Longrow is Springbank Distillery's double-distilled and heavily peated whisky, which only accounts for around 10% of their annual production. The distillery's namesake lightly peated & 2.5-times distilled Springbank whisky makes up 80% of their output, while the un-peated and triple-distilled Hazelburn takes up the remaining 10%. The double-distillation used in the Longrow spirit means that this whisky has skipped Springbank's third still altogether, and is only run through the distillery's direct-fired wash still and the worm tub condenser-equipped first spirit still, which normally operates as the intermediate low wines still. The spirit cuts for Longrow are taken considerably later in the run than those of the other styles, resulting in a dirtier and often lightly sulphurous whisky - which is no bad thing! Depending on conditions the floor-malted barley used for Longrow is dried for up to 48 hours over peat fires, resulting in roughly 50-55 ppm phenols in the barley. But despite that figure it doesn't usually show itself in the typical heavily peated fashion, it tends to present as more of a deep earthy note with gentle peat smoke around the edges. So Islay fans who're looking for a massive peat blast could be disappointed when they first try a Longrow, but it's not all about the peat in this whisky, and as always it's not all about the numbers. As with everything Springbank produce the volume of flavour, complexity and character on offer here is outstanding, particularly when served at cask strength as is the case with this bottling.
Before we get into this whisky, let's take a quick look at sulphur. Sulphur gets a bad rap from quite a few whisky lovers (and some famous reviewers) who seem to be particularly sensitive to it, while on the other hand there are plenty who may not detect it at all, which results in it being a controversial subject. Personally I seem to be somewhere on the mid-to-lower side, and I have only come across a handful of whiskies where I found the type and level of sulphur notes to be wholly unpleasant, and in only one case actually intolerable. In some whiskies it adds character and depth, while in some it can ruin the entire experience. Sulphur in whisky tends to come from two sources, either during production as a by-product of fermentation, and during cask maturation, particularly when looking at sherry and wine casks. The former is a natural result of the fermentation process and depends on a number of different factors such as barley variety, yeast type, and fermentation times and temperatures. It can either be stripped from the spirit through reactions with the copper during distillation, whether by reflux in the stills themselves (depending on their design and fill level) and also lower distillation temperatures and slower distillation, and/or through the use of shell & tube condensers. It is possible for a spirit run to be sulphur tainted in error through a too-fast distillation run or tired equipment, but if sulphur does remain in the spirit itself after distillation that is usually intentional and/or traditional for that distillery, and in most cases will 'only' result in a meaty, pungent or vegetal note in that distillery's whisky. A good example of that would be Craigellachie, where the remaining low levels of sulphur notes add to the whisky's character and become the distillery's calling card. That type of sulphur will progressively decrease during maturation, particularly when using first-fill or charred casks, through the natural extractive part of that process, and also the angel's share. Small amounts of sulphur is sometimes also mixed in with peat when kilning malted barley, particularly with heavily peated barley, to prevent the formation of nitrosamines in the malt, but this is generally treated or at least reduced by resting the kilned barley for a week or two prior to milling.
Where properly nasty sulphur issues and complete contamination will usually occur is in sherry and wine casks themselves. The main source was the burning of sulphur candles in empty casks to treat or prevent cask spoilage during storage or transport through bacterial contamination, which usually took place shortly before re-filling. When treated to excess the cask would become contaminated with sulphur, resulting in burnt rubber or vulcanised rubber notes, strong rotting vegetable notes or in the worst case scenario, actual rotten egg notes in the whisky (or other liquid, including wine) that went into that cask. If left unchecked that contamination would then carry through to subsequent fillings of the same cask, potentially affecting a large amount of liquid over a long time. This practice has drastically reduced in modern times, partly due to the requirement that sherry be bottled in Spain that was introduced in the 1980s which resulted in fewer casks being shipped overseas. Tainted or spoiled casks are usually identified and removed by the winery, cask broker, cooperage or distillery before they're filled, but occasionally a small number can slip through the cracks and potentially go on to ruin an entire batch of whisky, years or even decades later. In my opinion that is most definitely not the case with this Longrow, the meaty, rubbery and funky notes are meant to be there, adding to the whisky's character and certainly not ruining anything.
This limited release 14-year old Longrow promises to be very characterful and extra funky, even for a Campbeltown whisky, because it has been fully matured in refill (likely second-fill) Oloroso sherry casks. It's all too easy to get caught up in the allure of first-fill casks as a whisky nerd, but second-fill or refill casks can also be outstanding, since without the full power of the cask's previous contents to resist the spirit itself can still assert itself, generally resulting in more distillery character showing through. Being a Longrow fan I was very excited about this release when it was first released in Britain back in mid-2018, and despite a reasonable release size of 9,000 bottles world-wide it sold out very quickly, to the point where it was impossible to find a bottle on my second pilgrimage to Scotland, which included a visit to Campbeltown itself, only two months later. Although it took more than six months to get here a small quantity has finally arrived on Australian shores, and it is still readily available at the time of writing at around $200 AUD. I was lucky enough to procure a sample from a generous fellow whisky geek, so I can share the love with yourselves. Longrow 14-year old Sherry Cask Matured was distilled in September 2003, matured in refill Oloroso sherry casks and bottled in July 2018 at a cask strength of 57.8% ABV, with 9,000 bottles released. And being a Springbank it is of course non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. Bring on the funk!
Longrow 14-year old Sherry Cask Matured, 57.8%. Campbeltown, Scotland.
Heavily peated & double-distilled at Springbank Distillery. Distilled September 2003, matured in refill Oloroso sherry casks, bottled July 2018 at cask strength. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 9,000 bottles.
Nose: Earthy, dank and meaty. Loads of dark chocolate, some dates, a little rubber, salted buttery biscuits (shortbread?). Very musty dark red grapes, old cooking grease, and rancio notes - beef stock cubes, cured pork (salami) and fresh mushrooms, and a little nutty warm oak. A little spearmint and red apple around the edges as it breathes.
Texture: Warm, rich & earthy. Medium weight with a tiny flash of heat, notably little for the ABV.
Taste: Richly sherried, earthy and funky. More dark chocolate but in mousse form now, plus cola lollies, salted roasted nuts (chestnuts?), a little rubber and more nutty & rancio dry sherry notes. Cured pork, a few under-ripe cherries and buttered brown mushrooms.
Finish: Long length. More cola lollies and salted roasted nuts, a touch of fizzy earthy peat, dark chocolate mousse again and those musty red grapes. Plus a little smoked paprika, more cured pork, a splash of lemonade soft drink that has gone flat, and salted butter.
Score: 4 out of 5.
Notes: Well this Longrow is definitely not a beginner's whisky by any means. And as you can probably tell from those tasting notes it's certainly not going to be for everyone. But the sheer volume & complexity of flavour on offer here is fantastic! There's a lovely deep, dark, dank feel to it that is very different, but very enjoyable for fans of the style. It's not quite funky in the typical oily, dirty, farmyard-y Springbank fashion, but it's funky in a meaty, rancio way that does remind me of a very dark, musty, dry Oloroso sherry which has oxidised slightly. But there's also so much more to it, you couldn't really lump this Longrow in with any of the regular sherry bombs. It's just a funky beast of a whisky!
If you're a fan of sherried Mortlach, Edradour, or Ben Nevis you'll probably find this to your liking, but with some extra-dirty funk thrown in. Despite being a peathead I must admit I would normally reach for a Springbank whisky over a Longrow, but presented with a Longrow like this there would be a far more difficult decision to make. In fact I would say this is my favourite Longrow single malt to date, narrowly beating the old Rundlets & Kilderkins bottling. Great stuff!