"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Highland Park Distillery, Kirkwall, Orkney

We have noted already the break in Barnard’s journey and his return north in the spring/summer of 1886.  Once more he displays his lack of enthusiasm for train travel, calling his journey from London to Thurso “a tedious journey occupying a day and a half”, about the same duration as my journey from Skye although that was anything but tedious.

The steamer to Orkney, the St Olaf, departed from Scrabster pier soon after seven but didn’t arrive until around midnight, a 5 hour crossing compared to 1 1/2 hours now on a good day.  The steamer docked at Scapa pier then, rather than Stromness. Scapa was the main port for Orkney in the 1880s only, with Stromness being the destination from Scrabster before and after then, as it is today.  There are now also routes from Aberdeen to Kirkwall and from Gills Bay near John O’ Goats into St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay, the closest of the Orkney islands to the Scottish mainland.

Scapa pier and Scapa Bay looking south
The Ships of Calmac website notes that the St Olaf was only in service here for 8 years, mainly because she was considered underpowered, which may have contributed to Barnard’s crossing of 5 hours.  He also records a rather lively crossing “one moment in the air, and the next in a seething cauldron of enraged waters” as the Atlantic flow approaches the “German Ocean” as it was then known, through the Pentland Firth.  My own crossing to Stromness rolled gently at times but was not the rollercoaster I was expecting; I almost asked for my money back.

Barnard almost gives his first hint as to when he had resumed his travels, describing the lack of night during the summer and a light that “even at midnight enables a person to read”.  He continues poetically “during our ride all nature seemed awake on this summer’s night, which really was but a softer day”.   However, all of this appears to be taken once more from Anderson’s Guide and whether he was actually reading at midnight accompanied by the "constant chorus of music from lark and landrail” is very much open to question.  I think his journey here was more likely late spring simply due to the number of days travelling and visiting distilleries he describes in the following pages, including a trip round Ireland, before his book is published in January 1887.

Lloyds branch, once the Castle Hotel
His party resided in the Castle Hotel in Kirkwall during their few days on Orkney and were welcomed there after midnight by “the buxom landlady [who] presented each person with a nip of neat whisky and a ginger cake, according to custom”.  The Castle Hotel is now a Lloyds Bank branch and I was instead made very welcome in the Orcades Hostel which is one of the most comfortable and well equipped hostels I have stayed in.  Orcades was the Roman name for Orkney, back when they were conquering England and trying, but failing to conquer Scotland (Veni, Vidi and vent away again!).

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
I do like ginger cake though, and whisky of course, so the following morning I set out to see what the town had to offer.  The Visit Orkney centre was very helpful with maps and advice, including details of the amazing archaeology that I also hoped to see during my stay.  Barnard began with a very brief mention of the 12th century St Magnus Cathedral and the ruins of the Earl’s and Bishop’s palaces nearby.  He describes “picturesque narrow paved streets” which would include the delightfully named Neuketineuks, which may sound like a self fulfilling global apocalypse but simply means ‘lane of many corners’.  We shall see more of streets like this when we visit Stromness.

Barnard began his tour with a climb up Wideford Hill, the highest point around Kirkwall, to survey the area.  The town was much smaller then and the Highland Park Distillery, a mile distant on the opposite slope, was then in the middle of open farmland (the High Park) but now the town extends right up to its walls on the north side.  The breeze at the top of the hill drew Barnard’s attention and he gently says of one of their group who lost his hat that he had “doffed involuntarily to Aeolus”.  It was very windy during my three days on Orkney.  Well, I say windy, but my comment at the Visit Orkney centre on gusts of 40mph was met with a shrug and a nonchalant recollection of much higher the week before.

Highland Park Distillery from below Wideford Hill
Barnard appreciated the views and the variety of scenery from atop this hill and says that “the Orkneys [ouch] appear to us Cockneys to be quite out of this world, and each island a little sphere apart”, the first time on this trip that he has described himself as a Cockney.  He describes the islanders as “grave and reticent, but proud of their history and descent from the ancient Vikings” but I found the Orcadians to be warm and open people and their Viking heritage (the islands belonged to Norway until 1468) is present but not overemphasised.

