Local Barley. The Making of...
Updated: Feb 25
What is so special about Local Barley?
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Springbank Distillery in Campbeltown is a producing museum of the art of distilling. Maltsters, brewers and distillers work according to traditional methods. They malt the barley themselves on two malting floors. The malt mill and the lauter tun are driven by transmission systems. Computers only work in administration.
At Springbank it's still "...all hands on."
The new single malt brand Local Barley has caused a worldwide sensation in recent years.
The editions are in great demand among nerds. They fetch top prices at auctions.
Where does the barley come from?
The barley for a Springbank, Hazelburn, Longrow or Kilkerran malt now comes largely from farmers in the Aberdeen region. Former manager Stuart Robertson (2006-2011) recalls:
“The barley we…used was mostly Optic. The wholesaler Cefetra delivered them.
We also used locally grown Bere, Westminster and Belgravia, all sourced from farms around Campbeltown and Southend.
Frank (McHardy) re-established the Local Barley whiskey guy:
"I carried on the tradition."
According to former Manager John McDougall, this whisky Local Barley label was invented by former Marketing Director Gordon Wright. Local barley was sometimes malted under the guidance of manager Roy Allen, who served in various capacities at Springbank for forty years until 1986. Back then, stokers fired the three stills with coal from nearby Trodigal mine near Machrihanish.
One Version of a Local Barley Vintage of 1965 . Photos Courtesy of Harry Lee Whisky.
One of the 'first' Springbank with a Local Barley label was distilled in January 1965 and bottled in September 2001 at the natural alcohol concentration of 51.3% vol. The barley was previously grown in the fields of Southend's Machrimore Farm, the peat was cut in the Aros Moss at Rhoin - near the former RAF Airport - the coal came from the Trodigal mine at Machrihanish and the production water flowed in from Crosshill Loch to the lauter tun. Except for the casks, everything came from within eight miles, locally.
"Except for the aging cask, everything was from a radius of only eight miles, local."
A 32-year-old bottling at cask strength of 56.8% abv, distilled in February 1966 and bottled in April 1998, the description reads on the back of the bottle:
The materials used in the manufacture of the Springbank Malt Whisky this bottle have almost all come from within a radius of eight miles of the Distillery: the barley from Macharioch, Machrimore and Lephenstrath farms, malted at the Distillery using peat for drying from the Aros Moss at the Rhoin...
Whereas on the front label of the 1966 version the following information was given without indicating prominently the use of local barley:
A Campbeltown Single Scotch Malt Whisky
Distilled in a Pot Still from Pure Barley Malt only
This Local Barley Vintage series with an archaic label was established in Springbank's history by the particular 1966 single casks 441/442/443/474/476/477/478/486/489/498/500/504. Today, these valuables, packed in wooden caskets, are among the most sought-after bottlings (1995/1997/1998). Collector prices are around and over £10,000.
The origin of the Local Barley was described in more detail in a 1967 brewing journal (source Royal Mile Whisky). The author stressed that most of the barley comes from Scotland, but each year the distillery would malt and distil a locally grown barley from Kyntyre. Of course, the peat, the coal, the production water would also come from local sources, so that a "..100 percent local whiskey..." would be produced:
"Over 10,000 gallons will be made and reserved for sale as a single malt when whisky has matured for twelve years."
At that time, the Springbank maltsters - Matties - processed the type of barley that was YMER. In the 1960s, the barley species, which originated in Scandinavia, was widespread in the U.K.
Other spring varieties, including the double-row MARIS BALDRIC, were also sown to get higher yields.
The current Local Barley releases are blockbusters.
The Matties malted the barley varieties Prisma, Propino, Laureate or Bere and others. The soft water for spring barley steeping is the same as for mashing. It flows into the distillery from Crosshill Loch, which was artificially created in 1868 south of Beinn Guilean in the middle of the city. The reservoir once supplied all of Campbeltown's distilleries with the same production water. Gavin Maclachlan, then Distillery Manager, is particularly proud of the Local Barley:
“Originally we were planning a series of five limited releases, now we're continuing them indefinitely.
Every year we change the barley variety, the cask aging cultures and the age of maturation of the whiskeys, as well as the bottling strengths."
