Springbank kicked up a real fuss last year when they released a 16 year old Local Barley bottling. It was essentially reviving an older series of there’s where they made whisky using barley grown on the farms surrounding Campbeltown. The plan now is to release a bottling every year for 5 years each using a different variety of barley.
I managed to get hold of a sample of that release and review it but I missed the boat on a bottle and it was sold out and being flipped at well over twice the retail value very quickly. This time I was a lot more quick on the draw and managed to get myself a whole bottle at retail price.
The whole deal with the pricing and demand for this whisky was quite a controversial thing, with the recommended retail price being around 80-90 GBP, which for some would be expensive for an 11-year-old whisky, and the fact that everyone knew it would sell out within moments of hitting the shelves, but Springbank released a statement regarding these matters, found here, which explains very nicely about their stance on the pricing and massive demand and how they did their best to be fair about pricing and distribution, which is very well appreciated. They justify the price by stating that the cultivar of barley used has a much lower yield than the standard barley used in whisky production.
This brings us to the next topic of discussion and the core point of interest here, the barley. Nowadays the vast majority of barley used in whisky production is of the Golden Promise cultivar. This is a genetically modified strain specifically created to produce a very high yield. Edit – A friend on reddit corrected me here, golden promise was a mutant strain developed by gamma ray bombardment. It was eventually replaced with other high yield cultivars, the most common nowadays being Optic.- With modern transport and production methods just about every distillery can source its malt from any malting house which in turn can source its barley from any farm, so obviously the industry will gravitate to the strain with the highest yield of malt per acre of barley.
Before the 20th century distilleries usually malted their own barley and sourced it from local farms as they were usually out in rural Scotland far from the reach of the railroads or any other practical form of delivery. These farms often used cultivars which were favoured as much for being able to handle the harsh weather as they were for producing a high yield. This meant that whisky back then was made from a variety of barley cultivars which supposedly brought more flavour and variation of flavour to the final product (and of course demand was nothing like it is today).
The aim of bottlings like this is essentially to rediscover the influence of specific barley cultivars on the flavour of whisky. This year’s release uses Bere barley from Aros Farm. Bere barley is a very old cultivar, possibly brought to Scotland by viking settlers, favoured for its hardiness in cold weather and ability to grow quite happily with minimal input like fertilisers and pesticides but, being a 6 row cultivar, it does not produce as much final product compared to 2 row cultivars.
Another factor contributing to the move away from Bere barley which I learned from reading the article “Bere Whisky – rediscovering the spirit of an old barley” written by Peter Martin and Xianmin Chang, found here, was the fact that because of it’s low yield Bere barley was taxed less than other cultivars. Tax at the time was applied to the barley itself and not the produced spirit. When taxation was later applied to the spirit instead of the barley, the lower yielding cultivars obviously became less favourable. The article, written in 2008, also mentions that Springbank commissioned a local farmer to grow 4 hectares of Bere barley in 2005, this whisky was distilled in 2006, so it could very well be the final product of that barley.
Aged 11 years. 53.1% ABV. No colourant added and non-chill filtered.
Nose: Originally sour when I first opened the bottle. That went away and no evidence of it now, about 3 drams in. Very active nose. Quite a lot of citrus oils, particularly lemon. Along with it quite a strong but at the same time light malty note. Apple juice. Green herbs, lemon verbena, sage. Salted butter and some wisps of chemical smoke.
Palate: A little bit aggressive. More lemon oil. Salt. Butterscotch. Tobacco smoke. More of that light malty note. Asian pear. Aromatic green herbs, menthol, wintergreen. Some bitter wood. Cookie dough. After a while some leathery flavours develop.
Finish: Long. Slightly bitter wood. Bitter apple. Leads into grassy herbs and malt and then a long lingering note of chemical smoke.
Would I buy this: Yes
Would I order this in a bar: Yes
Would I drink this if someone gave me a glass: Yes
VFM: 3/5 (at RRP)
This was much younger than last year’s release, obviously in age but it could be really felt in character too. Springbank is a good whisky when it hasn’t been aged to much and I’d describe the difference as somewhat similar to that between their core 10 & 15 year old expressions, where it isn’t so much a question of quality but of personal preferences.
There was a very distinct light but very present malty note all the way through which I think was the Bere barley talking. This was a very interesting and complex dram overall and I really like it, but I just don’t think it’s worth the fuss kicked up over it or the prices people are paying on the secondary market. For what it is, it’s truly a whisky geeks whisky and a great pity that it’s been picked up by the collector and flipper types who might not appreciate it as such.