Springbank Millennium Tasting - Sydney
By Franz Scheurer
I attended the first ever really serious (at least to my knowledge) whisky tasting in Australia last Saturday night; I was impressed by both the whiskies and collective industry knowledge assembled in one room. It was a manifestation of the fact that we are, at last, taking whisky seriously in Australia.
Springbank released its Millennium Series, one expression every six months, starting in 1998. A limited edition of 500 bottles worldwide, it immediately attracted the collectors and the Springbank aficionados, and those who collected all six and sent in the relevant paperwork, were also sent a set of miniatures of the same series. The remaining miniatures (about 150 sets) were eventually rebottled in 200ml bottles and offered as sets, packaged in beautiful timber boxes.
Springbank, one of the very few remaining distilleries in Campbelltown, is a family-owned company that does everything the traditional way (and they don’t use caramel). Visitors are discouraged; there are no guided tours, safety rails, and ‘wet floor’ signs. Only a bunch of dedicated, hard-working people, trying to keep up with the world’s demand but taking the time to ensure their product is right.
To put this tasting into perspective: to acquire this series now would cost between $ 13,000 and $15,000 (if you could get your hands on a set). The tasting was organised by Australia’s foremost whisky collector, Shane Kalloglian (a very generous man indeed), and 14 people had the chance to taste their way through the complete Millennium Series, the extremely rare Frank McHardy bottling and the three standard Springbank expressions (used as benchmarks). The cost charged wouldn’t even cover one bottle on today’s market!
The tasting was held in a bright, naturally lit room at Alchemy 731, with plenty of pure water on hand, on a very hot Sydney day with a struggling air-conditioning system. Shane asked us all to score out of 100.
Here are my tasting notes, in order of the tasting:
Springbank Single Malt 10 y/o
A spirity nose and a slight acidity certainly wake up your nose. A hint of blue cheese leads your palate to cinnamon, body odour and the typical Springbank smoke that is always so different from any other whisky smoke I know. This whisky changed more in the glass than most ever will, mind you, I rarely leave a glass for two hours. Tropical fruit and faint hints of fairy floss came to the fore with the extended exposure to air.
Springbank 100 Proof 10 y/o
Bottled at a considerably higher strength the immediate aroma of volatile alcohol, nail polish, with a touch of sulphur assaults your nose but eventually opens up into a nutty, complex taste with a remarkably slow sweetness. I suggest that the distillery may have taken a wider cut than normal, including more amyl alcohols and congenerics (impurities that flavour spirits and contribute significantly to hangovers).
Springbank Single Malt 15 y/o
Still quite hot for a 15 y/o it smells of freshly baked biscuits and shortbread. On the palate there is a bitter element I don’t like, akin to cucumber skin, and the finish is long with a hint of lanolin and wet sheep.
The above three are standard expressions and are easily available.
Springbank Frank McHardy bottling 25 y/o
First impression is a strong aroma of Japanese boiled lollies with a hint of crème brûlée. On the palate you are greeted by strong gentian flavours with a hint of liquorice. The whisky is mouth-filling, complex, alluring and satisfying with a long, slightly sweet finish.
Frank McHardy knows every corner and dusty alcove at Springbank. He’s informative, funny and a master speller (in-joke). This one-off release of 650 bottles (also known as the FFF release) was bottled to commemorate Frank’s 40 years in distilling and we sampled bottle number 225.
Millennium Series, Limited Edition, 25 y/o
Immediately gentian asserts itself on the nose with added vegetal notes. This is a whisky similar in style to whiskies made at the turn of the 19th / 20th Century and its old-fashioned flavour profile is captivating. On the palate you can detect marzipan and green tobacco leaf. Finish is long and dry.
Millennium Series, Limited Edition, 30 y/o
Roasted nuts with a hint of acetone form the aroma aided by a slight citrus lift. A dryness, typical of whisky aged in Oloroso sherry casks, is prevalent on the nose. On the palate it is almost Cognac like in its complexity with deep woody notes and the whisky displays definite Pedro Ximenex notes that impart a wonderful sweetness complementing the deep, mahogany colour. Seems to me that maybe we are tasting a whisky that was aged both in Oloroso and PX casks. This is easily one of the most seductive whiskies I have ever tasted!
