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Campbeltown Loch, I wish ye were whisky
Ah wid drink ye dry– Written by Alan Cameron
So goes the song immortalised by Andy Stewart in the 1960s. I doubt many of the people enchanted by Andy’s rather twee warblings knew all that much about Campbeltown’s long relationship with Scotch whisky but it was once a significant centre for distilling. The Kintyre town was at one time home to around 30 distilleries but an early 20th-century slump saw the majority of them closed and lost forever. Only Glen Scotia and Springbank would survive the cull.
J & A Mitchell, owner of Springbank, re-established one of those lost distilleries when it opened Glengyle in 2004. However, recent reports suggest there are another two projects in planning that could see Campbeltown start to rival the big two of Speyside and Islay as a whisky destination. Indeed, the conversation around Campbeltown whisky has never seemed more fever pitched than it is at the moment.
Springbank has long been a beloved distillery but it somehow flew largely under the radar of mainstream audiences. It was a whisky for those in the know. A hidden gem passed down from one devotee to the next. At some point over the last couple of years, however, that changed. More and more people have become aware of the whisky’s quality and actually getting hold of a bottle is becoming increasingly difficult.
Springbank and Glengyle produce somewhere around 200,000 litres of alcohol in a year which means there was never much of it around anyway. Add a generous helping of hype and you have a painful situation for long-term lovers of the Campbeltown malt. How we arrived at this juncture is open to guesswork but I find myself wondering if the pandemic played its part.
As the lockdowns kicked in, people found themselves unable to go out and spend money the way they normally would. Those lucky enough not to be furloughed (or worse) had an abundance of disposable cash burning a hole in their pocket. The other thing the pandemic did was drive people online in quantities that had never been seen before. Even the casual shopper, generally satisfied with picking up the latest Macallan when passing through the airport, found themselves shopping online.
Seeking new ways to reach an audience, marketing departments did the same thing. There was an explosion of new, online content. You could quite comfortably tune into a different stream every night. Sometimes two or three in a single evening. Information had never been more accessible.
Then the tastings started. Where I live in Glasgow there has always been a host of tastings to choose from but often you would see the same faces at different events. It was a fairly small, passionate crowd. Online tastings had no geographical limitations, however. People who previously didn’t have access to the educational benefits of whisky tastings suddenly found themselves with several options. Simply pay the fee and a batch of samples would show up your door. Samples that you would likely never have tried otherwise.
In my own case, website traffic surged beyond anything I had ever seen before. My numbers more than doubled in the first nine months of the pandemic. Assuming that effect was replicated elsewhere, such a huge increase in the consumption of content must surely have a knock-on effect. More people are reading reviews. More people are watching YouTube. More people are learning what bottles are being released and when.
As for Springbank, Mitchell’s famously spend little time promoting their product but they don’t need to. The quality of the whisky has always sold itself and they make so little of it, there’s never been a need to reach out to new markets. As more and more people have improved their knowledge, however, Springbank has been spread thinner and thinner on the ground. Exacerbating that fact, is the generally high opinion that most bloggers, vloggers and online commentators have of Springbank. Most of us sing its praises. We’ve been doing the marketing for Mitchell’s.
It can become a somewhat depressing situation if you let it. As much as I love Springbank, however, there’s plenty other fish in the sea. There’s an old Glasgow phrase that says “What’s fur ye will no go by ye” which basically means what’s meant to be will be. I try to let that guide my mindset where desirable bottles are concerned. If I miss out, I simply move on. It obviously wasn’t meant to be. What I absolutely never do, is allow myself to be tempted into paying well over the RRP for such bottles. People like to have a wee moan about flippers but the sad truth of the matter is, flippers can only thrive if people are willing to buy from them. If people simply accepted that they missed out instead of throwing money at an auction site, the whole flipping culture would die down.
When Springbank announced the return of their Campbeltown Loch brand, I was interested in getting a bottle. I suspected, however, that it would turn into a bit of a scramble, especially as it was launched the same day as a whole host of other releases. Frankly, I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle so I accepted that I’d miss out on this one. A week or so later, I happened to be passing a local bottle shop and there, on the shelf, was Campbeltown Loch retailing at its original price. Clearly, it was meant to be.
Campbeltown Loch was originally a blended Scotch whisky that contained Springbank and Longrow that had been blended with grain whisky in a 40 / 60 split. This new iteration, however, is a blended malt, made up of all five Campbeltown malt brands. That’s Springbank, Longrow, Hazelburn, Kilkerran and Glen Scotia.
Smell: A little bit oily, a little bit briney. Some subtle wisps of smoke. Tar. Liquorice. Vanilla. Malt. Dark chocolate. Orange peel. Lemon juice. Honeyed muesli. Peanuts and almonds. Pepper. Dusty oak in dunnage warehouses. Old books.
Taste: Honeyed malt and vanilla on arrival. Quickly develops into a blast of sea salt and black pepper. Some raisins and sultanas bring a bit of juicy depth. Moving into caramel and toffee. Gentle oaky spice. Currants and aniseed. Distant oily smoke. There’s a little flinty, stony note in the finish that conjures images of pebble beaches.
Thoughts: Vibrant and complex. The character of the barley is front and centre but it’s backed up with an array of other flavours and aromas. It evokes rickety old fishing boats and the musty dunnage warehouses of Springbank distillery, whilst also retaining a youth and freshness about it.
It’s a good demonstration of what J. & A. Mitchell do so well. It isn’t overly complicated and it hasn’t been excessively tinkered with. It’s old-fashioned and a little bit dirty, yet all the better for it. No grand, pretentious ideas above its station, just a good every day drinking whisky with more character than some bottles three times the price.
Value for money: At £40 it’s good enough to hold down a regular place in any cabinet. Whether or not there’ll be enough of it around for that to happen, remains to be seen.
For more on Springbank visit here