I went down and met my fellow pupils Cornealia (Conny) Koenig and Kurt Kronenburg from Switzerland, Thomas Kleinhenn and Theo Metzger both from Germany, and finally a jet lagged Jared Allen from Salt Lake City, Utah. We all gelled immediately with a common interest and, not least, great sense of humour.
Day 1 Monday 10th
|I went down to a huge Scottish breakfast, after which we ambled across Longrow at rush hour (two cars in sight) to the Springbank Distillery three hundred meters away.|
We were bottling ‘Old Raj’ Gin both in 70 and 75cl bottles (for the USA market). It’s a yellow Gin, which Connie assured me was the greatest Gin on the planet! After our mid morning break (a novelty for me) we were all collected, or rather rounded up, and taken to the Cadenhead Whisky Shop for our work clothing. With a distillery shirt and jacket we now felt dressed and part of the team.
Then it was back to the bottling. To me this was an interesting experience with all the different processes involved of cleaning the bottles, filling, putting both the front and back label on in just the right position etc . This continued till lunch time when we ambled over to Eaglesome’s, a deli and sandwich shop for which we had food vouchers supplied as part of the course. However, after such a huge breakfast I had little appetite for more food.
After lunch we again headed back to the bottling hall. With the bottling run completed mid afternoon, preparation for next day started. This was to be a Clan label bottling of miniatures from two casks of vatted malts and these had to be found, one in a racked warehouse and the other from a dunnage warehouse. As barcoding is not used at Springbank the cask’s locations are recorded in a ledger, ……….well it was nearly correct!
A young lady from the bottling hall happily clambered high up amongst the casks and rolled them onto the fork lift. These were lowered in turn till the correct cask was found, with the unwanted casks being returned to the racking bung up – this is achieved using a clock system depending on the position of the bung on the cask, i.e. ten past, twenty past, twenty to etc, as it enters the rack from the fork lift.
|In the dunnage warehouse the casks were simply rolled and dropped onto a huge piece of foam to find the one we wanted.|
All too soon it was 5pm and day one was over. Connie and I made a mental note to call in tomorrow and wind up the two guys from the school on bottling duty, we then headed back to the B&B for a huge roast chicken dinner. Kurt had the presence of mind to purchase a bottle of Longrow CV for after dinner consumption, which we duly did capturing the day perfectly.
Day 2 Tuesday 11th
Another mammoth breakfast, then over to the distillery. Connie and I are on malting and mashing today, Gordon and John being our long suffering mentors for malting, mashing and distilling. Gordon first took us on a tour of the maltings describing the process as we went.
Two thoughts struck me as we were doing this. Firstly, how much pride by the staff goes into the job – the floor of malt was beautifully spread, level with the ends clean and brushed, the lines made by the rake absolutely straight when used by Gordon. Not quite the same when Connie and I tried to do it. The second thing was those that have been to floor maltings will notice the amount of posts supporting the floor above. Now when one is dragging the rake backwards they tend to halt ones progress immediately and suddenly, just no give at all, just a back jarring dead stop!
Later we used a machine like an inverted lawn mower to bring the malt nearest the floor to the surface, again the straight lines and no malt must be missed. This has to be pulled backwards at just the right angle, too low and it grips the floor and one shoots backwards, too high and it isn’t rotating the malt. Gordon gave us a chilling warning. ‘Don’t run over the electric cable, which is threaded round the pillers from a central point, you could turn blue!’ Again we aimed for straight lines and miss not a bit. At the end the floor was again brushed and squared all neat and tidy.
We then went down to put the first of four waters through the ancient mash tun. This week we were producing Longrow only, the peated twice distilled whisky.
We spent a fascinating end to the morning, together with Gavin McLachlan (who takes over as Distillery Manager in August) and fellow students Theo and Thomas, gauging and sampling some small 10 gallon casks. They are privately owned, and someone’s going to be disappointed as there was very little in one due to evaporation but that’s the risk one takes. Connie and I had a quick wander up to the Bottling Hall where Kurt and Jared were bottling the miniatures- they looked suitably unimpressed!
After lunch we ran through the growing malt with the rotovator, minding the roof supports and live cable!! The mashing was going well and fermentation had started in the washbacks. There was a simple yellow bucket suspended in the fermenting wort, and this is a foam suppressent as the washbacks no longer have switchers to keep the foam from frothing over the side of the washbacks (the fermented liquid is called wash and is simply a strong cloudy beer.) We went back into the Still Room with Theo and Thomas, trying hard to dodge Theo’s rapid ever probing camera. Here we were shown how to keep the distilling records using the relevant tables of charts with reference to the hydrometers and temperatures.
Behind us in the still room the hot wort was being strained and drained from the Mash Tun into the underback (which is a collecting vessel) then put through the ancient cooler/heat exchanger before being pumped into the Washbacks for fermentation. Too hot and the yeast simply won’t work.
|When the Mash Tun is emptied of wort the remaining steaming hot draff or grains is pumped up to a large high up external tank, under which a local farmer would back a tractor and trailer to take the draff away the next day for cattle feed.|
Day 3 Wednesday 12th
Tried hard to cut down on breakfast, but not very well! First job of the day was to help Kurt and Jared clear the malt floor of the green malt as the barley grains are now at their optimum level of sugar and need to be dried quickly to prevent further growth and thus sugar loss. The boys used wooden blades not unlike snow shovels. They pushed the malt to the elevator and thus on to the malt kiln for drying. Connie and I had good old fashioned shovels and barrows. A good job to get the blood flowing first thing in the morning!
