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Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Second Pilgrimage to Scotland, Part 1: Oban, Mull & Campbeltown!

I'm back in action! After four nights in London and three in Italy, I was again lucky enough to step foot on the exalted ground that is Scotland! After a quick (and brilliant) one-nighter in Edinburgh, the wife & I were exploring some new ground. Oban, the Isle of Mull, and Campbeltown! Then, naturally, it was back to the absolute paradise that is Islay, but we'll save that for Part 2 & Part 3, because this one is long enough as it is...

Before we get into the magic of Scotland, there were a few stops in London that I just can't skip over! Following the hellish ordeal of the seemingly never-ending eight+thirteen hour flights, both of which were delayed (and the same goes for the return journey!), and mixed in with the obligatory sightseeing, there were a few brilliant whisky-related experiences in England that definitely deserve a mention. The first stop, much like last time, was The Whisky Exchange, which now has two stores, with the original in Covent Garden and the new addition in Fitzrovia. Both have similar ranges, although the new branch doesn't have the insane collections of old, rare and closed distillery whiskies that the main location does. You could walk from one to the other in under half an hour if you wanted to, and I did end up visiting and buying from both at either end of the trip, and neither was at all disappointing, with brilliant service and far too much whisky to choose from. Like last time I will probably wind up regretting not buying even more, particularly a couple of their exclusive single casks that I was lucky enough to taste. But then again there literally was no more room in the suitcase come the end of the trip, and I did grab a 12-year old Ledaig that was bottled for The Whisky Show, a Talisker 8 Year Old from this year's Diageo's Special Releases, and a 20-year old Ardmore OB that was an absolute bargain (and is very tasty), so it could have been worse!

The other mentions that must be mentioned were the same two brilliant whisky bars that I visited on the last trip, Milroy's of Soho and Soho Whisky Club. Maybe I'm a creature of habit, but I couldn't fault either bar last time, so there was no need to take extra risks this time! Many drams were enjoyed at both of these, with some major bucket-list whiskies getting ticked off the list. Milroy's have an excellent range of independent bottlings and more obscure distillery bottlings, and they also sell bottles to takeaway which I did take advantage of (Kilchoman Machir Bay Cask Strength - couldn't resist). Soho Whisky Club on the other hand is actually a members-only bar, but as with last year I was lucky enough to score a "hook-up" to visit this brilliant place. In fact George, the generous gent of a bar manager I met on my previous trip is now one of the distillers at Melbourne's Starward Distillery, the lucky bugger, and he was kind enough to clear another visit with the current manager, another George, who turned out to be just as outstanding as the George he replaced! Just to give you an idea of the whiskies on offer here, I was able to tick off legendary drams like Highland Park Odin, The Syndicate Lagavulin 15-year old, and the original Ardbeg Day bottling from 2012, among many others, and all were reasonably priced considering their rarity. Like I said last year, if I was a London local, I'd be doing my utmost to sign up with Soho Whisky Club on day one.

So, after a few days in Italy and a couple more hellish flights spent trapped in confined spaces with the possibly-possessed offspring of the other passengers, we finally arrived in Scotland. Or more specifically, Edinburgh. I very much enjoyed this fantastic city on the last trip, and although we only had one night here this time I suspected my wife would feel the same. And I was right, so there'll definitely be more time spent here on the third adventure. After a quick pub dinner and a visit to Bow Bar on that one night, we only had the following morning to explore, although we did manage to see plenty in that time. And thanks to the power of social media we also found another brilliant bar, The Black Cat, who had an open bottle of that aforementioned 8-year old Talisker just waiting to be sampled. It was delicious, by the way, in fact it's my favourite of the Taliskers that I've tasted to date (it's possible that the famous cask strength 25-year olds would beat it, but I haven't yet had the pleasure). Then came the chance to tick off another bucket-list whisky, Ardbeg Almost There, the 9-year old cask strength third stop on the peaty path to maturity (more info and a review of the fourth & final stop here) that was bottled in 2007. It was a brilliant "purist's" Ardbeg, full of that tarry, creamy peat, black pepper and lime that many of the great younger Ardbegs seem to exhibit. And a few hours later we were on the road north!

