Springbank Whisky School Campbeltown


In March 2024, I drove to Campbeltown in Scotland to spend a week at the Springbank Whisky School, following 3-4 years of patiently waiting for my turn whilst on the waiting list. Despite having worked in the drinks industry for 20 years, this was one of the best whisky experiences I’ve had by far – whether you are a fan of Springbank or not, you cannot help but leave the experience as an advocate, after seeing first hand the passion and hard work involved in creating their whiskies!

Springbank Whisky School Campbeltown

First started in 2007, the Springbank Whisky School was designed to give both theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience throughout every aspect of whisky production.

The Whisky School is made up of classes of 6 people, who spend a week together with full access to Springbank and Glengyle Distilleries plus the Cadenhead’s Whisky Shop in Campbeltown. On my group, we had Martin and Daniel from Sweden, Henri from France, Jakub from Poland and Eric from Canada, so a very international mix of whisky fans.

Springbank Whisky School Campbeltown
On our way….

We stayed locally at Springbank’s own guesthouse, “The Still Guesthouse”, from Sunday to the Friday. All meals were included in the package with the staff looking after us from the moment we arrived on site. Thankfully the distillery was a short walk from our accommodation, as we started at 8am every morning after an early breakfast.

Springbank whisky school the still guesthouse
The Still Guesthouse

During our time at the Springbank Whisky School, staff members from all areas were on hand to share their knowledge and wisdom with us, and no topic or areas were prohibited with full access given and answers given to every question we had.

Production Manager Gavin McLachlan was in effect the Whisky School Headmaster, welcoming us and providing guidance ahead of our week of education.

Gavin McLachlan Springbank Whisky School
Gavin McLachlan, our Whisky School Headmaster

Under the supervision of the production operatives on site, we were to work in each part of the distillery covering the following areas:

  • Malting
  • Mashing/ Distilling
  • Filling/ Warehousing
  • Bottling
  • Tasting
  • Blending
Springbank Whisky School
Ready to get started on our first day

Day 1 – Malting and Campbeltown Walking Tour

After arriving on site and having our induction with Gavin, including a brief walk around the distillery, we went straight to the Malt Floor. John and Grant welcomed us and got us to work immediately on moving 13 tonnes of barley and laying it all out on the malt floor. Needless to say, this was a physically demanding task to get us started on our first morning of whisky school.

Springbank Whisky School malt floor

Springbank Whisky School malt floor

Springbank Whisky School malt floor

Springbank Whisky School malt floor

All of this heavy work would usually have been done by only 2 people at the distillery (so having an additional 6 people from whisky school helping out definitely made it lighter work!).

We returned to the Malt Floor later in the first day to finish up with filling of the the cast iron steeping vessel, more shovelling of barley on the malt floor and turning it, using the tools available: the traditional ‘grubber’ and the mechanical ‘turner’.

The grubber is a malting tool used to allow oxygen to get to the bottom of the barley bed whislt also releasing any heat pockets that may have formed whilst the turner is a tool with a spinning set of blades to completely flip the barley bed, allowing the warmer barley at the bottom of the bed to cool down and the cooler barley at the top to warm, to facilitate germination. Both tools are used every 4 hours to maintain the temperature and prevent the knitting together of the rootlets, and this is repeated for 6 days, before progressing to kilning.

Springbank Whisky School malt floor
The Grubber and Turner

Springbank Whisky School malt floor

Another highlight from day 1 was our walking tour of Campbeltown, hosted by our tour guide Aly. He was full of enthusiasm and happy to share all the fun facts and historical locations linked to distilling in Campbeltown, which used to be known as “the Whisky Capital of the World” as the home to over 30 distilleries. We were also fortunate to have been walking around the town on a beautiful sunny day in Scotland.

