It seems sacrilegious to go to Scotland and not drink whisky, but for many years that’s what I did. I enjoyed beer, wine, rum, vodka, and even developed a taste for gin when I discovered it wasn’t the gin I disliked so much as the too-bitter tonics.
It’s only recently I’ve realised that it wasn’t Scotch I disliked. It was certain Scotches, the heavily-peated smoky kind that had been my unfortunate introductions to the drink. That started to change with a visit to Bushmills in Northern Ireland and the realisation that I quite enjoyed Irish whiskey. Perhaps it was the way they spelled it.
And lately I found I loved English whisky too, or at least the one called The One, a blend of home nations’ whiskies made by the new Lakes Distillery in The Lake District. It was smooth, gentle, didn’t make my eyes water, had just a sneaky bit of smokey peaty taste and was dangerously more-ish. And last week I went to Orkney and discovered the Scapa Distillery.
In the last few years distilleries have discovered that they have terroir too, it’s not a concept exclusive to vineyards. Spirits like whisky, rum, gin and even vodka are shaped by the ingredients that go in them, the people who make them and the landscape they emerge from. You would expect whisky from Orkney to be different, just as Orkney itself is.
The Orkney Islands belong to Scotland though they were Viking territory until the Danish king, Christian I, gave them away as a dowry in 1469 when his daughter, Margaret of Denmark, married King James III of Scotland. Christian threw in the Shetland Islands too for good measure.
Orcadians are contrary. ‘I see myself as British first and Scottish second,’ one woman told me. When they talk of the mainland here they’re referring not to the Scottish mainland but to their own main island, Orkney. They had no truck with Scottish independence, with 67% of them voting against the idea, the highest ‘No’ vote anywhere. They share a Westminster MP with Shetland, and since 1950 they have voted Liberal, later the Lib-Dems, a remarkable run of 65 years.
Also remarkable is the fact that they have the second-largest natural harbour in the world. Scapa Flow is second only to Sydney Harbour in size, and was the base for the British navy during the First and the Second World Wars. It was the scene for carnage in both.
Witness to that carnage was the Scapa Distillery, built right on the banks of Scapa Flow in 1885. Now, 130 years later, it has opened its doors to the public for the first time, with a brand new Visitor Centre. Tours don’t take long as the distillery is small, though it does have one notable feature for whisky-geeks. It has a rare barrel-shaped Lomond wash still, a unique still which allows a distiller to produce three different whiskies at the same time if he wishes.
At Scapa, though, they focus on just one whisky at a time. Since 2009 that has been the Scapa 16 Year Old, and as I taste it while gazing out of the distillery down the green grassy slope to Scapa Flow, drinking in the history and landscape as well as the single malt, my whisky education continues. I love the 16 Year Old, love its silky smoothness, love the fact that the peaty taste is not overpowering. Although the Lingro Burn from which Scapa takes its fresh water is in peaty land, the water is taken out in pipes to reduce the contact with the peat, and the whiskey’s malt isn’t dried over peat smoke like so many are.
Then I learn I’d better not get to like the 16 Year Old too much, as it’s being phased out. This isn’t due to lack of success but the simple fact that an interruption in production from 1994-2004 when the distillery was moth-balled means supplies of the 16 Year Old are drying up. I take another swig and consider stockpiling some.
The good news is that it’s been replaced by a new single malt, Scapa Skiren. Skiren is an Old Norse word for ‘glittering bright skies’, and the sky was certainly glittering bright and blue on the day I visited. I’m offered a taste of the Skiren at the end of the distillery tour, and my love affair with Scotch continues.
Skiren is more complex than the straightforward 16 Year Old. There’s a hint of honeyed sweetness, which is hardly surprising given the Orkney landscape, where farming is still the biggest industry. It’s a land of rolling hills and grazing cattle, of sheep that eat seaweed, of seabirds and seals, and flowers like the rare Scottish Primrose. The Skiren smells floral, and citrusy too, and another visitor says it tastes like a whisky for people who think they don’t like whisky. I agree, and ask for another glass.
Scapa Distillery Tours
All photos by John Paul, courtesy of Chivas Brothers.