The first stop was the pretty town of Oban, on the west coast. It's around a three hour drive from Edinburgh, and we added a quick stop at The Kelpies on the way. But since we were a little late in setting off, the third hour of this drive was mostly in the dark, and in the rain, both of which kept the blood pressure up, and put an end to the sightseeing for the day. The next morning saw a very quick visit to the shop at Oban Distillery in the centre of town, before boarding the 50-minute ferry to the Isle of Mull for the day. Which of course included the island's resident distillery, Tobermory. The main town of the same name (pictured above) should also get a mention here, it's very beautiful and - even on a Sunday - there's plenty to do for an hour or two. Don't expect the ferry to drop you at its doorstep though, it only goes as far as Craignure, which is around 30-minutes drive from Tobermory, so make sure you factor that into your schedule if the town and distillery are on your list (which they should be).

Right, we've finally arrived at the first proper distillery visit of the trip! I'm a big fan of Tobermory's work, particularly their peated whisky Ledaig which can be fantastic. This Signatory bottling would probably be the favourite so far, but the standard 10-year old OB and the sherry finished 18-year old are consistently delicious, and also a little underrated. So I was excited to actually visit the place, although I knew they weren't producing at the time, and they won't be for around another two years yet while major maintenance and repairs are under way. The distillery is quite small, mostly thanks to the only "warehouse" on site being the size of your average living room, since the main warehouse was sold off and converted into apartments in the 1980s. Which means the majority of their spirit is matured on the mainland, mostly at sister distillery Deanston in the Highlands. The visitor's centre is also quite small, but has a great range of whisky, branded merchandise and other locally-made products, and the staff were great. The tour itself is relatively basic but reasonably informative, and there aren't any "off-limits" areas for the tour or for photography, which is a plus. Two of Tobermory's four wooden washbacks had recently been replaced, as had two of the stills, with the others due for replacement in the coming months. I was surprised at the shape & design of those stills too, as they all had reflux "onions", and the lyne arms are angled upwards before curving into a sharp upwards & ninety degree-bend to meet the condensers, yet the spirit they produce is relatively heavy. So the majority of that weight has to come from the high (around 90%) fill levels employed in those stills, and of course also the cut points, rather than the shape or design of the stills.

I went for the tasting tour option here, which includes a standard tour and the two entry-level drams (Tobermory 10 & Ledaig 10) plus an additional two drams of their limited releases or distillery exclusives. There were a couple of Tobermory bottlings and a few Ledaig expressions to choose from, and I opted for the 17-year old Madeira finished Tobermory, and the 20-year old Moscatel finished Ledaig. Both were good, but - surprisingly for my taste - the Tobermory was the stand out, and I very nearly purchased a bottle before spotting some interesting-looking 200ml bottles behind the counter. They were cask samples, a 10-year old Tobermory from a Bordeaux cask, and a 14-year old Ledaig from an Oloroso cask, exclusive to the distillery shop, and they were both fantastic. They weren't particularly cheap at 30- and 35-pounds each respectively for the 200ml bottles, but were well worth it for this level of quality and exclusivity. I'll be reviewing both of those in the future, so keep an eye out for that! We had a big drive planned for the following day, so that was it for Tobermory and our time on the Isle of Mull, but I'd definitely recommend making the trip if you're a fan.

