside but pass through the unassuming door, marked Distillery Manager, and you find a very tastefully decorated shop with some nice quirky touches (I love the old Victorian cash register!).
Unfortunately, I didn't manage to go on tour during their recent open day (part of the Campbeltown Malts Festival at the end of May), however the visit of a family friend last week gave me the excuse I was looking for to have a nosy round the inside as well as the outside!
One thing that did surprise me going round was how small it was. Don’t get me wrong, the building itself is massive but despite the imposing facade, the actual production equipment is all quite dinky and much more traditional than I remembered. The mash tun is one of the old cast iron ones, with a modest 2.85 tonne mash, and everything is manually operated - not a computer in a sight (nor discreetly tucked away anywhere that I could see). Shannon, our guide, told us that production currently stands at about 300,000 lpa, with plans to increase this to 500,000 lpa by the end of the year. In the past a lot of Glen Scotia’s production was destined for blend, however the plan is to very much to cut back on that side of the business going forward and concentrate on developing Glen Scotia as a Single Malt.
Intrigued by what I had seen in the distillery and shop, I got in touch with Scott Dickson, the Marketing Manager at Loch Lomond Group, who very kindly took some time to discuss their plans. He is very enthusiastic about Glen Scotia, and about the Loch Lomond stable in general, which he describes as ‘hidden gems’; “With Glen Scotia, the previous owners had a really good cask management system in place, under John Petersen, the master blender. We’re building on that and really want to build on the classic Campbeltown style of malt. We've been working with the team at Springbank and see a great opportunity to work together to really promote Campbeltown as the fifth whisky production region.”
Further building on the importance of Campbeltown as a region, LLG are currently renovating the dunnage warehouse on site so more of the spirit can actually be matured in Campbeltown itself. I did ask whether the goal eventually is for it to be 100% Campbeltown matured but, whisky people being a cautious/superstitious bunch, was informed that while they will be maturing more on site, they will also continue to send stock to their other bonded warehouses in Alexandria and Glen Catrine, “just in case something bad happens, it’s better to have it a bit spread out”.
To achieve that typical Campbeltown style, Scott explained, “We produce three types of single malt at Glen Scotia; unpeated, lightly peated and heavily peated. These are married together by our Master Blender, John Petersen, to give the style we are looking for. We are particularly pleased with Victoriana as we feel it is the closest we can get to the original Campbeltown style with that lovely sea spray, salty tang”
Now, I must confess I haven’t actually tried the Victoriana yet, but I intend to rectify this very shortly. Happily it sounds like it will be much easier for me, and everyone else, to get their hands on Glen Scotia, to buy or to try, going forward. They are in the process of finalising their UK and Global distribution with the intention that Glen Scotia should be much more widely available through specialist independent retailers and whisky bars and they have already confirmed their attendance at The Whisky Show in London in October and expect to be participating in many more festivals and shows in the near future. Excellent news - it’ll be great to see another Campbeltown malt represented on the Festival circuit.
Good news for those coming to Campbeltown as a whisky tourist too - in an eminently sensible move Glen Scotia have decided to offer daily tours at times that do not clash with the existing Springbank ones so should you feel so inclined, you’d be able to tour all 3 Campbeltown distilleries in one day! (Glen Scotia tours are at 11.30am and 3pm. Springbank’s, with option of touring Glengyle as well, at 10am and 2pm).
Glen Scotia Tours can be booked by calling +44 (0) 1586 552288 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org Individual tours and tastings on request.
Thanks to Scott Dickson for the information and photos of the shop (mine didn't really do it justice!) and the new product range.
The ‘before’ shots of the distillery and the product range I got from Google images so apologies if have not credited someone that should be!
I’m excited to say that Whisky Impressions will have a stand at next week’s Springbank Open Day, on Thursday the 21st of May. The Open Day has been on the go for a good few years now but this year it has been expanded to include the town’s other distilleries, Glen Scotia and Glengyle, and has become the Campbeltown Malts Festival. Hopefully the first of many!
I have to say this is a first for me for a couple of reasons - first time I’ve done a whisky festival in my home town and first time I’ve done a whisky festival where I don't actually have any whisky on my stand! Just t-shirts and prints. Hopefully some of you will come along and say hello, despite the lack of whisky though.
I remember one of the very first whisky festivals I went to, just after starting work at Springbank. It was in Vienna and I got talking to some of the guys from the Austrian Whisky Society who had a fantastic collection of old whiskies with them. After the show, when we were all congregating in the hotel bar (as you do), they invited me to join them for a dram of Springbank 1966 Local Barley that they had just opened. I was really touched that this group of people that I had never met before would share such an old, rare, whisky with a young lass just started in the industry.
That’s the great thing about whisky though, and thing I love about whisky festivals - it’s all about sharing. I’ve lost count of the number of times since that moment that strangers, friends, competitors or customers have come up to me at a whisky festival, glass in hand and said, ‘taste this, it’s fantastic!’ I don’t know why it is acceptable to taste a stranger’s whisky but it just is. I mean if someone you barely knew come up and offered you a lick of their ice cream you would think they were a total weirdo but somehow with whisky it’s ok. Don’t question it too much ok, just embrace it.
I just hope this new trend for ‘investing’ in whisky doesn't stop people sharing their whisky with others; not for profit or gain but just for the simple pleasure in sharing a great dram.
Whisky Impressions is run by Kate Watt. Previously at Springbank and then Glenfarclas, I now design some whisky related stuff and write about it, and anything else that takes my fancy, on this blog.