The first comment about the distillery that Barnard shares with us is a story about Magnus Eunson who was a U.P. [United Presbyterian] Church Officer but also an accomplished smuggler of illicit whisky.  He had operated in the 18th century from the site on the High Park where the distillery was founded in 1798 and numerous stories are told of his exploits and cunning ways of avoiding capture by the excisemen, some of which are recounted on the distillery website.

The water source for the distillery was Barnard’s first stop and he climbs up a few hundred yards to the two springs that are channelled by aqueduct to reservoirs fifty yards from the distillery, there being mixed before use.  The water now comes from another nearby spring and is piped into the distillery.

Gateway from the High Road
The entrance to the courtyard, around which the main buildings are arranged, is through a gateway on the high road from Kirkwall to Holm and Barnard’s attention is particularly drawn to a solitary tree in the centre of the courtyard, the first he has seen on Orkney, that pesky wind to blame for the hills being mostly covered with nothing taller than heather.

New Kiln with floor maltings on the right
The barley loft and maltings are described as a V shaped building with an old fashioned kiln at its apex, commanding both sides of the structure.  There are now two pagoda topped kilns at Highland Park and the picture here shows the new one, built around 1907 when the distillery was extended.  The old kiln is further back to the left and the two are known here as the Old and New.  Those high winds have led to fans being installed inside the pagoda roofs to force some of the smoke back down onto the barley as otherwise it gets draw out too quickly.

Barnard intriguingly states “there is very little barley used here” before noting that “the grain used is the old-fashioned “bere” grown in the neighbouring islands”, before coming full circle and confirming that “it is, of course, a species of barley, but a lighter grain”.  The barley used now is optic and is brought over from the Scottish mainland.  Around 20% of the malt requirement is produced on the traditional malting floors at the distillery, the remainder from Simpsons’ maltings in the Scottish Borders.

Traditional floor maltings provide 20% of the malt
The malting floors were described as “a compound mixture of clay and earth which keeps them continually moist” but I wonder if that would have been prone to cutting up with the regular use of shiels and rakes to turn the barley?  The floors are now concrete and Highland Park is one of only seven distilleries in Scotland that still have their own traditional malting floors where everything is done by hand.  Despite having now seen five of them it is still a wonderful sight to see the product in this early, organic stage.

Orkney peat was and still is used in the kilns, then as the only fuel but now used to add a 40ppm aroma to the malt before it is properly dried by burning coke in the kiln.  The malt supplied by Simpsons is only around 1-2ppm and the two are combined to provide the gentle, balanced smokiness of the final product.  The Orkney peat is dug on Hobbister Moor not far from Kirkwall and the heather that covers the moor adds a floral touch to the peat smoke.

New Kiln
Later in his report Barnard describes a peculiar timber building called the “Heather House” where heather cut in July at full bloom was stored, tied in faggots of around a dozen branches.  A couple of these were added to the peat in the kiln each time it was lit to “impart a delicate flavour of its own to the malt” and he detects a pronounced odour when a few sprigs were thrown in to show him the effect.  He notes that he has seen heather used at only three other distilleries and I don’t recall having seen it mentioned before.  The practice is no longer followed here although you can still detect heather honey notes in the whisky.

Barnard’s description of the Mash House gave an indication of its age and lack of restoration.  He records that the malt was carried in sacks “across a drawbridge swung over the Mash Tun to the Mill building” and he later stands on the bridge “slung over the Mash Tun for our benefit”.  He also notes that the house had an open roof and boarded floor, the neighbouring building containing the coolers also with an open roof?  This seems strange given the inclement weather, perhaps an aid to the coolers but detrimental to the heating coppers and water temperature required in mashing, and working conditions that would not be acceptable today.

Mash House and Tun Room combined
The Mash Tun itself was fairly small at 10 ½ feet by 5, with an adjoining gloomy building containing 10 washbacks averaging 2,128 gallons (9,670 litres) and switched by “hand props”, the first time I have seen this description.  The stirring gear in the mash tun and the fans on the coolers were powered by steam so this seems old fashioned by comparison.  The tun is now much larger and contiguous with the 12 washbacks at 29,000 litres each, made from Douglas Fir and Oregon Pine and with motorised switchers.

