ARBERT, Scotland — More whiskey was the last thing either of us wanted that evening, but it would have been unconscionable to refuse our host David Evamy's toast. His restaurant, called The Anchorage, had been named Scotland's finest by prestigious Decanter magazine the week before--extraordinary for a 25-seat eatery in Tarbert, a postcard-size fishing village in southwest Scotland's Kintyre Peninsula. With dinner now over, Evamy had dispensed with his duties as maitre d' and joined us at the table bearing three glasses and an unfamiliar bottle whose label read, "Springbank 21-year-old single malt whisky." Evamy poured three hefty measures and raised his glass.
Spare us. My traveling companion Cynthia and I had just stepped wobbly-legged off the ferry from Islay ("A wee bit rough today," conceded a crew member, himself a little green around the epaulets), the island intended to be the last stop on our blurry pilgrimage through Scotland's lowland, highland and island whiskey country. We had seen it all, done and drunk it all. Or so we thought.
"Cheers," said Evamy. Cynthia and I glanced at each other, and reluctantly did the same. Hmmmm.
The next morning, we were hurtling 40 miles southward toward the Springbank distillery in Campbeltown, source of the finest whiskey we had ever tasted. According to Evamy, Springbank is Scotland's oldest family-owned distillery and one of just two of that country's distillers not in corporate clutches (Glenlivet is the other). More significantly, Springbank makes the only whiskey ever voted "best aged spirit" three years in a row by Britain's authoritative Decanter.
But on this fall 1992 day, as we passed alternately through hailstorms and blinding sunshine, flanked on one side by crashing surf and on the other by lush hillside punctuated by ancient stone farmhouses and grazing cattle and sheep, we couldn't help posing the question: How come we had never heard of the stuff? The answer awaited us in Campbeltown.
Single malts such as Springbank are the product of just one distillery, and have only recently come into their own. Until the 1960s, almost all single malts went to bottlers of "blends." Blended whiskeys such as Chivas Regal and Cutty Sark are mixes of up to 50 whiskey varieties. Scots have always drunk single malts, but it's only in the last decade that they have made them widely available overseas; sales of single malts tripled in the '80s, and names like Glenlivet and Glenfiddich are now well known to American drinkers. Unlike the smooth, consistent, but characterless blends whose market share has dwindled due to changing attitudes toward drinking, single malts are growing in popularity precisely because of their strong, idiosyncratic personalities.
The flavor and aroma of a single malt whiskey often reveal its place of origin. From the Lowlands come soft, gentle whiskeys such as Auchentoshan and Bladnoch (neither distillery open to the public). On Islay, the single malts tend to be powerful and pungent because the brine-soaked peat bogs from which the water comes imbue island whiskeys such as Laphroaig and Bunnahabhain with an earthy, aromatic character suffused with the influence of the sea.
By the time we set off for Campbeltown, we had sampled dozens of single malts, but none like the Springbank we had tasted the night before. With its balance of elegance and vigor, to us this was the quintessential Scottish single malt whiskey.
Our route to Campbeltown wended its way through villages whose names bespoke southwest Scotland's Celtic heritage--Bellachroy, Rhunahaorine, Auchinfaud. As we sped through their remote communities, villagers turned from what they were doing and waved unselfconsciously. Outside Auchinfaud stood a walled-in graveyard that seemed eerily peaceful despite the 10-foot waves that crashed deafeningly on the rocks just yards away.
We arrived in Campbeltown looking for Gordon Wright, a direct descendant of Springbank's founder and the person who ran the distillery. Evamy had given us his name, and told us to look for him this particular day at Springbank's retail outlet, Eaglesome Ltd., in the middle of town.
If Aladdin were in the whiskey trade, Eaglesome's is what his cave would look like. Oh sure, there were some gourmet food items here and there, but the poky little store's stock in trade is booze. Every single malt whiskey known to mankind appeared to be balanced precariously on its shelves. At least a dozen Springbank single malts were displayed, including a 15-year-old vintage that the family owners of the distillery allow to be sold only here.
Just moments after we arrived at Eaglesome's, the door swung open, and in trooped Gordon Wright and his family.