The afternoon included more mashing, distilling, fermenting, and record keeping. We were by now starting to get the feel of the distillery, where everything was, and the order of process. Also how the multi-tasking maltman, mashman stillmans day evolved, they really do keep busy.
Watching the spirit run through the spirit safe it was apparent that one of the condensers was leaking, (The condenser is where the vapours from the still are cooled back to a liquid state by cold water running through tubes). This meant an engineer had to come and strip the condenser then seal the leaking tube. It seems a new condenser is required, an investment of several thousand pounds. All fair wear and tear but enough to make one cough when the bill arrives!
|I went back to the Distillery after our evening meal to see them milling the now kilned malt. It was from locally grown barley and the stone trap on the mill was working overtime taking out debris and even quite large stones.|
Back at the B&B we sat around chatting amongst ourselves, tasting (surprisingly) another Springbank, when the landlord walked through putting ceramic jugs on the tables, which I assumed was water. I duly poured myself a measure of amber nectar, picked up the jug as one does and poured. Time stood still – the room went silent – out came the liquid, white as snow – it was milk!!
I was transfixed with horror, the room erupted and my leg was pulled unmercifully, all I wanted was the floor to swallow me up. The leg pulling only got worse. By 9.00am the next day the whole distillery knew, fingers pointed muttering about the English milkman etc etc, and by lunchtime I reckon most of Campbeltown knew……….thanks fellas!!
Day 4 Thursday 13th
Our last full working day at the distillery. The day started with us all taking more exercise, that is emptying the steeps and putting out the floor with the now soaked barley ready for malting.
Job done we ambled down to see how far the rest of the team had got on laying the floor out. Not very far – so once again the ‘A’ team had to pitch in and help out. Hard work – so much so I noticed (one could hardly miss) even Theo had put his camera down!
The barley was barrowed to John who carefully and skillfully laid the floor evenly and to just the correct depth. To monitor temperature thermometers were inserted and to control the temperature the age old method is employed, the windows are opened and then closed.
|We wandered on past more ruins and some larger structures (one, Benmore Distillery, is now used as a bus depot) to Glen Scotia Distillery.|
We made our way back, in the drizzle, to the tasting room where Frank then gave us a tutored tasting. First was a Hazelburn Sherry Solera, then a Springbank Sherry Solera, followed by the Longrow Bourbon Solera, and finally a Pittyvaich 23yo Rum cask from Cadenhead.
It was our last night together at the B&B and a bottle of the Springbank 18 year old was opened and demolished – what a whisky to finish on and in spite of being offered milk I refused, it was hard, but I did it!!
Day 5 Friday 14th
We then ambled nervously over to the tasting room for the exam. Frank duly handed out the papers and we silently sucked our pens and wrote down the answers. There was some good humoured queries over the ambiguity of one or two of the questions, so it was a relief for us all to have passed.
|Our reward was a certificate plus a miniature of Longrow new make spirit – the very spirit we had ‘helped’ to make -and a lovely personalised bottle of Springbank.|
We then all trooped outside for a photo shoot in the sunny courtyard.
|For me it was a week I wouldn’t have missed for the world. Like a big jigsaw puzzle, a challenge where no single part was greater than the other, no parts were missing and the finished picture was most satisfying and memorable.|
I would like to thank the staff at Springbank for their patience and friendliness, and the pride they have in Springbank and it’s products is an example to us all. My fellow students too couldn’t have been better company in every way and I hope we meet each other again someday. The B&B was memorable for it’s huge meals and hospitality – quality and quantity are hard to find together, they succeeded in the desire to make one feel at home. Finally, a big thank you to Frank McHardy and his team for creating a well structured course, where we were encouraged to participate and understand every part of the process. We were allowed and encouraged to roam freely and photograph wherever and whenever we wanted, I certainly felt very comfortable to be there.
My time in Campbeltown, however, was not over. The afternoon and evening was free and Theo and Thomas were also staying over till Saturday so, after saying our goodbyes to the others, Theo took us to the Mull of Kintyre.
We walked down to the lighthouse, steep and some considerable distance from the car park, past the monument to the crash of an RAF Chinook. He then showed us round the east side of the Mull of Kintyre, coming back into Campbeltown from the south. We had a ‘light’ salad for dinner before Stillman John came and picked Theo and I up to show us the sights of Campbeltown, a glorious evening to do so. He showed us where the water came from for the distilleries, the best views of Campbeltown and even took us for a run out to Macrahannish to see where the coal mine was. Thank you John, you really put the icing on the cake.
I can really recommend anyone with the time who is seriously interested in whisky either making the trip down to Campbeltown and visiting Springbank Distillery or, better still, make a date and enrol at the Springbank Whisky School.