For reference – Inside the Cask ‘The Distilleries of Campbeltown’

Springbank whisky school walking tour of campbeltown
The site of the former Hazelburn Distillery in Campbeltown

Springbank whisky school walking tour of campbeltown

Springbank whisky school walking tour of campbeltown
Dropping by to say hello to Iain during our walking tour of Campbeltown…

Day 2 – Cask Filling, Warehousing and Cadenhead’s Whisky Shop

The second day included viewing the steep being topped up with local water from Crosshill Loch until the barley was fully submerged as part of the steeping process. This initial stage takes 12 hours, after which the water is removed and the barley allowed to have an oxygen break of 12 hours before it is submerged in water again for another 14 hours. After the water is drained and the barley is left for 4 hours, only then it will be spread out across the malt floor.

Springbank whisky school steeping
The barley is submerged in the water

We also had the opportunity to see the Milling and Mashing processes of production with Robert and Daniel. Mashing is the process of combining grist and hot water to extract the maximum amount of fermentable sugars from the starch, to create a sugary liquid called wort, which later in the process will be fermented with the addition of yeast to produce alcohol. Below is a picture of Springbank’s cast iron mash tun with a traditional rake and plough cast – this is over 110 years old!

Springbank whisky school mashing

Springbank whisky school mashing

Springbank whisky school new make

Springbank whisky school new make

Tuesday is cask filling day at Springbank. The team behind managing the barrels on site included Kerry (pictured below), handling the cask filling using a pump not too dissimilar to what you would find at a petrol garage, which is done with the new make reduced to 63.5% abv. We then helped also by adding the volume information to the cask, by stencilling it with the number of litres, and then moving these casks to one of the many warehouses on site to mature. The work was physical and most of us felt it the following day!

Note that the casks were stencilled prior to filling with the year, type of spirit produced, cask number and a letter (A, B or C) to indicate the number of use.

Springbank whisky school cask filling warehousing
Cask Filling by Kerry
Springbank whisky school cask filling warehousing
Adding the cask info by hand
Springbank whisky school cask filling warehousing
Moving those casks to the warehouse (usually just one at a time!)

At Springbank every cask is matured in one of eight warehouses, five of which are the traditional dunnage warehouses and three are racked warehouses, allowing for more storage on steel frames. The dunnage warehouses demand more physical work as no machinery is used, unlike the racked warehouses.

Springbank whisky school cask filling warehousing

Springbank whisky school cask filling warehousing
Lifting the casks to the 2nd floor of a dunnage warehouse

Springbank whisky school cask filling warehousing

Springbank whisky school cask filling warehousing
It would be great to see this one in 10 years time!
Springbank whisky school
One of the racked warehouses

Towards the end of Day 2, we met with Jenna from the independent bottler Cadenhead’s who took us through a warehouse tasting, followed by a visit to the store and another opportunity to sample a Cadenhead whisky release. It was the perfect way to close the day and I decided to use the opportunity to also join The Cadenhead’s Club.

Springbank whisky school Cadenhead's

Springbank whisky school Cadenhead's

Day 3 – Kilning, Bottling and Springbank Warehouse Tasting

Another day, and more shovelling of barley! We started by putting away the barley floor down a chute before going into the kiln to spread out evenly the barley for drying (as pictured below). This would also later allow for the barley to be dried with hot air (or peat) to remove the moisture and stop the barley from growing. By drying this germinated barley (known as green malt) to 4% moisture, the germination process is halted and the malted barley will be ready for milling in 3-4 weeks’ time.

Springbank whisky school kiln
Lots of barley ready to be shovelled within the kiln

Springbank whisky school kiln

Springbank whisky school kiln

Spring Whisky School kiln

Spring Whisky School kiln
Get your Peat on!

Most of the third day was spent in the Bottling Hall, where staff at Springbank usually begin their careers. There are two bottling lines in place: an automatic line handling the core Springbank and Kilkerran ranges and a semi-automatic line, which is more hands on (such as the quality control example below) and used for smaller bottlings.

Springbank whisky school bottling hall

Spring Whisky School bottling hall

We were asked to be considerate when taking pictures in the bottling hall, to avoid capturing and sharing any future releases such as the 2024 Campbeltown Malts Festival special release bottlings.

Springbank whisky school bottling hall

Springbank whisky school bottling hall
My version of quality control

There was a real camaraderie amongst the staff in the bottling hall and we enjoyed our time working with Chris, Julie and the whole team, mostly working on the semi-automatic line filling bottles, adding stoppers by hand and undertaking the quality control check. The team was fun to work with and we had plenty of laughter and a great time there, as well as one or two samples of some of the whiskies available!