As in the previous six years, the current barley comes from High Ranachan Farm in the hills of Campbeltown. The September 2020 harvest of the Bere variety will not be malted until 2021 after a rest period. Native to Scottish fields for centuries, this six-row barley is now grown on Orkney, Islay and Kintyre.
"In the 19th century, the 90-Day Barley was distilled in large quantities in the Campbeltown Distilleries. In the Scottish west coast climate with the long sunny days, this variety needs only three months from seed to harvest. Findlay Ross will plant Bere again next year (2022).
The other Westminster variety harvested this year is a two-row spring barley that resists Atlantic winds well with its strong culms. It also promises high yields to distillers because of its starch quality. It grows very well on simple soils. To dry the maltmen burn dark peat from Tomintoul and Peterhead. The yields per ton are between 360 and 370 liters of pure alcohol. The sixth Local Barley Limited Release 2020 from a Belgravia barley is a 10-year-old with a strength of 57.2% ABV, which is characterized by 100% Seasoned Oloroso Sherry Casks."
Director of Sales for Springbank and Kilkerran, David Allan, is poetically delighted:
„Our Local Barley Ten is the most iconic Springbank. Cask strength, no alcohol burn on the nose, sweetness. It is a heaven in the glass with orange peel and mineral gentle notes.“
Where did barley come from in the past?
The Kintyre Peninsula is fertile. The barley grows splendidly on flat fields. However, the main Scottish growing areas are in the regions of East Lothian, Berwickshire, Perthshire, North East, Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire, Angus, Argyll, Aberdeenshire and Inverness.
The barley processed by the industrial maltings does not have to come exclusively from Scottish growing areas. It may also originate from England or mainland Europe, including Ukraine or Kazakhstan. Historical sources show that this was also the case in Campbeltown.
In the 18th century, small farmers mainly cultivated "..oats, barley, bere, wheat, turnips, potatoes, hay and kale". It was mostly manual labor. Harvesting grain with a scythe was labour intensive. The few ox, donkey and horse carts were shared among the community and borrowed for the transport of barley, oats and wheat. Tractors only came into frequent use after the Second World War. After the land reform of 1730-40, the lease to the feudal tacksman was mainly paid in by produce.
The first distilleries mainly processed local barley on their own malting floors.
With the distillery boom in the 19th century, the demand for distilling barley increased rapidly. The supply of the Campbeltown Distilleries by local farmers was not sufficient. However, the natural deep sea harbor of Campbeltown Loch allowed large quantities to be imported by ship from mainland Scotland, England and/or Ireland, but also from mainland Europe.
Local historian Angus Martin writes in Glen Scotia Distillery: A History (May 2019, available from the Distillery Visitor Centre) also about barley deliveries. The weekly Argyllshire Herald (1855-1918) reported as follows.
In January 1866, 300 tons of French barley arrived from Saint Malo in Brittany.
In 1874 autumn storms raged. A French vessel landing barley for Scotia Distillery at Old Quay and taking on coal from Ardrosan ran aground on Ireland's County Down coast.
French barley was cheap and valued for its quality. In 1875 three shipments for Scotia Distillery, around 500 tons, came to Dalintober.
193 tons of barley from Denmark came to Kyntyre in 1879, the load was shared by Springbank and Scotia.
The largest shipment reached Campbeltown Bay in October 1898 with the Lagonda. For a week, the dockers lightened 3,000 tons of barley. It was harvested in Moldova, Romania and "...said to be of better quality than a year earlier...". The barley went to several distilleries.
A total of 1,172,380 gallons (5.32 million liters) of whiskey were shipped from the Port of Campbeltown that same year. The amount was similar in previous years.
John McDougall was the manager who reintroduced floor malting at Springbank by renovating the rundown and disused malting floors. Since then Springbank's malt requirements have been produced in its own premises.
John McDougall was one of the dynamic managers who revived the cultivation of Local Barley. In 1991 he renovated the malt floors, which had not been used since the mid 1960's, and put them back into operation. Springbank malt supplies were again partially self-produced under his regime.
