IT’S A RAINY spring day – June a couple years ago, and I’m lost on a street in Scotland wandering up and back, up and back on an empty sidewalk. Trucks and cars rush by. The wind whips my umbrella so it flaps like a crow’s broken wing. I reach a gas station and a Scottish Hydro branch office and no sign of my destination. Finally an elderly woman with a cane and a red coat and blue hat stops. I ask if she knows where Springbank is, Springbank being a whisky distillery.
She trills her words as if lightly spiced with cinnamon and waves her cane to a narrow slit in a wall between buildings. “Och, go down through that door around through the back to the right and take a left.”
And there, through and between and back – under an arch in the wall – is a gravel path disappearing into weeds. The air smells of salt and seaweed. Ferns and moss grow in the walls, and the buildings open up magically. One courtyard leads onto another and another, each bigger than the next until – like entering a secret garden or a fairytale – I stumble into a lost century. An old stone building bears its scars, with boarded windows and brick patches hinting at its history. Steam rises from a smokestack, and there’s a string of whitewashed buildings. The whitewash itself says “distillery” since most are painted with it. You’d hardly guess all this could be hidden behind the storefronts on the street. It’s like getting a ship into a bottle, and the only clue that this is in the center of town is the view of the church’s bell tower a few blocks away. I can’t even hear the traffic.
This moment in the rain on the street on a quest of sorts flooded back to me recently watching Ken Loach’s The Angel’s Share. The movie, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year, is a fable about scotch, though this being Loach, the British socialist director with his social realist aesthetic, he’s more apt to tackle homelessness and labor issues than scotch. With his inclinations both politically and cinematically, his movie, fable-like though it is, also comes with a fair dose of grit and class commentary.
Four kids from inner city Glasgow find their lives saved by scotch, by single malts, in fact. And, this being Loach, there’s a larger message about cities and youth, kids who are permanently disenfranchised who might do bad things not because they are bad, but because of bad circumstances. I love Loach for his humanism (his 1969 movie Kes about a boy and his kestrel is incredibly moving and made the British Film Institute’s top-ten best British films of the 20th century.). The Angel’s Share, however, is easily not his best movie despite the Cannes’ plaudits. It’s a comedy, which hardly seems his medium, and comes with a fair dose of men-in-kilts jokes. Yes, the kilts get lifted for the cops. (There are even running jokes about chaffed bollocks).
In the film one of the youths, Robbie, discovers he has a good nose for whisky. He starts to research it with books from the library and tiny bottles, mini-bar size, for tasting. The movie is also about the irony that Scotland’s national drink never crosses the lips of most of the nation’s populace. They, like the movie’s main foursome, are the sorts who drink Stella and Buckfast, fortified tonic wines, (the sort from which the word “wino” comes). Meanwhile, Johnnie Walker and J&B, the two biggest whisky brands, make enough bottles of scotch to float the Queen Mary Two and sell most of it overseas. “The angel’s share,” that poetic phrase, is the amount that evaporates from a cask as it ages. Literally it stands for the 2% Her Majesty’s Revenue allows for annually in loss from evaporation. The very word “loss” seems apt for what happens in the plot, and the angel’s share could be what, in the end, goes to the kids.
In the movie Robbie’s first ever scotch is Springbank. Now it is not an easy malt. It’s not famous. You can, if you’re lucky, tour the distillery – but only on certain occasions. The malt doesn’t turn up in duty-free, and it’s not a name brand like Laphroaig, say, or Glenfiddich, the most popular single malt in the world. Springbank is oily and heavy. It doesn’t have the smoky peaty taste of an Islay whisky, or the sweet spice of one you’d find on Speyside, and the region from which Springbank comes, Campbeltown, is hardly known for its scotch, not now at least. But, scotch does come with a sort of synesthesia, this sense that when you’re drinking it, you’re tasting a place. It’s part of why people tour distilleries, to associate place and scotch, malt and moment. It can feel a bit like that sensation of seeing somewhere you’ve been, a place you’re connected to, on the news or in a movie. It creates a frisson of something, of connection, something akin to déjà vu. So, there I was watching The Angel’s Share and back in Campbeltown in Argyll on the edge of a busy road, the traffic roaring by, searching for Springbank.
Campbeltown is hardly pretty and not particularly touristic though Paul McCartney has a farm nearby and Andy Stewart has sung about the loch. At the far end of the Kintyre Peninsula, the town looks like inner city Glasgow and was recently named Scotland’s most at-risk city. It’s isolated, with high unemployment and little to offer its youth (in short, a Ken Loach movie itself). Add to that, rural depopulation like many an American rust belt town. But, I am here looking for whisky, and it’s a bit of a mystery because Campbeltown once produced more of the spirit than anywhere else in Scotland and had more distilleries than any other region. It also had the highest per capita income of all of Britain at the turn of the 20th century. Now it has three distilleries and is a ghost town.
