After the festivities of the Spirit of Speyside whisky festival, we had decided to take a trip north to the Orkney islands and stay only three nights and two full days knowing we would be missing out on many things as soon as we arrived on the main island. Pre-planned however, were the visits to the only two distilleries on the island. Sleeping underneath the smoke of “the other distillery”, we started our first morning with a visit to the Scapa distillery, who only have opened their doors for visitors mid-2015.
Opening the hotel curtains to an overcast and rainy Kirkwall, we grabbed our notebooks and cameras and headed down the hill to the village of Scapa, where the distillery is well signed and visible from the main road, situated on the shores of Scapa Flow. A body of water in the midst of the Orcadian archipelago, translated from the old Norse Skalpaflói, “bay of the long isthmus” – a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land. Throughout the ages it was a popular area for ships to dock, and especially during wartimes it was a seclusive and strategic point making many shipwrecks that can still be found in the bay.
The distillery has borrowed its name from the bay and dates back to 1885, was closed several times in history, during wartime and after changes of regime, was severely damaged in a fire during the first world war in 1919, but was rescued just in time with the help of the Royal Navy, after which rebuilding was soon started.
In the 1950’s the distillery sold their malt mill to Highland Park when it was replaced with a different type. In the mid 1960’s, as with many distilleries at the time, they stopped using their floor maltings. During that same era a Lomond still was installed to increase the alcohol levels and flavours in the spirit, as the distillery was then mainly producing malts for the blending industry. At the end of the 1970’s, the Lomond still was stripped of her plates, and ever since the still is used as a ‘normal’ pot still.
In 1994 the distillery was mothballed, and in order not to fall into decay, crew from the ‘other’ distillery up the hill took care of the site during their own silent season, ran a couple of spirit-runs and took care of the equipment where necessary. In 2004 refurbishments started, and in 2005 current owner Chivas Brothers, took over the ownership and the distillery was made operational once again.
Next to the distillery rus the Lingro burn that is used for cooling, after which the water is returned to the burn, running into the bay shortly after. In the burn you can still see the old waterwheel, that was previously used to provide the distillery with electricity. Process water is taken from the Orquil Springs not far from the distillery and is mixed with the unpeated Odyssey barley that is milled in the ‘new’ 1950’s mill to a ratio of 10/60/30 flour/grits/husks, where most other distilleries aim for a 10/70/20 ratio.
In 17 minutes, 16 times per week, the 2.9 tonne stainless steel, copper topped semi-lauter mashtun is filled, and five hours later a clear wort is pumped into one of the eight stainless steel 13.500 liter washbacks. Here the distillery used to have one of the longest fermentation times in the industry of 120-160 hours, but since they have become a 24/7 operation, they maintain a – still lengthy average fermentation time of 80 hours, using 13kg of dried Anchor distillers yeast.
One full washback is fed into the de-plated ex-Lomond wash still which has a huge purifier installed – odd to see on a wash still. The spirit still produces 1.700 litres of an average of 72% in each middle cut, resulting in one million liter of spirit per year. Most of this production is casked into first fill ex-Bourbon, specifically Jim Beam and Jack Daniels casks, and are stored and aged in one of the three on-site racked warehouses, or are matured in the central belt with many of the Pernod Ricard spirits.
|photo credit: WhiskyLassie|
Sadly – although we had previously arranged so, we could not make any pictures in the distillery, which shows in the lack of ‘operational’ pictures or the spectacular view from the still house looking out over the Scapa Flow. Let’s not start a debate about health and safety rules here, because we were heartily received in the brand new visitor centre and guided through all the areas we liked to see. Back at the visitors reception area, we were treated to a tasting of a range of expressions, including the new make and an unreleased sample, which was very promising.
We had a good time at the distillery, and because we had the day ahead of us with the weather looking to get better, we decided to go to the ancient village of Skara Brea to get some lunch and some pictures of the environment. Lunch wasn’t particularly satisfying, and because busloads of people decided to get the same pictures as we wanted to make, we escaped to a windy Yesnaby and later on the day found the standing stones of Stenness and the nearby ring of Brodgar, of which you can find pictures on our Facebook page.
Orkney is beautiful, we are certainly coming back some day when, hopefully, the weather is a bit better and we have no more (less) compulsory feelings to go out and visit distilleries as we have now.
Thomas & Ansgar
Copyright notice: Photos by WhiskySpeller. Still house photo copyright by Johanne McInnes