Springbank had become a victim of the Scottish whiskey sales crisis and closed its production.
In December 1979 the last two-and-a-half-times distilled oily, fruity new make flowed through the safe with a smooth smoky tone and an average alcohol concentration of 71 to 70% abv. Distillation was then "...sporadic..." and partly dormant until 1987. Distilling was McDougall began operations in November 1986, following in the footsteps of Roy Allan, who ran the business for forty years. Under difficult conditions, with the production facilities suffering from the closure, the team began after some repairs distillation in late 1987. "Regular production resumes at Springbank as demand for whisky begins to grow..." by 1989 (source Springbank Distillery). Until the reopening of Springbank's own malting floors the malt was supplied by industrial malsters.
John McDougall recalls:
"...we carried out a little distillation run in 1987...
I believe that this was the first whisky distilled in seven years."
Please note: Data circulating on the web and in articles appear to be only partially correct. Accordingly, Springbank would have been "...closed from 1979 to 1989." This information does not seem to be correct, because distillation was done until the end of December 1979 and then occasionally until 1986 as required.
McDougall writes in his biography Wort, Worms & Washbacks:
"The re-introduction of Springbank's Maltings helped to secure the future of the distillery's other malt."
In May 1996 John McDougall left Springbank Distillery to set up an independent bottling firm.
Field of Barley, Springbank Malting Floor, Germination.
What is Local Barley?
Actually, the Local Barley concept is not new, because before giving up their own malting floors in the 1960s, the distilleries often processed barley only grown in the region. Short transport routes and their importance for local agriculture were decisive factors of buying locally. With the growth and increasing sales of Scotch whisky, the production conditions changed to industrial malting. Only these maltster could meet the increasing demand for malt, because the Matties, with their limited floor malting areas, were not able to meet the steady growing demand. Today, the industrial distilleries use the general standard barley.
Regionally grown barley isn't just used by Springbank only
to produce their own whiskey spirit.
Bruichladdich created the Islay Barley. Jim McEwan got many Islay farmers back to planting barley exclusively for Bruichladdich.
The founder of Farm Distillery Kilchoman, Anthony Wills, implemented something similar. The fields of Rockside Farm spread out in front of the stillhouse. The barley that grows there is distilled by the stillmen for their special 100% Islay bottlings. The malt is produced on their own malt floors by hand. It is not supplied by Diageo's Port Ellen Maltings.
Whisky creator of Glenmorangie, Dr Bill Lumsden, processed barley grown at the company owned Cadboll Estate (located a few miles from the distillery on the North Sea coast) into a single malt of the same name.
The Lowland Distillery Daftmill is also very special as farmer and distiller Francis Cuthbert produces a whisky from his barley harvested in disown fields.
Also worth mentioning are the new Lowland Distilleries Jackton and Lochlea, which process their barley grown on their estates into whisky. Located on the North Sea coast south of Montrose, the new Arbikie Distillery, producing with German stills, uses the barley grown in their fields to make their whisky.
In Ireland, for example, the distilleries Clonakilty, Tipperary and the classic Farm Distillery Ballykeefe operate in similar way distilling their own barley. Mark Reynier is driving innovative terroir methods with Waterford. And in Northern Ireland on the Ards Peninsula, the Braniff Family sows, harvests, malts, lauters, ferments and distils their own barley for their own future malt and pot still whiskeys on their Echlinville Estate.
Germany's largest whiskey distillery St.Kilian cooperates with a farmer who grows organic barley in the vicinity, which is exclusively processed by the Franconian maltster Weyermann. CTO Mario Rudolf and his team double distil the spring barley variety Laureate in a pair of swan neck pot stills which were manufactured by Forsyths in Scotland.
Germany's largest whisky distillery St Kilian has organic barley cultivated by Naturland farmer Andreas Henn in the neighboring town of Reichertshausen. After the harvest, the barley is malted in the Weyermann's maltings in Hassfurt in Lower Franconia and later processed in batches in Rüdenau in Upper Franconia. CTO Mario Rudolf and his team double-distill the barley in swan neck pot stills that were manufactured by Scottish coppersmiths at Forsyths.
