Maltlovers Report: a week at Springbank (Campbeltown) 1-5/07/2013

October 21, 2013 in MaltloverPost

Back to school. It’s a phrase I wasn’t expecting to use for a while. Maybe in a couple years, when my little girl will take her first steps in pre-school academic life. But not for myself… Fortunately, this was my kind of school. A subject perfectly suited for my taste, lots of practical work and an exam I could get behind. This would not be school, this would be an adventure! I took a good friend along for the ride: off to Springbank Whisky School (SWS)!

Springbank Whisky School

SWS is a 5-day course on all things involving the making of single malt whisky. From malting to bottling, every step is done on the premises of the Springbank distillery. Moreover, they make three distinct kinds of single malt over in faraway Campbeltown (cue: Mull of Kintyre): unpeated Hazelburn, lightly peated Springbank and heavily peated Longrow. During the 5-day term, 6 students (in our case: Sergio the Spaniard, Adolf the German, Morten the Dane, Cameron the American and the two Belgians, Ben and yours truly) get the chance to watch the people do what it takes to make these drams. Moreover: it is expected that students actively take part in the sometimes heavy labour involved in the process. Luckily, all 6 students will not starve to death in the streets of Campbeltown. We are based in Feorlin Guesthouse. A 2 minute walk from the place where all the magic happens, and with lovely hosts Angela and Callum. 5 days and nights we are fed good, hearty homecooking in portions that would be daunting to professional sumo wrestlers. But hey: food is fuel, and we’ll need it.

Not for pencilpushers

That becomes apparent on the first day. After a quick safety tour by distillery legend Frank McHardy (who will act as our headmaster this week) we get stuck in right away. About 6 tonnes of malt is ready a bit too early (they expected this on Wednesday). Too hot, so it begins to germinate too quickly. It is spread out on the malting floor and with shovels and wheelbarrows has to disappear into a hole in the ground, from where a conveyor belt transports it to the kiln to be dried. Norman and Kelly, maltman and maltwoman (is that even a word?) get us started right away. It is about 1,5 hours of pretty hard manual labour; we city-office-boys immediately get to feel it in our arms and backs. And there is 8 of us doing this now; normally they put a floor like this away with 2-4 people, and then it is even double the amount of malt. Nice workout to start the day. Oh yes, did I tell you: workdays are 8am-5pm every day. And you thought we were on a holiday here, ha! Nice little detail: when we think we are ready, Kelly and Norman are still gently brushing the last grains of malt from corners and into the hole. The attention with which they go about this little task, is beautiful to watch; it shows how much they care about the product and their pride in their jobs. The rest of the week we get to know them a little bit better, and they are (as are actually all of the people there) really great people, dedicated to what they are doing without making too much fuss about it.

After teatime, students are teamed up in duos and go to different parts of the distillery. Ben and me keep with Norman and Kelly. We get to even out the mountains of malt in the kiln; not much light, pretty hot and more shoveling: good stuff for us pencilpushers. After that, we’re on warehouse-duty. There is some trouble with a bunch of casks they bought some years ago; up till now, they have already singled out 28 (!) of them which are cracked and emptied out. A heartbreaking loss of good spirit, at +/- 200 liters per cask! There is obviously something wrong with this batch of casks. We get to find them in the warehouse, lift, roll or even throw them out of their rows and move them down. It sounds easy, but it isn’t always. Some of these casks are down two or three rows of full casks which all have to be moved and then put back in the same way. Of course, they all have to end bung (opening hole) up. To achieve this, there apparently exists a system of clock-counting, which allows you to set a cask up in a certain way at the start of a row, and then it rolls into the correct position by itself almost. Norman and Kelly always get it right; they try to explain it to us, and Ben gets the hang of it (or at least pretends to). For me, this is some sort of higher science or even magic; I never got how it works and probably never will. Another nice little detail in the whiskymaking business.

