A visit to Scapa distillery
TL; DR: We were finally able to visit Orkney and its malt distilleries. First off, Scapa, home of quite a “mysterious” single malt, that we learned to appreciate during an in-depth distillery tour and a great tasting of mostly single cask expressions. Definitely a must-go for whisky fans visiting Orkney!
In summer 2021, we had carefully planned a trip to the North of Scotland, including a few days on Orkney, which we were very eager to visit. For various reasons (actually, one reason, guess which one!) we had to cancel it. The occasion to catch up presented itself this year thanks to a couple of friends from Parma, Roberto and Cecilia (and their wee one, Flora). They wanted to visit the Highlands since their first visit in 2019, but things happened in between. This year they finally made it, and halfway into their holiday we joined them in Inverness and continued together: direction, Orkney!
We travelled in a campervan, which was meant to be an adventure. It was indeed, although with way more midges than expected: that was our first unfortunate discovery of the holiday: the Northeast coast is full of midges, almost as much as in the West, at least around Thurso where we spent the first night.
We woke up early however, and not for the midges, our ferry from Thurso to Stromness was around 8am. The cafe on the boat had a very Scottish menu, which meant a roll-based second breakfast. The view was quite spectacular, in particular we could admire the Old Man of Hoy during the cross.
Once on the island, we explored the village of Stromness. It looked like a very peaceful place, and not overwhelmingly touristy. After the stroll we had a quick lunch in a cafe and drove towards East, direction Orphir, where we stopped for a walk to the beach, taking advantage of the nice weather. On the beach we found half a jaw of some animal…cow? Sheep? Seal? And, more worrying, some dead birds, likely because of avian influenza. This wasn’t the only time during the holiday, it happened later at the Brough of Birsay and at Dingyshowe beaches.
Moving on, it was finally time for our first visit to an Orcadian distillery, Scapa, right outside the “capital”, Kirkwall! Before the tour, Scapa was quite a “mysterious” single malt to us: until then, we were only aware of two official bottlings, the Skiren and the Glansa, the latter finished in ex-peated casks (since the distillery belongs to Chivas Brothers, we guess Allt-A Bhainne). We also never came across an expression from independent bottlers (the SMWS has a code for Scapa, #17, but as far as we know no recent bottlings).
Our friends dropped us at the visitor centre, where the tour guide Maria Letizia warmly welcomed us. Because she is Italian, she gave us a personalised tour in Italian, the very first time for us! The distillery is going through some renovations. They’re building a new tasting room, making sure it’s not pointing towards a certain buoy in the Scapa Flow. Maria Letizia explained that this is a sign of respect, because that’s the place where the Royal Oak, a ship with about 800 novices in training, mostly teenagers, was sunk by a German submarine during WW2, which was lucky enough to get to the Flow avoiding all old ships positioned as hurdles.
After this quite sad historical anecdote, the tour moved on as usual: we got told the history of the distillery, which was founded in 1885, and partially destroyed in 1919 by a fire. More recently, in 1994, it was mothballed and for a few years, personnel from the neighbouring Highland Park were turning it on for a few weeks every year to make sure that everything was still working. They get all the malted barley from the mainland, totally unpeated, and that was from the foundation in our understanding, which is very uncommon for an Island distillery. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take any photos in the production area, so we cannot show you a very peculiar detail: their wash still is a Lomond still, similar to the Ugly Betty at Bruichladdich (which is used for gin, however). They also don’t have any filling station, so the newmake spirit is stored into tankers and transported to Glasgow to be put in casks, at 63.5% if first-fill casks, while at a higher strength, 68.8%, if refills. Some of these return back to the island, together with casks from other Chivas’ distilleries, to mature on site. We could take a sneak peek at the warehouses, but photos from the outside only.
Back to the visitor centre, everything was ready for the tasting. When we booked the tour (which alone was 5 quids only!!!), we could choose three tastings: the Land (a core range expression and 3 from the 10-16y range, £30), the Sea (four drams from the 15-19y range, £35) and the Air (four drams from the above 20y range, £45). These tastings were not bookable from the website, which only offers 3 unspecified drams for£25, we had learned about them by contacting the distillery via email. Except for the two core range expressions, all the other ones are available as 50cl bottles, as is typical of Chivas Brothers’ distilleries. Like the ones we saw in the other distilleries, they are a bit pricey too – company policy.
We chose the fancier ones, Sea and Air, although in the first one we decided to include two drams below 15y (more approachable price-wise). All very tasty drams, in particular a couple of sherry cask matured ones (very cask forward, though). In general, we found the distillery character very citrusy, oily, crispy and honey/vanilla forward. They were all single casks, except an 18y, a marriage of 5 ex-bourbon barrels from the small production of 2000, when the distillery was run for a few days by Highland Park operators.
We were very happy to finally get to know this distillery and its character. After dinner, we tried the two core range expressions, Skiren and Glansa, which we had tasted a long time before. Quite inoffensive sweet drams, definitely not comparable with the juicy and tasty ones we had had earlier at the distillery. Just a shame Chivas don’t bottle more geek-forward expressions at a reasonable price (don’t have to be all single casks, btw).
The night ended at the Kirkwall camping, trying to avoid the midges. Stay tuned for the second and last part of this trip!
Scapa Tour and Tasting
Price: £5 tour (August 2022) + tasting (£25 3 drams, bookable online in the summer season; £30 Land 1 dram from the core range and 3 distillery bottlings 10-16y; £35 Sea 4 distillery bottlings 15-19y; £45 Air 4 distillery bottlings 20+y)
Duration: 1-1.5 hours
Tasting: depending on tasting choice and available expressions
Target: anyone really, the experience can be easily customised
Value for money: very good
Highlights: the still room and the Lomond still