Spring Whisky School warehouse tasting

We finished the day in the best possible way, with a Springbank Warehouse Tasting hosted by Production Director Findlay. This was an opportunity to sample whiskies such as a Springbank 32yo 1990 and a Longrow 28yo 1994 amongst others.

Day 4 – Mash/ Distill, Cask Regauging, Glengyle Distillery and Blending Session

On day 4 in the morning, we were able to spend some more time with Robert and Daniel, focusing on learning the details involved in the fermentation and distillation processes behind Springbank, Hazelburn and Longrow whiskies.

Springbank distillery has six wooden washbacks used for fermentation, one made from Douglas Fir and the remaining five from Boatskin Larch. Fermentation takes place over 72-110 hours and the resulting wash has an alcohol content of around 6-6.5% abv. The washbacks are hosed down and steam cleaned for one hour before the cycle begins again.

Spring Whisky School mash distill
At the Still House with Robert during the day
Spring Whisky School mash distill
Later at the Still House with Gordon on a different shift
Spring Whisky School mash distill
My signature on the production log book
Spring Whisky School mash distill
Steam Cleaning

The liquid from the wash backs is passed through three copper stills: the wash still, which unlike many distilleries is fired by a live flame, a low wines still and a spirit still.  There are 3 distinct distillation processes:

  • Hazelburn: Triple distilled lowland style with no peat influence
  • Springbank: Two and a half times distilled, lightly peated
  • Longrow: Double distilled, heavily peated whisky
Springbank whisky school distillation
Hazelburn
Springbank whisky school distillation
Springbank
Springbank whisky school distillation
Longrow

Later in the morning we joined Kerry again, this time to learn more about Cask Regauging, the method used to calculate the number of litres in the cask and the alcoholic strength (ABV). There was also the opportunity for some first-hand sampling…

Springbank whisky school warehouse

Springbank whisky school warehouse

Springbank whisky school warehouse
More quality control

A visit to Glengyle Distillery, including a production Q&A, took place in the afternoon. The original distillery closed in the 1920’s and it was re-opened and started distilling again from 2004. The distillery only operates for a few weeks every year but there are plans to move production to full time capacity in a few years’ time…

Springbank Whisky School Glengyle Distillery Kilkerran

Springbank Whisky School Glengyle Distillery Kilkerran

Springbank Whisky School Glengyle Distillery Kilkerran

Day Four finished with the Blending Session hosted by Donald, where we had the choice of 6x different Springbank whiskies to create our very own Springbank Single Malt. Needless to say, this session was a blast and it took us over 2 hours of tasting, nosing, and some more tastings.

Springbank Whisky School blending

Springbank Whisky School blending
Donald in action

Springbank Whisky School blending

Springbank Whisky School blending
The Andre de Almeida Springbank One of One Special Bottling

Day 5 – Examination and Graduation

The final day involved a written examination, which was also a great way to recap a lot of the learnings from the past week. I am glad to report that the whole class passed the exam with flying colours and we celebrated with a graduation lunch in The Washback Bar, where we were joined by our Headmaster Gavin. We were promptly presented with a Diploma from Springbank Whisky School and our personalised Springbank bottlings.

This was a memorable week for all six of us, who arrived as strangers and left Campbeltown as friends with a shared passion for Springbank and an even greater appreciation for all of the work put into each whisky bottle released – it will no doubt taste even better with the memories from Springbank Whisky School.

We were welcomed at the start of the week as members of the Springbank Family and we leave Campbeltown longing to be back again with all of the staff that shared their time and passion with us to make it a memorable week. I wish I could recall all of the names of the staff that we met during our time at Springbank Whisky School to list them on this blog post (Jakub did his best to take note of their names) but my sincere thank you to all of you!

Springbank Whisky School
Graduation time
Springbank Whisky School
Our Class bottlings from the Blending Session
Springbank Whisky School
Glad to leave these behind in Campbeltown….if you are attending the whisky school in future, be warned!
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