Extracurricular activities

When we get back the first evening, every student is pretty tired. After a nice meal, most are craving for some sleep and thus go to bed. The Belgians, however, decide that there is no rest for the wicked and go out for a drink. On the way, we even stop by the distillery again. We are free to wander in, as people are working there 24/7. We go say hi to the evening shift, which consists of Lea and John, distilling away until 10 o’clock, when the nightshift takes over. The start of a nice little tradition, as we will continue doing this every night of the week. John has been with Springbank for many years, Lea just started out a couple months earlier. We get to help them with mashing and find out all about the process (temperatures, amounts of water, how they measure,…). Before we know it, each of these visits turns out to 30-45 minutes of extracurricular studying. Whether the headmaster will take this into account in our final assessment, we can only wonder… After that, we try to find The Ardshiel Hotel, which is supposed to be fitted with the best whisky bar in town. After a small detour we manage to find it and have a couple drams there. The choice there truly is amazing.

Marketing is evil

The next day starts out with some hard work again: about 13000 liters of spirit has to be transferred into just over 60 casks, which then have to be put into their resting places in the warehouse to mature for 10 or more years. We get to fill the barrels, stencil the amount of liters on the lids and then roll them out into the yard and subsequently to the warehouse. Again, Norman and Kelly are the people showing us the ropes. Gavin, distillery manager, is there to keep a keen eye on the amounts of spirit and Pop (assistant manager) and Frank show up once in a while to check if everything is going as it should. Rolling full casks of spirit is again a good workout; not much point in keeping our sweaters on while on the job, T-shirts are more then enough, even though outside temperatures are not exactly seeringly hot. After this job (which leads to a very nicely looking three-storey row of 45 newly filled casks in the warehouse), we get to help out with the mashing and stillwork a bit more. We help out for about an hour in the bottling hall, bottling a beautiful Caperdonich 1977 for Cadenheads. Bottling is a necessary evil in whisky making; it is not the most enthusiasm-inducing activity. But we have some fun with the nice crew in the bottling hall and it is nice to see every bit of the process. Then it is time for our first real class, taught by Frank McHardy himself.

This theoretical look into the work helps us put everything we see and experience a little bit more into focus. It is a very welcome insight in the machinations of the distillery, and we get all the chances to ask any questions we have. And Frank answers them quite… frankly. His views on making whisky are sobering to the kind of whiskymaniacs (‘anoraks’) who ascribe some godly or magical powers to the distiller. Whiskymaking is not at all about magical things happening (although slick marketing boys will gladly instill this fiction into their target groups). Magic would imply that stillmen and maltmen are relying on chance to make a quality product. They do not. They make sure they do everything just like they should, to the slightest detail. Only with this attention to detail, with this dedication to their work, do they reach their goal: to make the whisky they had envisioned to make. It is not a matter of a godly touch inspiring the whisky, it is a matter of hard and steady work. Which is in itself a good story to sell to potential clients, of course. Are you listening, marketing boys?

Local roots

After the usual end to day 2 (visit to John and Lea, couple drams in the Ardshiel, good night’s rest), we’re on to day three. The draff has to be emptied out of the drainer on the roof; Morten and Ben get the fun of wading around in hot draff, pushing it down the holes with again, shovels. After that, Ben, Adolf and I stay with Pop for a while, who explains us all about steeping, the barley used, the peat used and all sorts of details about this part of the process. Now, Pop is a true character. He is a fantastically enthusiastic guy and manages to get you as enthusiastic as he is. He speaks with a beautiful Scottish tongue, which makes him at times slightly to completely incomprehensible. When we ask the same questions again (because we didn’t understand the first time, or because Adolf didn’t understand the 5th or 6th time), he just explains everything again, without even blinking. He is clearly another one of the people here who are attached to their product. He emphasises the social part of Springbank; in a small town, they are a big employer. They do what they do in a traditional way, which perhaps involves more people than are strictly necessary to reach optimal efficiency. But they do not strive for efficiency, they strive for a great product, rooted in a local community. They could probably have their malts bottled cheaper at a large bottling hall somewhere, but they choose to keep these facilities on site. Springbank whisky is truly a product of the small Campbeltown community, which is in itself a feat. After that, another theory class by Frank. In the evening, lo and behold, 3 students accompany the Belgians to the Ardshiel. Only Sergio has mysteriously disappeared. The last couple days, we started making a habit of having a couple drams after dinner. Ben and I brought a couple bottles from home, and soon the other guys started getting a bottle of their own in the shop; we had ourselves a wee little tasting after dinner every night, which was great to get to know each other. All in all, about 3,5 bottles were finished during these few nights, so we did our best…

 A hard day at the job (and night…)

