Over the past six months or so (since I last wrote a review in Maltfreak – sorry!), Campbeltown has become my default Scotch region. From the figgy spiced vanilla malt promise of the newly young Glengyle (bottled as Kilkerran because Loch Lomond Distillery – in the Highlands! – owns, for no good reason, the Glengyle name), to the heathery hay floral wonders of Glen Scotia and – how, exactly, does one summarize this one? – the singular constellation of earthy, heavenly whiskies that pours like manna from the worm pipes of Springbank Distillery in county Argyll.
Between the many expressions of the Springbank Distillery, be they Hazelburn, Longrow or Springbank itself, my relationship with this one Scotch whisky maker has become like a successful marriage – which I’ve heard described as partners discovering in each other – and offering to each other – the infinite variety of the one. In every bottle from this distillery, the full round richness of the base malt is ever present no matter the age, the peat level or the finish. Perhaps it is fitting that I write this review on my 39th wedding anniversary!
For this review, I could have chosen any bottle from a dozen and a half or so expressions of the Sprinbank distilling art that I’ve so far collected. I started tonight with a sip of the Longrow CV and a sip of the Longrow 14 year old cask strength, but ultimately settled on this year’s annual “Red” edition bottling of Longrow, this one 11 years old, matured for six years in refill bourbon hogsheads and for five years in Australian Shiraz casks. It has an ABV of 53.7%.
Overall, this is a bit lighter than many whiskies from this distillery, but it is pungent and powerful all the same. Its mouth feel is also a bit thinner, but just a tad.
UP THE NOSE
Old hand-worn steel tools closed up in an old wooden toolbox. The bell of a very old, much used, tarnished and long neglected cornet. A sharp, sweet mustiness that is almost a human muskiness. An old, dried catcher’s mitt. The soil where root vegetables were over-fertilized and left to dry in the sun.
But above all – in more conventional whisky terms – malt. Barley malt. Like flax seeds sprinkled over a bowl of dry Grape-Nuts. This whisky, on the nose, is malty, woody and more specifically oaky with a light wisp of earthy Campbeltown smoke and a see-saw that goes up and down the balsamic scale from hay to vanilla to hay and to hay and to hay and hay again. And then it goes back, like a momentary shift in the breeze, to vanilla.
Some dried banana chips and dried pineapple are in there. And a smidgen of mint – or is that menthol? Putting your nose over the glass feels like putting your head halfway into a dry, empty Australian Shiraz cask this malt spent 5 of its 11 years in – plus the malt. Most definitely plus the malt. The malt is the dominant presence here – full, rich, round; a sophisticated balance of smoke, oak and barley malt – as is nearly always the case with this distillery.
And underneath it all, as under blankets of stratified aromas, the milk-sour scent of an aged farm cheese.
ON THE PALATE
This burns a bit, but it takes water well.
Leather on the tongue. Vanilla and nutty malt. Barley and milk chocolate. And gentle waves of that very distinctive, earthy Springbank smoky peat that colors and distinguishes all of this distillery’s bottlings – with the exception of the Hazelburns.
I really do love this stuff. Not quite as much as the Longrow 7 year old Gaja Barolo, but I’d say it stands as an equal – at least – to the Longrow 14 year old cask strength, despite this one’s many differences from that bottle. This may even be superior. It is not quite as richly pungent as the 14 year old Longrow Burgundy Cask (bottled at 56.1% ABV), but it is equally distinctive and just as alluring. And maybe a touch more refined as well. It is, without question, superior to this year’s bottling of the Longrow CV – which, for the money, is nonetheless a damn wonderful whisky.
So, so long and so, so satisfying. The woodiness comes back at this point, creating a wondrous balance between sweet hay, vibrant malt, oak spice and oaky – or are they Shirazy? Or both? – tannins. And the gentle fire gets all the way down to mid chest, surrounding the heart. This is excellent stuff!
No, I will not put a number on this, nor on any whisky, despite all the cajoling, pestering and pressure from my very best whisky friends to do so. Take a look at the 2014 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible and tell me numbers mean anything in this context! My personal Whisky of the Year would be, I think, the Cadenhead single cask bottling of a 16 year old Ledaig. Murray’s rating? 77.5 – which, on the Jim Murray dartboard, where nearly everything falls between 85 and 96, may as well be zero. Numbers belong to science. Drinking whisky is a passion. A single dram can shift in character over the time it takes to savor and drink it! I will not measure my passions with a ruler.