In the song Andy Stewart croons about wishing Campbeltown Loch were whisky, but the last time it was synonymous with scotch, was the 19th century. The city was once known as Whisky City, the Whisky Capital. Now it’s buildings are stained and crumbling. There’s a fish and chip shop with a curling, yellowing poster of a giant cartoon goldfish and card shops with windows full of faded silk flowers – and foundations that look like medieval fortifications or Roman walls, though the Romans never made it this far. These aren’t nearly that old. They’re the ghosts of distilleries past. That spot by the Scottish Hydroelectric branch and Esso station with the woman and her cane was also once a distillery. There was one on every street. Their walls hide gardens, and you can peer through the barred windows of old warehouses. The roofs crumble, and inside are parked trucks and heavy machinery, diggers and bulldozers, now flecked by slats of light. But what happened? What about whisky? What went wrong? Why?
And, I am in Campbeltown to meet Springbank’s director of production, Frank McHardy. I’m here to find whisky where it was first made in Scotland, to see how scotch was really made. Of course, any adverb like “really,” with its purporting hold on reality is a bit, um, slippery.
Somehow, in this courtyard that feels like a fairytale, a stone house is tucked back here (once home to the distillery’s exciseman) and barrels are stacked high as its roof. Staves and hoops and roof slates are in piles. If you ignore the forklift moving casks (or pretend it’s a horse and cart) this could be 1860. Frank McHardy rushes out to meet me. He too is a relic – not because he looks like Michael Caine (he does) or because McHardy has a proclivity for wearing striped shirts and striped ties that suggest a connection to another decade, say, 1970. This morning he wears a fugue of pink and red, and the next it’s a combination of blue – the stripes on the shirt vertical and on the tie at a slant. He too feels like a character in the movie, with unnerving watery blue eyes, and a grin that’s equal parts charm and chilling depending on its delivery. His chuckles are a punctuation that say a question is off limits, and he manages both to be welcoming and warm and wary all in the space of the same few gestures.
He left school at fourteen working briefly as a farm laborer and then happened into a job at a distillery sweeping the floors. Unlike most of those running distilleries now he’s not a scientist. The industry is dominated by chemists who analyze yields and compounds. The scientists are trained just like the ones who make fragrances and perfumes for Givaudan and International Flavors & Fragrances. McHardy though didn’t go to university for distilling, didn’t even finish school for that matter, didn’t do anything to study whisky-making other than work in distilleries for the past half century, and now he’s pleased to be somewhere where he gets to work without the oversight of accountants, without having to take compulsory retirement, where he can make a malt as it should be, as it’s always been made.
At Springbank you won’t see any tartan-clad tour guides trotting out well-worn jokes about happy cows who eat the left over mash like you see in the movie. Frank guides me through places no distillery tour would dare take you. I follow him up narrow stairs so steep and slender they’re nearly ladders to malting floors. He goes through the still house with its three giant copper tubs that look like tubas, their necks arcing gracefully to the ceiling. The still itself is not still, not quiet, not graceful—it’s hot and loud and clanging with the sound of bells and hissing and steam and boilers. The air is heady with the scent of malt – sweet and sweaty, yeasty like baking bread and molasses, and a Rube Goldberg device has cogs turning, a giant wheel spinning. With each revolution a beat up brass bell clangs. Over all the noise, Frank talks about his job as an “ethos,” a philosophy. He’s here to keep the bean counters – or, as he puts it, “the barley counters” at bay, to make whisky as it was done a century ago, to be the last proud holdout as if whisky-making were some Clint Eastwood western and he is preserving not only the way things were, but the way things should be.
“My job is to make it just like we have for a hundred years and to keep doing it that way. Not to cut costs or jobs. WE don’t change things. We keep tradition alive rather than finding a way to do something better –” he pauses, looks at me and smiles. He is a man of many smiles, none of which seem happy, more wary or warning or about to say when he can’t do something – “If innovation is that.”
For him the old ways are like a crusade. His is the only distillery that does all its own malting and bottling, the only distillery run by one family since the start. No surprise then that he calls Springbank, “the working museum,” as he helps me up another staircase slash ladder and looks back to make sure I don’t have a fear of heights or am some kind of delicate lady stumbling through what is basically a light industrial space.
On the malting floor he shows me a grubber, essentially a rake to turn over the wet malt every few hours (the malt weighs 13 tons when dry; here it gets saturated until its water content goes up to 46%) and the rake is named not for grubs in the grain but the grubbing, heavy labor undertaken with the tool. At Springbank, they also clean out larch mash tuns with a heather beesom. “Beesom” means broom in Gaelic. “It also,” Frank explains with another of his smiles and chuckles, “means a bad woman.”
