Friday, May 20, 2016

Whisky Road Trip, Florida Scotch dinner part 3

Continuing on from part 1 and part 2, the dinner’s third whisky was Kilkerran, Work In Progress 7 - Sherry Wood; a product of Campbeltown’s Glengyle distillery. This was Scotland’s next new malt distillery after Arran and as I mentioned previously, there was a time span of almost 10 years between their openings. In the case of Glengyle the location wasn’t chosen because it was exceptionally marketable, although the region’s whiskies do have a small but very passionate following.

The building of a new distillery in Campbeltown was a key step in the process of restoring some of the former glory to what was once the “whisky capital of the world”. Accomplishing that goal would, in turn, raise the profile of the new distillery, advancing its image in a self-fulfilling sort of way.

I’ve already talked about some of the factors that led to the explosive growth in the number of distilleries in Campbeltown. All of that happened between 1823 and 1835, when the total number of active distilleries in the small city peaked at 28. A few fell by the wayside in 1837. Others occasionally came and went through the ensuing decades, with the number of operating distilleries hovering between the mid twenties and the high teens until 1922. Then the real collapse came.

Campbeltown lost 15 distilleries from 1923 through 1928. One other held out until 1934, and then the city was left with just two distilleries; Springbank and Glen Scotia. There were many factors that put Campbeltown’s whisky industry in a weakened state in the latter half of the 19th century. I’ve written abut them elsewhere and those details are beyond the scope of this post, so I’ll simplify things a bit and just say that the post World War I economic downturn was the final nail in the coffin of “Whisky City”.

For a time it looked as if distilling in Campbeltown might end entirely. Glen Scotia was closed from March of 1930 through November of 1933, as was Springbank from some time in 1930 until early in 1936. But the two pressed on, surviving the chaos of World War II and the industry downturn of the 1980’s, even though both were closed for much of that decade.

Understanding how the opening of Glengyle fully ties into the resurgence of Campbeltown requires a look at the history of Springbank and the Mitchell family. The Mitchells first came to the Kintyre peninsula around 1660 as part of a wave of farmers who migrated there from the Lowlands. Several generations later, the Mitchells were at the center of Campbeltown’s distilling revolution. Archibald Mitchell Sr. (1734 – 1818) was a prominent farmer in the area. His son, Archibald Jr., was a maltster around the turn of the century, and is even said to have operated an illicit still on what would eventually become the sight of the Springbank distillery. All five of his children, Hugh, Archibald III (1804 – 1863), John (1811 – 1892), William and Mary, were involved with Campbeltown distilleries.

1825 – Archibald Mitchell III is part of the group that establishes the Rieclachan distillery. Hugh Mitchell later joins them.
1828 – The Springbank distillery is established by William Reid, who is related to the Mitchells by marriage.
1834 – Mary Mitchell is involved in the establishment of Drumore distillery. It appears to have closed in 1837, reopened at an unknown later date, then closed for good in 1847.
1837 – The Reid family suffers financial difficulties and they sell Springbank to John and William Mitchell.
1851 – John Mitchell is part of a group that acquires the Toberanrigh distillery, which was built in 1934. It closes nine years later, in 1860.
1872 – John and William have a falling out after quarrelling about a difference in sheep farming. William leaves Springbank, joining his other brothers at Rieclachan. Later that year he establishes the Glengyle distillery, which opens in 1873. After William’s departure, John brings in his son, Alexander (1853 – 1912), to help him run Springbank. At some point the company name is changed to J & A Mitchell, as it remains in the present day.
1919 – Glengyle is sold and no longer part of the Mitchell family.
1925 – Glengyle closes and all of the distilling equipment is sold off shortly thereafter. The space is later rented to the Campbeltown miniature rifle club, serving as its range for much of the 1930’s.
1934 – Rieclachan closes.
1940 – The Glengyle distillery and brand are sold to the company that owns Glen Scotia. An attempt is made to reopen the distillery, but that is scuttled by World War II.
1957 – The Glengyle buildings are sold again, and another attempt to reopen the distillery fails to come to fruition.
1969 – Springbank acquires the independent bottler Cadenhead’s. This was done to provide consistent work for the staff of their recently opened bottling hall, which is located in a former warehouse of the defunct neighboring Longrow distillery (1824 – 1896).
1970 – The former Glengyle buildings become the depot and sales office of the Kintyre Farmers Cooperative. Eventually all use of the buildings is abandoned.
1973 – Springbank first distills a heavily peated malt (which was double distilled, further differentiating it from the two-and-a-half times distilled Springbank), naming it Longrow. Initially this is done only as an experiment in 1973 and 1974.
1985 – Longrow first released as a 10 year old.
1987 – Distilling of Longrow resumes, with small quantities made in 1987, 1989 and 1990 before it goes into regular production in 1992
1997 – Springbank begins producing Hazelburn, an unpeated, triple distilled malt, which is also named for a former Campbeltown distillery.
2000 – Hedley G. Wright, the Chairman of Springbank and a direct descendent of the Mitchells, buys the former Glengyle buildings and tasks distillery manager Frank McHardy with their restoration and the assembly of a modern distillery within them.
2004 – The first distillation run happens at Glengyle.
2005 – Hazelburn is first released as an 8 year old.
2009 – Kilkerran (Glengyle) single malt is introduced as a limited release 5 year old.

While Springbank has always had a good reputation, it was during the 1990’s that the distillery gained an almost cult-like status, especially in the Japanese market. Glen Scotia was mothballed from 1994 to 2000, but has been producing steadily since reopening after a change of ownership. Along with Springbank regularly making three distinctly different styles of single malt, the addition of a third active distillery to Campbeltown would go a long way in raising the profile of the once mighty region.

