...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Springbank Gone Wild: Longrow 14 year old 2003 and some sulfur talk

It's a week of Saucy Springbanks. So if you worship every whisky the fabled Campbeltown distiller drops then avert your eyes. Or tune in, actually. Never fear, this will be the only long post of the week.

I first tried this sherry cask batch of Longrow when my friend, Matt, brought it to my birthday fête last year. I enjoyed it immensely. It took a few months, but I was able to hunt down a bottle. Then I made the mistake of reading internet comments about the whisky.

People complained about its unbearable sulfur levels. Then I saw lots of complaints about bounteous other sulfurous Springbanks. Much of the vitriolic vehemence became unintentionally funny. So once again, bye bye Internet.

I'm quite sulfur-sensitive, but I don't mind a little bit of sulfur in a whisky as long as it provides another facet of complexity, rather than standing out stupidly. Also, I recognize there are different shades of sulfur characteristics — a specific pepperiness, beefiness, struck matches, cap guns, rotten eggs — with some notes less pleasant than others, some notes coming from the spirit and some notes from casks. To me, this Longrow had just a teeny bit of cap gun which brought extra depth to the nose.

Matt and I began to wonder if "sulfur" was becoming the "rancio" of Scotch, with people shouting "Sulfur!" without actually knowing what sulfur smells or tastes like (thank you, Jim Murray). It made them sound Smart and Properly Snooty, while all they were really smelling were the results of sherry meeting peat.

So I was feeling all Smart and Properly Snooty myself until MAO reviewed this whisky and said, essentially, "Ew. Too much sulfur." That threw me for a loop. I respect MAO's actual experience with sulfurous smells and flavors. And our palates agree in 4 out of 5 instances, which is why you read his blog instead of mine to save time.

But the man forced my hand! And now I have to review the whisky, with the guarantee that I'm going to piss someone off. Good luck to me.

Distillery: Springbank
Brand: Longrow
Region: Campbeltown
Age: 14 years (September 2003 - July 2018)
Maturation: refill oloroso sherry
Outturn: 9,000 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 57.8%
Chillfiltered? No
Color added? No
(Thanks to Matt W for the sample!)

There's dark chocolate, cherry syrup and raspberry jam in the nose. There's also a bit of leather, mesquite BBQ beef and young Ledaig-ish tennis ball peat. The palate is almost all sherry cask. Volley after volley of dried stone fruits and dried berries. Jelly rings. Fresh ginger and lemon juice. A moderate layer of sulfur sits in the background. Not much peat. Ah but there's a little more sulfur in the finish, but it's also very sweet and tangy. Lots of those jelly rings. I'm having a difficult time finding the Longrow in here.

With a tiny bit of water...

DILUTED TO ~50%abv, or < 1 tsp of water per 30mL whisky
Oh wow, the nose almost all cap gun. Small notes of dark chocolate, orange oil, cherry syrup and tennis ball peat. The palate has been toned down, but it's still very sweet with lots of sugary sherry. More pepper too. Some furry sulfur. The finish is getting ugly. Sulfur, pepper, sugar, berries, dry cheese and woody bitterness.

More water?

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or 1½ tsp of water per 30mL whisky
Dark chocolate, prunes, dried cherries and mild peat in the nose. But almost no sulfur. The palate is much more approachable. Less sulfur, less sugar. More limes, minerals and peat. "Cleaner" sherry. Tangy limes, salt, dry sherry and a hint of peat in the finish.

I see how this can be a problematic whisky and I'll try to summarize it here.

Sulfur - Yes, sulfur is present. To my senses, it's a low to moderate level when the whisky is neat. But those levels became alarming when the whisky is reduced to 50%abv. Diluting the whisky further seems to clear up the issue almost completely.

Longrow? - The "refill" sherry casks are so aggressive that (to repeat the tasting note above) it's difficult to find the actual Longrow part of the whisky when the drink is neat. It could be one of dozens of other single malts, which isn't a tragedy unless one buys a bottle hoping to drink some Longrow. Diluting it down to 46%abv greatly improves matters again as the spirit character peeks out from behind the crimson curtain.

So are the cries of "Sulfur!" nuts? No. Are they naive? Probably not. Though one cannot discount confirmation bias and the unconscious influence of other people's notes. Heck, I might have found more sulfur this time because I was looking for sulfur.

Is this the worst Longrow I've had? Nope. Was the retired regular 14yo Longrow better? Yep. Was the 14yo Burgundy cask Longrow better? Yes (please don't throw things). Do I regret buying a bottle? No(t yet). Am I going to stop these questions? Yes.

The transformation this whisky undergoes during dilution fascinates me. Once I open my bottle, I will explore it further. If anything interesting arises, I will report back.

Availability - A few dozen retailers in Europe and US
Pricing - Europe: $85-$115 (ex-VAT); US: $120-$160
Rating - 83 (with plenty of water, only)