Nothing Can Beat a Wee Dram

By Russell-Walling, Edward | New Statesman (1996), October 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

Nothing Can Beat a Wee Dram


Russell-Walling, Edward, New Statesman (1996)


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

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 off-spring 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.

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. …

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