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Springback Whisky School

Sunday 9th I travelled up to Campbeltown, visiting the fascinating Auchentoshan Distillery enroute. Then, as usual, the wonderful drive via Lochfyne and Inverary and then on down to Campbeltown. I found the B&B without any problems, my spacious room overlooking the remains of the old Lochead Distillery Warehouse (as Calum the B&B proprietor says, the walls remind him of Beau Geste!)

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.
Frank McHardy, production director, met us and showed us round the distillery (for Health and Safety reasons) and we were then paired off. Connie and I were matched together, then taken to the Bottling Hall where we were introduced to the staff and the skills of bottling and boxing. We worked at every bottling station apart from putting the screw caps on, evidently for health and safety reasons – I always thought that the problems started when the cap came off not when it was put on!!

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.
Following this, both the required casks were duly rolled to the bottling hall where they were lifted by chain and hoist to the loft above the vatting tank, the bungs removed and the whisky poured into the tank below. The alcohol is then adjusted by adding potable water to the whisky, 1 degree above what is the required alcohol level for bottling tomorrow as it is possible to still lose more alcohol overnight. The empty casks are then thrown down onto a huge foam block and rolled away to the empty cask store.
Meanwhile the remaining bottling staff were preparing for the miniatures, with boxes being constructed for the bottles and larger boxes to put the smaller boxes in. Bottling heads were changed and calibrated, and labels sorted – four different Clan labels all to be applied by hand, a tedious job. We gathered the staff love miniatures!

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.

Our first task was to pull a rake through the layer of now growing green malt laid down on the malt floor at the end last week and after a brief demonstration by Gordon we were on our own. The task entails walking backwards dragging the rake points upper most through the now growing malt, no pieces can be missed as the shoots entwine and cause an unusable tangle.

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.

The Mash Tun was filled with the grist and hot water to a porridge like consistency, with the ancient iron rakes turning and churning the mix, a careful eye kept on the temperatures then……. nothing! Silence, everything had stopped dead, followed by a loud f…. from Gordon. A quick look outside showed the ancient belt had come off the pulley that drives the mashtun. The chicken wire safety guard was swiftly removed and the belt put back on, then water then sprayed on the belt to shrink and tighten it.
The mashing process was then restarted. The pulley system probably dates back to steam and even water power. I suggested that possibly a tension pulley could stop further problems quite easily. Gordon gave me a look of……. don’t even go there – well this is Springbank Distillery after all!

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.
The final job of the day was charging the wash still ready for the night shift. It was a simple but thrilling job cracking the valves open a little at a time to let the wash into the hot still, too much too quickly and the ancient copper work bangs in protest.Back to the B&B for another giant meal and a bottle of 10 year old Longrow Sherry wood to lubricate the evenings discussions.

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!

Connie and I are on distilling today with John, this time using one of the spirit stills. Longrow being twice distilled, only the wash and one spirit still are employed. Mid morning all of the group were gathered together for more sampling and gauging of casks in various warehouses. A fascinating experience in which we all participated, everything explained at every level. There was a lot of tasting involved…of course!!

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.
As a contrast they say that malt from barley bought via a merchant is very clean and little, if any, debris is extracted prior to milling. Springbank Distillery demand that all barley used must be grown in Scotland and nowhere else, keeping the whiskies produced from both Springbank and Glengyle Distilleries a 100% Scottish product.

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.

The ‘A’ team of Connie, Gordon (a guy who joined us from Herriot Watt University and hailed from Canada) and I had the job of shovelling the barley down a series of holes in the floor of the steep and gravity was, for once, on our side! If the barley had to be laid on the malting floor where the steeps were, it would have been a back breaking job, shovelling over the high steep sides and into barrows.

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.

The rest of the morning was spent with Gavin McLachlan in the warehouses, again more gauging and sampling, hard work this!Lunch over, Frank McHardy took us on a fascinating walk around Campbeltown, our first stop being Glengyle Distillery but on the way Frank pointed out the many ruined walls that were once either warehouses or other distillery buildings of the 35 or so long gone distilleries in the town. The walls and buildings are protected from demolition.
Glengyle Distillery is amazing quite the antithesis of Springbank Distillery. The shell of the building is old very old, but the equipment inside is modern and, dare I say, organised. None of the original equipment survives, or even any whisky made there. Much has been written elsewhere but I loved the clean, logical layout.
We wandered on past more ruins and some larger structures (one, Benmore Distillery, is now used as a bus depot) to Glen Scotia Distillery.
Frank and his Springbank team distilled at Glen Scotia on behalf of the owners some years ago so he was more than familiar with the layout. It’s a fascinating distillery, old, though the layout seems to have changed over the years. Again, like Springbank, lots of old equipment that has served well over the years is still used. Glen Scotia is not open to the public so it is very much a working distillery, with nothing polished or hidden. The cast iron washbacks particularly had us all fascinated.

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

Exam day. However, one part of the process we hadn’t covered was the filling of casks so the current manager, Stuart Robertson, showed us the adding of de-mineralised water to the spirit and reducing the alcohol level according to charts and records duly kept. This is then allowed to marry in a large vat over a period of several days before being put in cask for maturation in the warehouses. A job for next weeks whisky school.

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.

Saturday 15th

I departed south but in fact went north, along quiet roads to catch the little ferry for Arran and a visit to the delightful distillery at Lochranza, where I was well looked after. This was followed by a charge round the island to catch the large ferry to Ardrossan, and then south and home.

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.

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