Millennium Series, Limited Edition, 35 y/o
Slightly cloudy and a bit oily this whisky is quite closed and doesn’t easily give up its secrets. On the nose you’ll find grassiness, not unlike a ‘typical’ Speyside but biscuity aromas and a hint of salt underpin it. On the palate it is quite maritime with layer upon layer of complex flavours, starting with iodine and a little smoke, going to parsnips and finishing long and soft. The most complex whisky in the line up.
Millennium Series, Limited Edition, 40 y/o
Faint aromas of cat’s piss (NZ Sauvignon Blanc) and grassy, herbaceous notes don’t leave much of an impression. The taste reminds me faintly of 10 y/o Springbank expressions from 20 years ago, but the whole whisky is flattened, short and dusty. I suspect TCA (cork taint) has affected this bottle of whisky.
Millennium Series, Limited Edition, 45 y/o
Molasses, treacle and maple syrup dominate the immediate aromas with a hint of porridge. This whisky might have passed its best years but, although clearly affected by age, it is incredibly even. Superbly crafted there is nothing here that could ever offend anyone. Hints of austere herbaceousnes are complemented by integrated oak and a mellowing that only age can achieve. A remarkable, cerebral experience.
Millennium Series, Limited Edition, 50 y/o
The lightest whisky in the series hints at a maturation in 3rd or 4th fill casks. The nose, still quite spirity, promises burnt rubber and wet dough. On the palate it reveals the flavours of Chinese masterstock mingling with the whole content of an apothecary, but never medicinal or peaty. The finish is quite short but for a 50 y/o whisky this is amazingly together.
We took a good 2 hours to finish this tasting and the consensus around the room nominated the 30 y/o as the best whisky, with the 35 y/o a close second. We then had a fabulous dinner prepared by the talented and patient staff at Alchemy 731 and as a surprise, Shane brought out another 3 whiskies.
Glenmorangie 30 y/o
Distilled in 1974, bottled in 2004
This bottle is very different to the commercially available 30 y/o (the oldest commercial offering by Glenmorangie). A gift from Dr. Bill Lumsden to Shane, it contained (it’s all gone now) some of the reference stock from the distillery. Bottled at 43.3% (with no added caramel) this is indeed a rare treat. Quite volatile on the nose it displayed marmalade and candied grapefruit. The marmalade confirmed on the palate and the grapefruit slowly turning into more general citrus with burnt, brown sugar. It was long, complex and caressed every nook and cranny. Exceptional!
Macallan Gran Reserva 18 y/o
Distilled late 1980 and bottled early in 1999
Why didn’t I buy at least a case of this when it was affordable?
I know that despite all the knowledge we are still sucked in by a dense, dark colour but this whisky goes way beyond that. Soapy at first it becomes sweet with strong and obvious Sherry notes. Almond confectionary dominates the palate on a bed of alcohol-soaked currents. This is what I call a ‘real’ Macallan!
And finally, the ‘piece de resistance’:
Very Old Ardbeg
An Allied bottling, pre-1993, with whiskies mainly from the 50s and 60s.
Very dark for an Ardbeg it has obviously fraternised with a sherry cask for quite some time. On the nose it is maritime with all the scents of a working harbour. On the palate it is full-on Islay, heavily peated but complex, rich and challenging. Diesel oil, vegetal flavours and hot boat engines come to mind and there is an unmistakable taste of salt-coated fish. Finish is impossibly long and persistent and despite its challenging nature it is a very moreish whisky. This is an amazing experience. I must admit I am an ‘Ardbeg Junkie’ from way back but I do think that I tried to be as impartial as possible when I scored this whisky. Bring it on, Shane, anytime, anywhere!
This was one hell of a tasting!
Enjoyable? You bet!
Exceptional? Unbelievably so!
Value for money? Ridiculous!
AND there is already talk of doing two of these tastings a year. There are so many brilliant whiskies that would be worth assessing in depth…
Keep your ears to the ground!
Thanks Shane and thanks to the staff at Alchemy 731