"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

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Scapa Distillery, Orkney

About a kilometre across Scapa Bay from where Barnard arrived in the middle of the night sits the second most northerly distillery in Scotland, just over half a kilometre south of Highland Park and a little to the west.  Scapa Distillery was one of the most recently built that Barnard visited, opening in October 1885, about 6-8 months before his visit.  Perhaps only Gerston was more recent, opening in 1886.

Scapa Bay from beside distillery, Highland Park on hill to left 
Barnard again comments on the lack of trees and quotes a “Yankee” who had arrived on the steamer who commented on such a “tarnation fine clearin’.”  However, the use of land for cultivation and the beautiful seascape seem to make up for this and Barnard shows interest in the sailing ships in the bay, quoting some lines from an old 'boat song'.

He also comments on the Lingro Broch that once stood beside the distillery.  Brochs were Iron Age dwellings built from solid stone for shelter and safety, with double walls often with stairs rising inside them.  They are peculiar to the north and west coasts of Scotland where they would offer protection from the wild Atlantic storms that often hit these coasts.  Only the foundations remained at Lingro when Barnard visited and they too have now gone, ploughed out by decades of modern farming.  The picture here is of the Broch of Gurness on the north coast of Orkney Mainland, one of the most complete broch ruins in Scotland.

Broch of Gurness, Iron Age dwelling on Orkney
Before I describe the distillery I should first mention that it is not open to the public and there are no organised tours or visitor centre here.  The entire distillery is run by just three dedicated men working shifts to keep the place going, without coach loads of tourists from the cruise liners that arrive in Kirkwall Harbour to distract them from their craft.  For a few years around 2000 there was an agreement for a few Highland Park staff to distil at Scapa during the HP close season but the three men now here are full-time employees of Chivas, the whisky division of Pernod Ricard.

Scapa water wheel for power
The water supply was the first thing that Barnard noted at the distillery, with water from springs and from the Lingro Burn being carried from the hill above in iron pipes.  The Lingro Burn continues through an artificial channel beside the distillery and once drove a water wheel for power.  I’m not sure if the wheel shown here dates from Barnard’s time but one thing that struck me was the direction of the blades on the wheel.  This was an ‘overshot’ wheel and the water from the burn must have been channelled through a higher pipe or lade that has since been removed.  The burn is still used for cooling water and spring water is still piped in for mashing.

Barnard summed up the facility he saw as “certainly one of most complete little Distilleries in the Kingdom” and the same could be said today.  The operations are all contained in a series of adjoining rooms and only the old kiln and spirit stores that are now gone were in separate buildings.  It all looks simple and straightforward and with an uncluttered and elegant charm to the still house; ideal for such a small team to run.

Scapa Distillery from front
The picture here shows the full extent of the distillery with offices at the front as they always were.  The tall building on the left was where the barley store and malting was, the kiln once standing behind it (Barnard says it was to the south of the malting, although not shown there on maps from 1902) and connected by a gangway bridge to transfer the dried malt back to the main buildings and into the malt deposit.  The kiln was “heated with peat in the ordinary manner” but today the malt is unpeated and brought in from mainland Scotland, the maltings having closed in 1962.

The distillery had a significant refurbishment in 1959 so the internal arrangements don’t quite match what Barnard saw. There is now an old Porteus dresser above a mill from the same company, both dating from the 1950s.  The grist is then raised to the mash tun in the next building which now also contains the boilers that once sat in an engine room beneath the mill.  The mash tun that Barnard saw was very shallow at only 4 feet deep and 12 feet across and with stirring gear that could either be steam or water driven.  There was also a sprinkler mechanism to extract the last sugars from the draff.  The current tun is a little larger and was installed during a further extensive refurbishment in 2003/04.

Scapa washbacks
The adjoining tun room now contains 8 steel washbacks taking 13,000 litres of wash each, compared to 4 with a capacity of 21,500 each in 1886.  New backs were also installed in 2003/04 and there are now 8 mashes run each week and they are left to ferment for 7 days, one of the longest in the industry.

The original stills were quite small, wash at 5,000 litres and spirit at just 3,180 litres.  This being a new establishment the stills were steam heated and fitted with collapse valves and the spirit was condensed in a long rectangular outside worm tub fed by the burn.  Barnard didn’t mention it but the outflow from this once drove a smaller water wheel to power a rummager (per RCAHMS, 1981) although that may have been installed later.

Scapa stills, Lomond style wash still with 'patches' where rectifying plates were removed 
The stills were replaced during the refurbishment in 1959.  Hiram Walker had owned the distillery since 1954 and they also owned Inverleven distillery in Dumbarton where a new ‘Lomond’ still had been developed.  This had a straight neck containing a few rectifier plates and a variable lyne arm, the idea being that the character of the spirit could be altered within the same still, depending on requirements.  Six of these were built in total and the one installed in 1959 at Scapa is still used as the wash still today, although after the rectifying plates had been removed.  The only other one still being used is Ugly Betty that we met at Bruichladdich and which was the original one from Inverleven.

The Lomond Still at Scapa has an S shaped lyne arm and a purifier and the two condensers here are now housed in an extension to the still room, having once been outside where the original worm tub had been beside the burn.  The still sizes are now 13,500 and 12,563 litres (Udo, 2005).

The annual output of “pure Highland Malt” was only 182,000 litres when it opened and Barnard only notes one Duty Free Warehouse, described as “rubble-built” in a 1992 archaeology note (RCAHMS).  A map dated 1902 shows a few more warehouses around the site and more have been built later in the 20th century.  The full production capacity is now over 1,500,000 p.a. and I am told they are currently filling 75 casks per week.

Original 'rubble-built' warehouses at Scapa
The distillery has had a few different owners over its life and a few periods of closure as well.  By 1936 it was bought out of a brief closure by the Glasgow blending company Bloch Brothers Ltd, who also owned Glen Scotia and later Glengyle (although the latter without success) in Campbeltown before the company was taken over by Hiram Walker in 1954.  They carried out the refurbishment in 1959 and ran the distillery until it was mothballed in 1994 and after being taken over themselves by Allied Distillers in the mid 1980s.  The ‘moonlighting’ years by Highland Park staff commenced in 1997, followed by the improvements in 2003/04 when it fully reopened under Allied, now part of Chivas and going strong since.

Scapa’s OB is now a 16yo and there are a few independent bottles available too.  The OB was a 14yo from 2004 to 2008 but I personally preferred the standard 12yo they produced before then.  Scapa whisky will generally offer gentle fruit sweetness with some honey and malty notes, only ex-bourbon casks being used.  The 12yo had a bit more of the sea to it as well but the extension to a 16yo was required by that closure from 1994, the extra time in the cask smoothing out the whisky a little I think.  Most of the production still goes into blending, Ballantines being one recipient.

Scapa from shore, still house on left. Lingro Broch once stood on the left foreground.
My visit to Scapa was a nice surprise on the only fine day during my stay on Orkney.  I had enjoyed a 40 minute walk out from the town centre through rolling farmland to get to the pleasant setting by the shore.  I was disappointed to see (or rather not see) that the Lingro Broch had completely gone, but encouraged to see that the distillery was unlikely to suffer the same fate.