Still house and condensers
The still house was Barnard’s next stop “the oldest part of the works, its exterior green with age”.  There were two old pot stills at just 1,180 and 840 gallons (5,362 / 3,817 litres), heated by furnace and with two worm tubs to condense the spirit.  The current still house is slightly newer, probably from when the stills were increased from two to four in 1898, now with Wash stills at 14,600 litres and Spirit at 9,000, heated by electric coil and with outside tube condensers.  The new make spirit is then pumped across the road to the filling store.

Four 'dumpy' stills, Wash pair at the back
Barnard noted 11 warehouses surrounding the distillery holding 3,194 casks containing 213,509 gallons (970k litres) from a modest annual production of just 50,000 gallons (227k litres).  Now the capacity is 2.5m litres, although currently running at around 1.5m and the 23 warehouses hold 45,000 casks.  15 people were employed in Barnard’s time, now there are 18, not including the office staff and summer tour guides that look after the many visitors that arrive on the cruise ships that now view Orkney as a significant destination.

Cask display in Warehouse number 3
My tour ended in Warehouse number 3 where a display and explanation of the cask production and lifecycle was provided in some detail and this was an informative highlight of the tour for me, showing how much time and effort went into preparing casks for whisky maturation.  The casks here are a mix of American and European Oak, the staves stacked to dry for four years before being made into casks in Spain and seasoned with Oloroso Sherry for two years before being shipped whole to Orkney.  There are no Bourbon casks used here.

We returned to the visitor centre which was first built in an old peat store in 1986 and refurbished twice since, the current fittings from 2007 in a style that reflects both the history and the ruggedness of these islands.  We had begun the tour here with the longest video I have watched at any distillery and which looks more like an advert for Visit Orkney than for whisky.  Two different shorter versions of it are on the distillery website; lots of haunting music and soft focus shots of fields of barley, running water and damsels standing on bleak cliffs, curly red hair and tweed shawl billowing in the wind.  Still, she was a bonny lass and not as hairy as Hector McDram, so mustn’t grumble.

Visitor Centre dramming table
The end of the tour offered a dram of the lovely heather honey flavoured 12yo but sadly no ginger cake, which I think would go very well with this whisky.  The 12yo is matured in Spanish oak first fill and refill, imparting fruit, spice and toffee into the mix as well, finishing with a hint of that peat smoke.  The 18yo is one of my all-time favourite whiskies, almost half of the final bottle coming from first fill sherry casks that create a delightful sweet balance with the smoke, and a lovely dry finish that I have only found comparable in the Ardbeg Corryvreckan.

I must thank my guide Holly for her very informative tour and for tracking down answers to some awkward questions.  If you want to know more but can’t get to Orkney then have a browse through their website which is one of the most complete I have seen (but may well distract you for over an hour).  There are extensive videos covering almost every stage of preparation, production and bottling together with tasting information on each of their whiskies and notes on the history of the distillery.

There have been a few changes in ownership over the years, with the Borwick family handing it down for much of the 19th century before James Grant of Glenlivet was in charge until 1937, overseeing that doubling of the number of stills and further expansion in 1907 and 1924.  It was then part of Highland Distillers, although still trading as James Grant & Co for many years with further expansion and new warehousing introduced.  The 12yo was released as the first OB in 1979, before then the whisky was mainly used for blending. HD were bought by the Edrington Group in 1999 and a high proportion of the output still goes into blending, including into the Famous Grouse, although an extended range of OBs are now available, right up to a 50yo if you have £10k to spare.

Rugged old warehouses, shiny new branding
There is still an old world charm to the buildings around the central courtyard and a horse and cart making deliveries would not look out of place.  The ruggedness of the brickwork and the hand craft traditions that still endure here stand in contrast with the modern tourist experience in the visitor centre and on the website, the two hundred years in-between lost on the breeze that you can almost feel as you open each new bottle from this, the most northerly distillery in Scotland.