On a side note, when researching such things there is a lot of conflicting information regarding Hedley G. Wright’s exact place in the Mitchell family lineage. I think much of the confusion comes from the fact that there were three Archibald Mitchells and many texts speak of Archibald Sr. and Jr., when they are actually talking about Jr. and the 3rd. Also, the name is often written without any corresponding suffix, adding to the ambiguity. I’ve spent more time than I care to admit researching this topic and am confident that I have it properly sorted out. Mr. Wright is the great-great-great-great grandson of Archibald Mitchell Sr., and the great-great-great grandson of Archibald Mitchell Jr. He is the great-great grandson of John Mitchell. That would also make him the great-great-great nephew of Glengyle founder William Mitchell (keep in mind, your grandfather’s brother would be your great uncle, so the number of “greats” is not the same when you go from father to uncle across the same generation). Even the information on the Springbank and Glengyle websites seems inaccurate, but what I’ve laid out here does work with their statement that Mr. Wright is the 5th generation of the Mitchell family to own and manage the Springbank distillery (Archibald Jr. should not be counted; there is only tangential evidence that he operated an illicit still on the site, and that was before Springbank was established).

The resurrection of Glengyle was significant on many levels. Campbeltown has long struggled economically and any new business is a blessing. Surely, part of the motivation behind the project was the shaping of Hedley G. Wright’s legacy, not to mention the family connection coming full circle. Having a third working distillery in town also helped in legitimizing Campbeltown as a recognized distilling region.

Managing this project was also the crowning jewel of the career of Frank McHardy, which ultimately spanned more then 50 years in the whisky industry. While there are many traditional aspects to the production of whisky at Glengyle, the distillery has an efficient layout, utilizing modern mezzanine flooring. Much of the equipment was purchased new, but the malt mill came from Craigellachie (surplus after an upgrade there) and the stills, condensers, spirit safe and receivers all came from Ben Wyvis. This was a malt distillery which was operated on the grounds of the Invergordon grain distillery from 1965 to 1977. Interestingly, Frank McHardy began his career at Invergordon, serving there from 1963 to 1966.

The barley used at Glengyle is all malted on the traditional floor maltings at Springbank (and to the same peating level) and the casks are stored in Springbank’s warehouses. The two distilleries are at the opposite ends of adjoining properties, and the company owns all of the real estate between them. Should future demand necessitate it, a complex of warehouses could be built between the two production facilities. The former floor maltings at Glengyle are still intact, though in need of restoration. This could easily be done if the two distilleries grow beyond the capacity of Springbank’s malting floors.

As noted in the timeline above, the Glengyle brand was sold to the company that owns Glen Scotia in 1940. They sold the buildings in 1957, but kept the brand and used the name on a blended Highland Malt in the 1990’s. That is why the new distillery could be named Glengyle, but the whisky had to have a different name. Kilkerran is a reference to the original settlement led by Saint Kieran and located where Campbeltown stands today.

There have been annual Kilkerran releases since 2009 under the WIP (work in progress) moniker. 2010’s WIP 2 consisted of 18,000 bottles, which seems out of place compared to the 9000 bottles released the year before and each of the two years after. Today we are patiently awaiting the official 12 year old release of Kilkerran, which is coming in August of 2016. But I did come across an interview of Frank McHardy from 2008 where he stated that Kilkerran would come out as an 8 year old in 2012. Perhaps that target was adjusted in 2010 and the size of following two WIP releases scaled back accordingly.

In 2013 the WIP 5 release was split in two; bourbon matured and sherry matured, with 9000 bottles of each produced. That output level was repeated for 2014’s WIP 6. In 2015 the bourbon matured bottling was at cask strength (all other WIP’s were at 46%) with 6000 bottles of it released alongside 12,000 bottles that were sherry cask matured. There was also a single cask (ex-Calvados) bottling of Kilkerran released in 2015 which had been distilled in May of 2006.

The WIP 7 sherry cask matured Kilkerran is the one which I selected for the Scotch dinner. None of the WIP bottles carry age statements, but the whole point of the series is that the bottlings get progressively older. My suspicion / best educated guess is that the whisky used for the WIP releases came from the first two years of Kilkerran’s production, so each subsequent release was older than the one before it, but not a full year older (probably closer to eight months). If I’m correct, that would make the bottle at hand roughly 9 years old, rather than the 11 years that is often assumed.

The nose is beautifully complex. Malty baked goods are the predominate note. Joining the fray are gentle floral aromas, baking spices, Oloroso sherry fruit, a touch of musty oak, and just enough peat smoke to be present and accounted for.
On the palate it is medium to full-bodied. An initial hit of sweetness up front is quickly knocked back by warming, dry spice notes. The sherry fruit is present but muted. Peat smoke, mint and botanical notes become more evident when exhaling through the nose after swallowing.
The flavors jump around a little on the palate and a touch of immaturity shows as it moves through the latter stages of the finish. Don’t get me wrong, this is damn good whisky but it will benefit from a few more years of aging. Now I’m really looking forward to tasting the 12 year old when it is released.

There was still some liquid left in my WIP 2 bottle, so I went back for a sample to compare to the latest release. The nose is less developed, but still has some interesting aromatics. Malty, spicy, grassy, gentle perfume and a touch of peat; all well integrated. It’s a little one dimensional on the palate. There are some nice flavors present, they just don’t evolve much; at least not until the spice notes emerge later on the finish. This is surprisingly well-composed for a less-than-6 year old whisky. That being said, the latest version just has so much more going on, both on the nose and on the palate. The Works in Progress have progressed nicely.

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