Day 4 brought us more shoveling! This time in the other direction: after the steeping bin was emptied, the 6 tonnes of malt had to be spread out onto the malting floor in a thin layer, to allow it to slowly germinate. The next six students would then get to empty this into the kiln, as we did first thing on Monday…Day 4 would prove to be the toughest day of them all, in a way. After the shoveling, we helped out in the bottling hall again (this time a beautiful Highland Park 25yo for Cadenheads). In the afternoon, Frank would take us an a walk through Campbeltown, showing us the old distillery buildings and visiting both Glen Scotia Distillery and Glengyle Distillery, his own baby. Frank got to create this distillery in 2004. He is obviousy very proud of it, and rightly so. It is a well-laid-out place, put together with a combination of secondhand material and new techniques. It only works a couple months a year and the first 10yo releases of the Kilkerran single malt will be there in 2014. Something to look forward to. After that, Gavin will give us a private tasting in the warehouse, straight from some of the nicer casks there. Just before that, we pop in with Norman and Kelly, who are lining up some casks for a Cadenhead tasting. I notice a Dallas Dhu 1979; my birth year! A glance in the right direction and Norman understands what I mean. Of course we’ll draw a small sample and taste it. Perks of the job, right? We also get to taste a sip of a really nice Hazelburn 15yo. And then we get to the actual tasting. Gavin let sus sip some amazing stuff: 2 of the original 6 special casks that were the first filled at Glengyle, some beautiful Longrow on Gaja Barolo casks, the casks destined to become the next Springbank 21yo,…). In total 8 fantastic (and quite generous) drams, all at cask strength… We walk home happily after that. And that is not the end of the night. It is our last evening in Campbeltown, and Thursday is traditionally grab-a-granny-night in the local Feathers Inn. We surely can’t miss that. The night starts out slowly, with some drams and beers. But then, as soon as the 2-head semi-live band starts playing, a party erupts. There is a lot going on: loud singing, crazy dancing, more beers and drams, making new friends with the locals,… Mostly by us 2 Belgians. Our version of AC/DC still resonates in the pub windows, we like to think. It is a bloody good night out, although we do not remember every last detail of it. A fitting goodbye.

Friday is sleep-in day; we are expected at 10am only. The night before, we went to the supermarket and bought so much candy that the combined dieticians of the UK gasped in awe. Our way of saying thanks to the great people at Springbank. The last leftovers are probably still lying about in the kitchen. Then, it is time for our exam. Nothing to be afraid of; we can use our books and fill it in together. Everybody passes with flying colours. We have  a nice lunch composed of local products with the heads of the distillery (Frank, Gavin, Pop,…) and we get our graduation gifts. Each of us gets a nice diploma and also a personalised bottle of Springbank. No age statement on it, so we can only wonder what is in there. Gavin selecte dit personally, so it has to be good. I wonder if I’ll ever open it. We wander back to the distillery for a final look around, have our bottles signed by the crew we worked with this week. Ben and I have some business to finish, as we bought one of the small empty barrels to take home. Some brewer friends are going to use them to age their beer in. Should be good stuff… We stop by the shop on the way home and buy ourselves way too many bottles. Employee discount is a very sly way of selling lots of alcohol to poor souls like us who can not say no to good stuff.

Meeting your heroes

With a car filled with an empty 100l-barrel (which by the way still spreads quite the whisky-odour in a confined space like a car interior), about 25 bottles of great whisky and some dirty, sweaty workwear, we drive out of Campbeltown. We had an amazing adventure here, right in the heart of the whiskymaking business. A hands on experience that we will never forget. It is the type of trip that you would like to do again in an instant. But it is probably better not to do this again, or not too soon anyway. You often read about people meeting their heroes; rockstars, film stars, scientists,… They often say that they would have preferred not to meet them, since now the legend is gone, the magic is away. We sort of got to meet our hero, in working in a real distillery for a week. A lot of the magic we associated with whisky is gone, as we got to see how hard the work is. But this got us to appreciate the product even more, since we now understand better what it really is. It is the result of a lot of hard work by good people, dedicated to their job and proud of what they do. Every time we drink a Springbank product from now on, we will think of these people and this place, so far away in Kintyre. And it will make the whisky taste even better.

Jeroen Van Dyck 

 Accompanied on this journey by a great friend, Mr. Ben Floren, also of Maltlover-fame.



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