As fantastic as my first pilgrimage to Scotland was in 2017, there was something missing. Something that had been on my wish list for years, mostly due to my penchant for its three remaining distilleries. Campbeltown! I just didn't have enough time, or sufficient transport options, to get there on the previous trip, but it was definitely going to happen this time! Since we had a rental car for this portion of the second pilgrimage, and my wife had (albeit a little reluctantly!) agreed to drive when necessary, it was relatively easy to get there this time around. And what an incredible experience it was! Due to the Islay ferry off-season timetables, and wanting to get the most out of the trip, we elected to drive down from Oban (a 3 hour drive with some incredible scenery) very early in the morning to arrive in Campbeltown at around 9.30am, which would give us a bit of time to look around before getting on the 10am tour at the mighty Springbank, before heading back to Kennacraig (around 40 minutes drive) in time for the afternoon ferry to Islay. It was a little tight, but it was essentially the only option if we wanted to maximise our time. I'm also a fan of Glen Scotia and would've liked to tour there as well, but due to our time constraints we could only take a few photos and peek through a few of their windows. A proper visit is on the list for next time, as is more time in Campbeltown in general!

Springbank! This was one of many "pinch-myself" moments during the pilgrimage, although finding the distillery isn't so easy! It's not visible from the main road and is basically hidden behind rows of shops & other buildings, plus our sat-nav decided to have a fit at this point, but with some help we found the narrow driveway with plenty of time to spare, before coming face to face with the glorious distillery wall pictured above. Once you're in that car park you get your first glimpse of the distillery in all its old-school, traditionally rough & ready glory. The distillery shop itself has a fairly good range of merchandise, and again some other locally-made products, although as you'd expect if you're a Springbank fan there weren't any rare or unusual bottlings available for sale. There simply isn't enough of this fantastic juice to go around! But there are some glass cabinets setup around the tasting table, containing a plethora of breathtaking old and departed bottlings of all three brands produced at the distillery. And they're the stuff of (dram) dreams...

Springbank is a wonderful place. The tour covers all of the usual areas of course, but as fans will know, this is the only distillery in Scotland that does everything on-site, from floor-malting 100% of their barley to bottling and packaging, and that all makes experiencing those things up close all the more special. The first stop was the malting floors, which are a similar size to those found at Bowmore and a little smaller than Laphroaig's, but Springbank isn't buying in 80% of its malt like those two Ileachs, all of the whisky they produce is made from malt that has been laid down on these very floors. And seeing that happening in front of you helps to emphasise just how small this distillery actually is, despite its deservedly-massive following and cult status. After a brief pause at the kiln and the peat store outside - also giving a nice view of the worm tub condenser fitted to the centre still - the next stop is the malt bins and mill, followed by the open-topped cast iron mash tun and wooden washbacks (interestingly made from larch, not Oregon pine like most), before arriving in the still room. To finally see those three stills with my own eyes was almost a spiritual experience, particularly that famous direct-fired wash still on the left. Like the rest of the distillery you won't find any spotless glossy paint, polished steel or & lacquered copper here, everything is unashamedly functional and very traditional, which makes it all the more beautiful. After a look at the spirit safe and an explanation of Springbank's rather complicated distillation practices (the 2, 2.5 and 3-times distillation methods of the three different spirits) we were led next door to the filling room, and then on to one of the distillery's dunnage warehouses.

Visiting Campbeltown and Springbank certainly helps to underline where that famous briny note comes from in the whisky, since the distillery is only around 250 metres from the sea, and the warehouses are all breathing in that salty fresh air, particularly during windy conditions. And of course there's plenty of that musty, earthy dunnage atmosphere to soak in. Whisky maturation is a long game of course, so what you're looking at may not be bottled for decades, but it's always exciting to look around warehouses and see what you can spot. There were plenty of exotic and interesting casks to gawk at in that dark, cold, dank warehouse, from port pipes of Springbank to bourbon barrels of Kilkerran, and sherry butts of Springbank Local Barley that had been filled in 2016, among others. Our final stop of the tour was the bottling hall, which is responsible for bottling all Springbank, Hazelburn, Longrow, Kilkerran and Cadenheads whiskies. So it's quite a busy place! We weren't permitted to take photos inside unfortunately, largely because something pretty special was taking place at the time. The next instalment of Springbank Local Barley, the 9-year old, was being bottled & packaged right in front of us! I'm a big fan of this series so far, and I'll definitely be adding one (or more) of those to the shelves when it eventually arrives down under. After that it was back to the visitor's centre, since unfortunately we didn't have the time to also tour neighbouring Glengyle Distillery.