Master Blender Mario Rudolf explains about Heimat Malz - "home malt" - :
"Twenty percent of the malt is kilned over beech wood smoke. The mild and smoky malt is then processed separately into spirit.
After many years of aging in casks, it will become obvious in which way the use of different types of malt from different regions will be reflected in our St Kilian Single Malt Whisky."
Springbank is not the only distillery
producing SINGLE MALTS with a locally sourced barley.
Local Barley Today
Farmers harvested Local Barley in September 2020, as they had for the previous six years, at High Ranachan Farm in the Campbeltown hills near Paul McCartney's farm cottage. The barley Bere is malted and processed, after a rest period this will not happen until 2021. This six-row barley has been native to Scottish fields for centuries and is now grown on Orkney, Islay and Kintyre.
In the 19th century it was malted and distilled in large quantities in the distilleries of Campbeltown, as it only needed three months from seed to harvest in the Scottish west coast climate and the long sunny days. The farmers sowed the 90-day barley late and harvested it early.
Findlay Ross wants to plant this old variety again next year. Another species is the two-row spring barley Westminster, which resists Atlantic winds well because of its strong stalks. It also promises distillers high yields and good starch quality. It also grows very well on simple soils.
“10,000 liters of pure alcohol are produced
from 26 tons of Local Barley.”
The distillation yield would thus be 385 liters per ton. A total of around 50 tons of Local Barley are processed annually (as of 2019). Director of Sales and Marketing David Allan poetically rejoices:
„Local Barley Ten is the most iconic Springbank. Cask strength, no alcohol burn on the nose, sweetness. It is a heaven in the glass with orange peel and mineral gentle notes.“
Regional Director of Sales and Marketing Ranald Watson, whose eponymous grandfather was the last HMRC Exciseman at Campbeltown and the first tour guide at Springbank, is proud of what has been achieved:
"Germany is our largest European market, our third largest overall, after Great Britain and the USA."
This and that about Local Barley
NB: "A few weeks ago, our 2021 crop of local barley was delivered to the distillery. With some expert driving from Dan, the young farmer at High Ranachan, each trailer load was manoeuvred in via the Glebe Street entrance. Once perfectly positioned, the trailer was raised and like a waterfall, the grain started to flow in.
A series of old conveyor belts and lifts carried all 22.5 tons of it directly up to the barley loft on the second floor of the malt barns where it is now being stored.
Variety Grown: Bere Barley Farm: High Ranachan, Campbeltown Quantity: 22.5 Tons," Springbank Distillery, October 1st, 2021
NB: "Although our barley is predominantly sourced from the East of Scotland, once per year at Springbank there will be maltings of barley sourced locally from farms around Kintyre, which will go on to create a future release of the Springbank Local Barley range.
This year we have a bere barley crop which has recently been sown at High Ranachan Farm, located around 2 miles outside of Campbeltown. When harvested, this barley will be transported to Springbank to distil in 2023.
High Ranachan Farm also supplied our local barley this year, which has already been malted and is now awaiting distillation."
Springbank Distillery May 13th, 2022
Sowing new Bere barley. Crop from 2021. Edition of 2022. Photos Courtesy of Springbank Distillers.
The Springbank Local Barley Series NEW
Courtesy of Springbank Distillers
Barley Variety Sassy 2022
"This barley was harvested over a weekend at the end of August and was dressed by the farmer prior to delivery, giving us around 15 tonnes of barley to work with when malting of this begins in April. As local barley has a different character to the distilling variety barley we commonly use, Sassy, the malting process is altered to accommodate this.
All Hands on. Malting floor. Germination starts. Photos Courtesy of Springbank Distillers
The total steeping time for local barley is around 56 hours, significantly longer than the standard 38 hours at Springbank, as more time is given between steeps to drain the barley and replenish oxygen levels. Local barley is much more water sensitive, so the steeping regime is adjusted to allow it to germinate effectively.
Smaller grains are produced by the 6 row local barley, compared to our standard 2 row variety, resulting in the milling process taking a bit longer than usual too. The 'coup' in the mill is adjusted to weigh the barley in 30kg rather than the standard 40kg batches."
