Historic single malt distilleries Glencadam and Springbank make an old spirit new again

These longstanding brands have produced some of the best scotch in the world.

In recent year, Glencadam has established itself as a celebrated single malt staple (Photo: Glencadam)

Scotland has all the hallmarks people instinctively associate with an idea of Eden: rolling hills, rugged cliffs and shimmering blue-grey ridges. Although misty moorlands, fairytale castles and make-believe atlas of islands have long electrified the imaginations of artists, adventurers, writers and historians, travellers to this land of the kilts usually scope out the country for a spirited odyssey. The formula is fairly straightforward — combine the four elements of earth, air, water and fire, and you will get the fifth: whisky.


Glencadam's distillery in Brechin (Photo: Glencadam)

Seven miles west of Montrose on the River South Esk in Angus is Brechin, a small royal burgh (town) known for its Pictish heritage, medieval cathedrals and a heritage steam railway that still runs through the town during the weekends, summer months and on special occasions. This rest stop for Highland walkers, located within an hour’s drive of Dundee and Aberdeen, is also home to Glencadam distillery, built in the Era of Optimism. After passing through a number of hands, and being mothballed in 2000, the company — which roughly translates as “glen of the wild goose” — was purchased by Angus Dundee Distillers in 2003. The independent Scottish operator released the first range of Glencadam Single Malt Scotch Whisky starting with a 15 Year Old in December 2005.

Until the 1990s, anyone could saunter into the grounds of Glencadam Distillery because a right of way, where people from Aberdeenshire would drive their cattle and sheep to a market in Berchin, ran through the grounds. One can be surprised in the middle of the night by a wandering local seeking a dram after the pubs downtown had shut. The scene changed dramatically during the day. When stills were discharged in the frigid cold, steam belched from the vent that emitted an intense smell. School-going children who passed by would be told this was the devil breathing, and to flee far away, lest he snatches them.


Glencadam's master blender Iain Forteath (Photo: Glencadam)

Despite nearing two centuries of existence, the brand has slowly shed its persona as an option solely for blending, establishing itself as a celebrated single malt staple instead. Conventional wisdom contends that the painstaking rigours of the distillation process elicit whatever nuances a grain might carry with it. This is true, but more crucially is the feature of the lye pipes that make up the stills. The ones at Glencadam skew at an angle of 15 degrees rather than downwards, encouraging greater reflux that yields a lighter, delicate and mellow spirit. Malted barley drinks from the springs at The Moorans, some 8.7 miles away, which flow through the Unthank Hill on its way to the distillery. 

The proverbial wee dram is a romance in heather and smoke, the latter usually found in the flavour and aroma of the final product. Casks, be they bourbon, sherry or oak, are small miracles that can hold liquids almost indefinitely, maturing spirits into say, the award-winning Glencadam 10 Year Old redolent of tangy tropical fruits, perfect for revising a whisky sour; a full-bodied 25 Year Old evocative of toasted hazelnut and Danish pastry speckled with peppery spices; or the Reserva Andalucia, a liquid gold with toffee apple sweetness finished in Oloroso Sherry butts specially sourced from Spain. Rare and old expressions, such as Glencadam Single Cask, have become highly prized as collectors’ items.


Breaking the glass ceiling

In Scotland, you can buy a small private island for £50,000, which is cheaper than the price of some parking spaces in central London. In 2013, however, a Chinese collector paid a similar amount for a 750ml bottle of Springbank 1919, 50 Year Old, a whisky that had borne witness to the World War, the birth of TV and the internet, and the arrival of a new millennium. Serious sippers now have something even more elusive to chase — there are only 24 bottles of this legendary bottling of Springbank.


A 10-year-old Springbank, matured in bourbon casks as well as sherry casks (Photo: Springbank)

Heritage brands, like whisky, improve with age — and none more so than brands that make whisky. The 1910s, bookended by the end of World War I and the start of the Depression, do not sound like an auspicious era but to collectors of rare spirits, it marked a revolution in the bustling village of Campbeltown. It was the same time Springbank, founded by Archibald Mitchell in 1828, created one of the world’s most coveted whiskies.

Once an infamous hub for bootleg offerings, thanks to its local lochs (lakes) that made it the ideal spot for smuggling activities, Campbeltown — endowed with good coal, plentiful barley and pure water — became the “Whisky Capital of the World” within a few decades. Rumour has it that all 1,969 residents were the richest of any village in Britain. But war, recession and American prohibition roiled the beginning of the 20th century, and distilleries slowly fell from favour. A number of Springbank’s competitors in the area dwindled from more than 30 to just a measly one. Today, it is one of only three distilleries operating in Campbeltown, and the oldest independent family-owned distillery in Scotland.

But here is the sobering truth: Shelves are slowly losing their premium spirits. The widespread absence of Springbank whisky from the market is not deliberately manufactured. Supply is limited by the fact that the distillery malts its own barley using traditional floor malting methods, and can only produce a certain amount at any one time. However, the reward, coddled with a bit of patience, is well worth the wait. In the 10 Year Old, for example, a whiff of gentle Kintyre coastal breeze with damp peat is a prelude to the robust note that ensues — a bouquet of spice, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon on the palate, rounded off by a sweet salted caramel finish that gently dissipates, allowing enough time to refill your glass.


Offered with certificate of authenticity, this extremely rare 50 year old whisky once held the Guinness World Record for the most expensive whisky in the world (Photo: Christies)

Whisky, long deemed a prime “aspirational” liquor determined by a sophisticated matrix of tastes and maturation dates, is shaped by a hierarchy that communicates status. Does Springbank, having fetched a large sum under the hammer, consider itself a purveyor of luxury commodities? “It is true that the brand has gained collectible status over the past 10 years due to shortages in the market, but we are always very conscious and careful with our pricing even when demand went up. We still want our bottles to be reasonably accessible, and that is our positioning. A small production means our products are more sought-after but we always assure the quality is there,” explained sales and marketing executive Fiona McFadynen, who was in Malaysia for a tasting session we attended recently.

With new names and noteworthy choices on the horizon, one would be hard-pressed not to be thrilled about what comes next. Glengyle, after lying dormant for 60 years and was revived by the owner of Springbank in 2004, produces the lightly peated, oily Kilkerran spirit with a malty character. As more eyes turn north, Springbank also thrust two more single malt whiskies under its belt into the limelight: Longrow, a heavily peated and creamy concoction similar to the pride of Islay; and Hazelburn, a triple distilled, elegant dram that teases your senses with manuka honeycomb, rich milk chocolate flavours, honey and zest.

For once, letting an expert lead you by the nose is not too bad a proposition after all.

Glencadam and Springbank single malt whiskies are available at specialist retailers and via singleandavailable.com.my.


This article first appeared on May 8, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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