Glengyle (producing Kilkerran single malt) is a short walk from Springbank within the same complex, and I did sneak a quick look from the outside before our Springbank tour. A proper visit is also on the list for next time! As part of the Springbank tour you're offered a dram of an entry-level expression, and you're also given an exclusive 50ml miniature of Springbank whisky as a drinkable keepsake, a 'Private Bottling for Distillery Visitors', which changes each year. 2018's version is a 10-year old Springbank from first-fill bourbon casks at 46% which I'll probably review in future, since I'm very interested to try it and curiosity will likely get the better of me. These two inclusions make this tour exceptional value for money, since the Springbank-only standard tour costs just 7 pounds per person. Adding the Glengyle option ups that to 12 pounds, but adds both a dram of Kilkerran 12-year old and a Kilkerran visitor's miniature. Both of us elected to takeaway our included drams after the tour, which were a choice of the standard Hazelburn, Springbank or Longrow 10-year olds, because (thanks to the pending ferry) we needed to get to one final stop in a hurry before leaving Campbeltown: Cadenheads!

For almost as long as I've wanted to visit "the wee toon" I've also wanted to get my hands on the ridiculously special bottles that come out of the Cadenheads shop there, which is only two hundred metres from the distillery. Cadenheads is of course owned by the same company as Springbank, the privately-owned J&A Mitchell & Co., and while they have similar casks of regional blended whiskies on the wall for hand-filling (at very reasonable prices) as the Edinburgh branch, in this case that also means that this particular Cadenheads shop gets their hands on some incredibly rare bottlings from both distilleries, plus an amazing range of Cadenheads' own independent bottlings, and casks of Springbank, Longrow and Hazelburn malts sitting on the wall ready for hand-filling and labelling as "Tasting Room" bottles. All of which are already rare, but there's something else here that really ups the rarity stakes. Known as "cage bottles" thanks to the padlocked mesh-doored cupboard that they're kept in, these mysterious and wondrous yet entirely nondescript bottles - which only adds to their allure - of Hazelburn, Springbank and Longrow can only be purchased from this very shop, unless you come across one at auction at a very inflated price. From what I gather (told you they were mysterious!) these are mostly cask samples or cask ends, and a case or two will randomly turn up on Cadenhead's doorstep every now and then, with the random contents then stocked into the cage for sale as incredibly special 'Duty Paid Samples'. They're all one-off bottlings, they all have age statements, and the level of quality seems to be reliably excellent. Oh, and let's not forget the cask types that you might (yes, might) find in there, that are denoted by hand-written short codes on their plain white labels. Springbank FP HHD? That'd be a first-fill (a.k.a. "fresh") port hogshead Springbank! Longrow FSB? That'd be a first-fill sherry butt Longrow! Springbank RR BRL? That's a refill rum barrel Springbank! See what I'm talking about here? Very special stuff!

These bottles are of course very collectable and very lusted after by those in the know, and what is available (if anything!) is entirely luck-of-the-draw on the day that you're there. If you're unlucky and some cashed-up collectors have recently been through, you may find those shelves particularly bare, or even completely empty. To make things better (or worse, depending on your perspective) they're also very reasonably priced, with most going for around 70 pounds. The cage was looking a bit sad when I was there, but luckily there was still plenty to choose from. I wish I'd had even more time to look at (and buy) these magnificently plain bottles, but I ended up getting my hands on a couple of very special Springbanks, one from a first-fill sherry cask and one from a refill rum cask. And I already know that I should've gotten more. Will I review one of those? Well, maybe one day. I just know that I need to return to Campbeltown as soon as possible...

And yes we did make the ferry on time, so Part 2 & 3 of this write-up will feature my favourite subject: Islay!

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