Making whisky was never McHardy’s goal. “In 1963 when I started,” he says, “I was only 18 and at the time I didn’t care. It was just women and drink and money and cars. I didn’t see much point in finishing school. I didn’t like it,” and he makes a joke about nepotism. “My father was taken into personnel and I got a job at Invergordon.” Since, he’s worked at Tamnavulin and in the early Seventies on Islay at Bruichladdich (recently profiled in The New Yorker), Bushmills in Northern Ireland, and Springbank twice, first in late Seventies and now since 1996.
“When I started, you’d get a dram when you started and another at midday and then just before you go, and if you’re doing hard labor, dusty tough work,” he says, “you’d get another dram or several through the day.” He spreads his fingers wide to show what a dram is. It’s not that official government one-ounce measure that’s supposed to equal one serving of alcohol but at least three possibly four ounces, and he drove home afterwards. He shakes his head partly in disbelief, and partly as if those were the days. Soon as he got home, he’d fall asleep, and his wife was always complaining so he can’t drink scotch now, not like that. For a second his eyes, those watery blue ones like the Aegean, focus on the middle distance. “So many people I worked with are not alive anymore.”
To make scotch whisky (and it is now defined by law, laws that were updated in 2009) you have to use malted barley. It’s partially germinated to release the starch that would feed the seed, so it’s steeped in water and turned and turned (basically like making bean sprouts. The barley has the same chalky taste too). Once it starts to germinate, the process is stopped by kilning – baking – the seeds in an oven. Here I stand in that oven on the steel screens through which the barley is toasted for hours. The room smells of peat and smoke. Afterward the barley is ground to a coarse grist. Water is added, and it’s steeped four times to make something called worts. The worts go to another vat where yeast is added and fermenting begins. That wort/yeast mix ferments for anywhere from 40 to 115 hours (different distilleries have different times) to make the wash. It’s basically no different than beer, but as the temperature rises slightly to just over 32 degrees, the yeast dies, and lactic acid (essentially lactobacillus like you get in yogurt) grows. It gives a certain sweet flavor to whisky. Longer steeps in the fermenting vats (called a washback) make more lactic acid. The wash is then distilled in one of the giant copper stills to a mixture of 25 percent alcohol called “low wines” that are distilled into a second copper still (by law whisky has to be distilled twice). The heads and tails (the first and last parts of the distillation—which have more impurities) are run off to be distilled again.
A few feet from the three tuba-shaped stills, the still man chews on a pen studying the spirit safe. A copper and glass padlocked box, it looks like a Victorian escape artist’s prop, like some magician would trap himself in it underwater with a minute to get out. A relic of 1824 tax law, the safe has chutes and spouts inside and levers outside to direct the run, and it’s locked so no one absconds with even a drop of untaxed spirits. He watches for just the moment to collect it, and inside a hydrometer measures the weight. When it drops to 75% alcohol and isn’t cloudy, he switches the funnel from one side to another, from the wines to the spirit and then again over to the feints (the tails) when it’s done. This moment is precise and happens in each distillery at a different point, but that point influences flavors. Run the still too fast or too long, start collecting too soon or continue too late, and the flavor is, well, disgusting. It can range from sweet to stale fish and bile. Bits of copper from the still collect in a sieve (copper is a soft metal and dissolves with each distillation, tempering the sulfur in the spirit). Then, the spirit is aged for at least three years in oak barrels and – finally – bottled. The thing that makes Springbank different is that they do the entire process – not just the mashing and distilling – here onsite. They even use barley from neighboring farms. On the drive into Campbeltown a black billboard in a field announces, “Local Barley Grown For Springbank.”
Frank grumbles that the council wants the distillery to take down the sign, but each notice he gets he sends back with a question. “By the time it’s resolved, and we’ve run out of challenges the crop’ll be harvested.” He flashes his sharp smile, and I get a sense he likes a bit of a scrap. He’s also militant because the farms aren’t growing just any barley—not say, Optic that the Institute of Brewing recommends and has been tested by chemists for its fermenting prowess and every other distillery uses – but bere or bear (pronounced like the animal). It’s the first barley ever grown in Scotland and brought by the Vikings in the 9th century. There’s no small irony here. Whisky came to Campbeltown (and Scotland as a whole) thanks to Gaelic invaders from Ireland and the barley from Norway. Now scotch is Scotland’s largest export, the UK’s fifth largest (though by volume the largest). It accounts for more than a third of all duty free liquor sales – and is itself a big driver of tourism. Scotch owes itself to invaders and other countries but is now synonymous with Scotland. Like everything at Springbank, bere requires more work – and dedication. The barley strain has a lower alcohol yield.
The process here is quaint – and begs a question: if Springbank makes whisky how it’s always been done, how is it done now? And what exactly is whisky then? Or, rather what is scotch?