I hold my nephew responsible for the enthusiasm I have for whisky.

That’s not a criticism, in fact I am hugely grateful to him. I have always enjoyed a dram but thanks to him, his blog, the samples he has given me and the havering we’ve done over a dram or two, my eyes and palate have been opened to a whole new world of aromas and flavours.

Last year we set off together on a trip to Northern Ireland in search of some decent Irish Whiskey (with limited success), and on the return we stopped off at Campbeltown, visiting the distilleries and warehouses – a great experience. The Arran Whisky Festival was held at the weekend and we had talked about sailing across to Lochranza to visit. The fact that we didn’t really get down to looking at tickets and events at the festival until the week before is probably an indication that there were other things in mind for the weekend. Campbeltown is regarded by many enthusiasts as the mecca of whisky production, with the much sought after wares of the Springbank Distillery at its heart. So, instead of heading for Arran, it was across Inchmarnock Water and down Kilbrannan Sound to Campbeltown.

It’s just over 35 NM from Largs to Campeltown which would usually take about seven hours. Things started well and we had a great sail across to The Cock of Arran where things went downhill. It started raining, the tide turned against us (it’s not much fortunately) and the wind picked up – again, against us. By the time we reached the entrance to Campbeltown Loch, after a trip of nearly eight and a half hours, it was blowing 40 to 45 and gusting 52 knots.

The marina can get very busy as it’s the last (or first) town with facilities before rounding the Mull of Kintyre. On phoning the Harbour Master he told me it was indeed very busy and we would likely have to raft up. It’s amazing just how many boaters stick their heads out for a peek and then just as quickly duck back inside at the prospect of being asked by another boat owner if they can come alongside. Fortunately, we were lucky enough to raft up against the boat of an Irish family from Ballycastle. We were exemplary neighbours in that we didn’t leave our boat to return at two in the morning in a drunken state to trample all over their deck. Instead, we stayed on board, had our tea and drank whisky! The next day we gave them our “driver’s” sample bottles from our Kilkerran Distillery Tour as thanks.

The following day, Gordon had arranged a full day of whisky activities starting off with a trip to the Springbank Shop, a Kilkerran Distillery Tour, a visit to the Cadenhead’s Shop and culminating in the main event of a Whisky Blending Session at Cadenhead’s “Blending Lab”.

Such is the popularity of Springbank that there is always a queue outside the shop before it opens at 10am. This time was no different, indeed there was a couple sitting on deckchairs who had been there since 7am. We discovered later that this was their third visit to the shop in three days after travelling from England to Campbeltown in a campervan. We and the rest of the queue watched, open mouthed, as they tramped out of the shop with no less than six cases of whisky and other assorted bags. Springbank limits the number of their special “caged” range to one bottle per customer per week, and the bottle has your name written on it to discourage reselling. However, there is no limit on their core ranges (I think there should be) and you can have as much as you want.

There was absolutely no question that this pair were just out to make a hefty profit on the resale market. When we entered the shop, 10 minutes later, it was obvious they had rinsed the shelves of core Springbank 10, 12 and 15. There were two bottles of the 10 year old left and I took one, no 12 y/o or 15 y/o. I asked one of the staff how many had been on the shelves on opening and was told, eight of each. My bottle cost me £50 – the standard shop price – try finding it anywhere online for less than £90 and you can count yourself lucky! Threshers charge £145. On leaving, the camping chair pair seemed well chuffed at the fact that they had cleared the shelves of core Springbank on each day, indeed, they boasted about it being their third visit. It fair rips my knitting.

This brazen, selfish profiteering is infuriating but perhaps symptomatic of the times we live in where some just don’t give a care or a fuck about anyone else.

After having sandwiches in the Cadenhead’s Cafe, we took a walk to the shop to peruse their shelves. Gordon had spotted a bottle of “High Coast”  Swedish whisky in the window and this piqued my interest. Last year on a transit of the Crinan Canal with my brother-in-law, we got talking to a lovely couple Gunilla and Toyvo from Vätternvägen in Sweden. We were invited on to their beautiful boat “Kvasthilda” for a few drams from a sensational bottle of “Box” whisky. The Box distillery changed its name to High Coast in 2018. Gordon and I tasted a sample of it and I bought a bottle! We were a wee bit early but since we were the only ones on the Blending Session we were led through to the “Blending Lab”.

The “Blending Lab” really is like a science lab: brightly lit, crisp, clean, white work tops and cupboards covered with a variety of test tubes, pipettes, jars, measuring cylinders and bottles, all that was missing were the white lab-coats. Two stations had been set out with pens, notbooks, measuring syringes, beakers, eight Glencairn glasses, a stemmed whisky tasting glasses and eight 50ml unmarked test tubes of delicious uisge beatha at each station. On one of the shelves there were eight demijohns of whisky, again unmarked, with the same whisky as in our test tubes, seven cask strength single malts and one cask strength grain. These would be used to fill our final bottles. 

On advice from Naimh, who was on hand to help us, we poured about a third of each of the test tubes into the eight separate Glencairn glasses and in between leaving them to breath a bit, we nosed each and started to make notes. Foostie, malty, wet towel, sweet red fruits, Christmassy dried fruit, sherry, rubber, wet carboard, floral, sea salt, germoline, vanilla, toffee, caramel, biscuits and many other aromas and smells all made an appearance – an assault on the olfactory senses.

I then took the approach of tasting each in turn, making more notes, adding a touch of water and eliminating the ones I didn’t like as much. There was one (which turned out to be a 10 y/o Speyside matured in Sauternes casks) which to me smelled of drains on a hot day. I couldn’t get past this so it was discarded. Another, a NAS Islay, smelled overwhelmingly of Germoline! That one never made it either.

I spent some time going back and forth until I had eliminated four of them. You can, if you wish, add all eight to your creation (but not fill a whole bottle with just one), although I think that would become something of a fairly mixed up mishmash of an affair! I thought four would make a nice balance and next I had to decide on the quantities of each of my choices.

By now, the alcohol was begining to take effect and we could hear Naimh giggling in the background as we began to talk more and more shite.

At the end of the session you are told the age, the region the whisky comes from and the abv of your blend but not the distilleries. I had concocted a base of 300ml Speyside bourbon matured, 200 ml Lowland grain, and 100ml each of 16 y/o Highland matured in rum casks and 100ml Highland matured in Olorosso casks. I’m going to leave it for a couple of weeks to marry. 

One hundred pounds may sound a lot but you do get eight 50ml drams to taste and at the end of the session you have a 70cl bottle of your own creation blended from quality cask strength whiskies in a customised bottle and a fine stemmed whisky glass to take home along with a pen and notepad. I think it would be a tremendous thing to do with a few friends. I would thoroughly recommend it.

Sunday was the return passage and it turned out to be a pretty miserable affair. It rained from before we left until just before reaching Largs by which time I was soaked down to my underwear as foolishly I hadn’t dressed particularly well. Still, this weekend was less about the sailing and more about the persuit and discovery of fine whiskies and in that respect it was an overwhelmingly successful and immensely enjoyable trip.