The sun is shining out of a brilliant blue sky as I wind through the curves of lower west Scotland. I have driven north and west from Glasgow, through the towns my forefathers and mothers came from and now I am heading down the Kintyre Peninsula. Already I have crossed a high pass and seen mountain lakes glistening in the light, which is cool and warm at once. Eventually, I’ll arrive at Kennacraig to catch the ferry to Islay, but first I have an appointment with history.
My soul is leaping, dancing with recognition – my ancestors have left their sight of this place in my DNA and bloodstream. I have come home to the place we departed from and my body recognizes the land from which it came, both sides of my family from this Scottish soil. When I first began my independent journey into whisky, no longer guided by patriarchs, I encountered a Campeltown whisky that I was too inexperienced to deserve but I enjoyed it nonetheless. It was a rare bottle of the Springbank 175, an anniversary bottling from 2003. The family-owned stalwart and remnant of the once vibrant distillery community. Now one of three that remain of some 28 or so distilleries, Springbank produces three distinct malts; Spingbank, Hazelburn and Longrow. Glen Scotia remains also, with Glengyle reopened and producing Kilkerran malts.
I visit Springbank and Glen Scotia on that day, driving hours through shared one-way roads to reach the harbour of Campbeltown and the vestiges of Skipness Castle. The coast is isolated, the grass is green. The land is slowly waking up after a long, cold and wet winter but the landscape is achingly beautiful. I dip my hands in the salty, brittle ocean and smell the sea. With my eyes, I see what I imagined when I first tasted that remarkable Springbank malt. A hard place, touched by economic struggle but with a strong spirit. A place that makes beautiful things from what they have in their hand.
A few weeks later, I’ve crossed over that ocean west-ward even further and returned to the land my forefathers finally called home. They sailed, I flew but we land in New Zealand all the same. I still smell the ocean in the morning when I walk to work and as the skies darken on winter’s approach, I taste the sweet persistence of Campbeltown malts again; at the monthly House of Whiskey tasting.
There are the usual suspects gathered and a few new faces but the evening is full of laughter and stories. Sam and Nigel have trod the same path to visit these remarkable places.
#1 – Glen Scotia 10 year old, 46% abv: It’s the colour of a heavy, oily chardonnay with a nose of salted caramel, taffy and creamed honey with a hint of white pepper and rose. The palate opens up with pears and apples, green juicy fruits, light smoke and green grass. Finishes with a peaty grain on the back of the tongue.
#2 – Kilkerran WIP Sherry finish, 46% abv: Light amber in colour, the nose is initially smokey, giving way to instantly recognisable cream and butterscotch over rich fruit. It’s a sherry cask after all. On tasting, it becomes much spicier – but more confusing with less distinguishable fruit characteristics. I couldn’t pick berries from cherries, but it was rich and dry before becoming nutty on the finish.
#3 – Kilkerran WIP #7 11 year old, 46% abv: Delivers a big bourbon nose with vanilla, honey and orange peel. I’m imagining old-fashioneds already, but this probably wouldn’t stand up to it. The palate is a brief dance of light cinnamon, caramelising sugar before racing to a grainy finish and almost evaporating in the mouth. It promised so much more on the nose than it delivered on the tongue.
#4 – Glen Scotia 1992/2011, 43% abv: First nosing is perplexing with the high contrast of oils and floral notes but on the tongue it gives so much complexity. Crisp pastry (high butter content) with toasted oats and the grain coming through. There’s a faint creamy sweet note around the edges but this is a decidedly savoury-sweet whisky, It finishes toasty and warm. I would drink it all night long for it’s uniqueness.
#5 – Springbank 18, 46% abv: We’re at the gritty end of the tasting and my memories come flooding back. This is made using the Springbank 2.5 distillation method and it’s peated to around 22-25ppm. The nose is smoked cheddar (I’m not joking), followed with subtle toffee and creaminess. Into the mouth and it explodes with nuttiness, butterscotch, dried fruits – raisins on the deep end and then the re-emergence of pears and green grapes. This whisky finishes with its big peaty profile and it feels like a bridge between the Highland style and Islay. And that’s Campbeltown, in so many ways for me.
#6 – Longrow 18, 46% abv: The Longrow is still a relatively new romance for me, but we’re getting closer. 100% Oloroso casks so it was easy to predict my attraction. The nose is vanilla and a hint of spice, which delivers on the palate with spiced stewed pears and apples, raisins soaked in rum and a honeyed sweetness. The finish is all Oloroso – long, smooth, creamy til the last moment.