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9 October 2000

Nothing can beat a wee dram

A visit to a distillery reminds Edward Russell-Walling of an endangered subculture

By Edward Russell-Walling

I do not have children of my own. But I have something else that, in time, should give me almost as much satisfaction and rather less trouble – a hogshead of single malt whisky. Others visit their offspring at boarding school. Every inch the doting parent, I recently travelled north to Campbeltown to visit my whisky, check on its progress and give it a stroke.

A hogshead holds a handsome 250 litres of whatever you choose to fill it with. I bought mine through the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) in 1993. The society was set up in the early 1980s by a group of good-natured purists who felt that bottlers were messing with their whisky. Standard single malts are watered down from their original cask strength – say, 60 per cent alcohol – to 40 per cent before bottling. No problem there. Unless your throat is lined with firebricks, you will need water getting into it somewhere along the way. But because water clouds the whisky by stirring up essential oils, bottlers then filter it. It is this, the Macpurists protest, that tampers with the fundamental character of the drink. So, since 1983, they have bought undiluted, unfiltered casks from willing distillers, and bottled the contents under their own label. This they do with zeal and some hilarity. Recent tasting notes include observations such as “shampoo and chewing-gum” and “conkers in a sauna bath”.

Wit aside, their whiskies are almost always surprising, larger than life, like slipping behind the wheel of a DB6 after a lifetime driving a Montego. This, you think, is how whisky is supposed to taste.

After years of sampling society bottlings, the offer of an entire cask came as something of a challenge. Overdoing it, surely? But the name of the distillery was especially tantalising – Springbank, one of two distillers left in the port of Campbeltown, and a prince of the trade.

Campbeltown was once the whisky capital of Scotland, which is to say of the world. It has been home to 34 distilleries down the years, and it was said that a skipper could find his way home in a fog simply by nosing the reek of the stills. British temperance, US prohibition and too much bad whisky killed off most of them, but Campbeltown remains one of four whisky regions, alongside Highlands, Lowlands and Islay.

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The town lies at the head of Campbeltown Loch, a natural harbour on the Mull of Kintyre. It is tidy but plain, in the Presbyterian way, with an air of having not quite shrunk to accommodate its present, more straitened circumstances. Abandoned distillery buildings abound, granite and severe, like churches that have lost their congregations. Like the place itself, Campbeltown whisky has a brininess, a whiff of coastal fog. Glen Scotia, the town’s other surviving distiller, reflects this sea-mist character best, although it lacks Springbank’s fine complexity.

Springbank is one of Scotland’s last independent distillers. It is the only one that still handles every step of the process by itself, from malting the barley to bottling a spirit widely regarded as one of Scotland’s noblest. A hogshead yields around 310 bottles at cask strength. That should take even an enthusiast such as me some time to sup through, and it was the thought of Springbank for life that eventually made me reach for my chequebook. I had to choose what kind of cask to fill – fresh sherry (never held whisky before), refill sherry, fresh or refill bourbon. Each gives a different character to the whisky. I opted for fresh sherry, given that sherry does delicious things to, say, The Macallan. This may have been a mistake.

I paid £900 up front, which covers the whisky, warehousing and insurance for ten years, although that’s only the beginning. Bottling, VAT and duty – but mainly duty – will add £10 or more per bottle, making an all-in cost of about £4,000 (echoes here of the current row over fuel duty). The state pockets at least 66 per cent of the price of a bottle of whisky (rather more in my case), taxing it, as producers have long complained, more heavily than wine and beer.

This discrimination not only retards home consumption, they grumble, but also sabotages their call for lower tariffs in export markets with a similar bias against spirits. As the nation’s fifth-largest manufacturing export earner, the industry believes it deserves better treatment. A distillery blockade, perhaps, to soften the government’s heart? Yet, it’s not price but fashion that is shrinking the UK whisky market, as older drinkers die off. In Greece, say, the young think it stylish (and mix it with almost anything). Here, it has about as much cachet as the golf club. But devotees will still pay handsomely for the best.

Current SMWS prices suggest my cask has a market value of anything from £9,000 to £12,000. The idea is to drink the stuff, not to get into the whisky business, but I may sell just enough to cover my costs.

I was hospitably received at Springbank and shown around, although Interesting Things to See at the Distillery is a slim volume indeed. We tracked down cask number 323 in the gloom, and I proudly took what turned out to be a rather bad photograph. The staff tapped off a bottle, presenting it to me in the distillery manager’s office. His eyebrows shot up when he saw its colour – like teak oil, bizarrely dark for a seven-year-old spirit. Tasting later confirmed what he clearly suspected: that the sherry was taking over. My original plan was to keep it in cask for an extra five years, making 15 in all. Now I may have to bottle before ten years are up, before it gets altogether too sherried.

It is still a rich and wonderful dram, however, and the first bottle didn’t last long. I look forward to welcoming its siblings home, although I do have one thoroughly unparental sentiment: I hope none of them survives me.

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