Source: Springbank Distillers, Facebook February 2023
Local Barley Edition 2023
The 2023 release of Springbank's Local Barley was made exclusively from Belgravia barley grown at Glencraigs farm north of Campbeltown, 2,5 miles along the A83 just behind Kilmichael (see https://www.glencraigsfarm.co.uk ). The farm is only a five Minutes drive from the Distillery.
The single malt was distilled in May 2011 and bottled in December 2022. Limited to 15,000 bottles only.
This lightly peated spirit was matured in a vatting of ex-Sherry (55%), ex-Bourbon (35%) and ex-Rum (10%) casks for a minimum of eleven years before bottling at 55.1% abv.
Local Barley Edition 2023
Official Tasting Notes
"Nose – Characteristically fruity from the outset, there are notes of papaya, mango and lemon on the nose, along with a subtle floral note.
Palate – The citrus element continues on the palate, combined with notes of manuka honey and pear drops. A salty, mineral note develops.
Finish – Soft peat smoke comes through in the finish to round off this dram."
Years ago only five different Local Barley Editions were planned. The Springbank management continued the successful series with the eighth? edition in December 2023...and retail prices have gone up since then.
Rumors have it, that at the end of 2023 there will be another bottling in the sherry series available, probably a ten-year-old bottling. However, the future Local Barley Edition of 15,000 bottles will only be available in a few specialist shops. The proposed Local Barley variant, which was aromatically influenced by Palo Cortado barrels, will certainly please only a few fans.
The hype will continue, for sure.
Ruben Luyten, author and editor of whiskyNotes.be wrote some critical remarks about the 10 year old Spring Edition 2022 (51,6% abv):
"A good 10 year old Springbank, definitely, even though I found the nose a little disappointing.
The release price was £ 90. Since the whisky is decent but not really exceptional, I think it’s well worth the original price, but not the secondary market excesses.
Unfortunately even retailers are practicing secondary market tactics these days…"
Members of the Facebook group ITS ALL ABOUT SPRINGBANK are increasingly criticizing the current national and international sales policy of Springbank's management. Accordingly, allegedly long-standing local dealers would be no longer supplied with goods, the same would affect the members of the Springbank Society.
Most of them are disappointed as they have not been able to get a bottle from their local dealer.
Some enthusiasts criticize also the pushed retail prizes by some traders.
However, the management of Springbank has severe difficulties in coping with the situation. The increase of production from 9,000 to 15,000 bottles per batch will not satisfy and ease the worldwide demand.
Not only the Local Barley hype, but also the sharp increase in interest in the various Springbank, Longrow, Hazelburn and Kilkerran releases have been a result of the increasing international Springbank's presence at whisky fairs and advertising in the web media.
Press, bloggers, magazines and auctions have been increasing the demand for the small production volume of Scotland's oldest family-run distillery: In 2022, 220,000 litres of pure alcohol were divided between 30,000 for the peaty Longrow variant and the triple-distilled Hazelburn Single Malt. In Glengyle, where Kilkerran Malt is distilled, it was just 100,000 litres in 2022, around 15% of which was heavily peated spirit.
Comparing the 2.9 million LPA of the other Scottish family run Glenfarclas distillery in 2022 the outcome of Springbank reached only the mark of 10%.
The relatively small production facility in Campbeltown cannot supply the huge world market with its limited old style whiskies.
At the moment there are no rumors or plans to expand the production capacity of the Springbank distillery company, which is managed in a legal form as a Charitable Trust and which, by the way, cannot be sold.
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About the author
Ernie - Ernst J. Scheiner is the editor of the portal The Gateway to Distilleries www.whisky-distilleries.net
He documents over 150 distilleries photographically from the inside and describes the production of the whiskies in detail. Since his studies at the University of
Edinburgh, he has been involved with the subject of whisky and has published in specialist magazines such as The Ireland Journal, Kleinbrennerei, Whisky Passion and The Highland Herold. Features and stories have appeared in blogs like whiskyexperts, whiskyfanbl, SHMKR (closed) and whiskyintelligence. As head of the VHS Ingelheim, and now as a whisk(e)y ambassador, he teaches distilling, organizes study tours and tours to the sources of whisky.