The Chequered Tale of Scapa

Somewhere off the northern coast of Great Britain, and miles into the cold waters of the North Sea, lies the rocky, windswept landscape of Orkney Islands. On the afternoon ferry from Inverness, the jagged coastline of the Mainland is thrown into sharp relief by the last light of the summer sun. The general impression – this is a wintery, arid place not suited to offer the comforts of life, human or otherwise. That notion continues to linger for a while before the boat docks at Kirkwall sometime around 7.30 PM.

It’s a bustling city with a burgeoning nightlife scene. In and out of the many clubs and pubs dotting the length and breadth of Shore Street, the first thing you are likely to notice is the Orcadian lilt. It might sound alien and familiar at the same time but that’s probably because we are all well acquainted with Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons who often claims to hail from Kirkwall.

Luck favors the bold and if you spend enough time hopping from bar to pub, it’s likely that you’ll come across Kirkwall’s other, less famous son – Scapa the Orcadian single malt. It doesn’t have much of reputation beyond the shores of Orkney and after the first sip from your dram, you begin to wonder why that is. Unlike its heavily peated mainland cousins, this whisky thrives on subtlety.

The 14-year-old is light on the smokiness, favoring a sweet and honeyed palate which yields notes of sweet almond, orange, and cumin when you add a few drops of water to it. The rather short finish leaves behind mild notes of cinnamon and a burning question that lingers – how is it that we know so little about this deceptively simple but immensely enjoyable single malt? The lateness of the hour however might force you to wait till daybreak before you can venture out to trace the origins of the elusive dram.

The sun behaves a little oddly on Orkney with nightless summers that seem like one long twilight and dark winter days sometimes graced by the aurora borealis on the northern horizon. If you take an early morning walk into town and ask around about the island’s distilleries, the locals will point you towards Highland Park. It’s only natural given the famed association it has with The Famous Grouse and the celebrated whisky reviewer Michael Jackson’s recommendation. Distractions aside, take the road northward, and travel along the desolate headland that has been the home to many civilizations – from Neolithic tribes to Picts and Norsemen – over the last 8,500 years.

Half a mile from Highland Park and a little to the west, on the shore of Scapa Flow, is the whitewashed building that houses the Scapa distillery. Although the current infrastructure looks brand new, do not be fooled. The distillery was established over 130 years ago during which it changed hands countless times. Originally founded by Macfarlane and Townsend in 1885, the facility occupies a location which holds particular historical significance – the nearby natural harbor served as a British naval base during both World Wars. Till 1919, John Townsend headed operations before the distillery was registered as a limited company. In 1934, they shut their doors for the first time since its foundation, going into voluntary liquidation.

During the 50s’ economic boom that followed the end of the Second World War, the company and its humble facilities were acquired by Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd. who rebuilt the decaying distillery, bringing it back to life and producing a whisky that lived in relative anonymity. Towards the end of the last century, when the facility was mothballed in 1994, it was on the verge of closing down within the next decade. During these hard times, Scapa continued bottling its most distinctive island whisky – the 12-year-old – defying its own demise. In 2004-05, it was acquired by Pernod Ricard, a company that had already made a name for itself breathing new life into historic distilleries. After spending £2 million for extensively rebuilding and refurbishing the century-old decaying facility, the distillery re-commenced full time production and is presently churning out close to a million liters of fine single malt every year. Because of the 10 year long gap in between and how it affected the production and maturation process, Scapa decided to discontinue bottling the classic 12-year-old and replaced it with a 14-year-old expression. For a number. For the longest time and till 2013, Scapa’s gates remained closed to visitors while a dedicated team of five artisans and a master distiller worked fervently around the clock, using traditional methods perfected over generations to craft a consistently sweet, creamy, smooth single malt. Unlike other whiskies from the region, Scapa entirely skips out on drying their malts on peat, allowing the distinct briny, tropical flavors to come out. Water for mashing the malt is directly sourced from the nearby rain-fed Orquil Springs using steel pipes that prevent it from coming in contact with peat. The wort is then fed into a single pair of stills for distillation before being sent to the cask. Among the two, the wash still is particularly unique. Installed in 1959, the old barrel-shaped Lamond still is the only remnant of this style with its tall neck instrumental for adding the rich fruitiness that makes Scapa’s whiskies unique.

Finally in 2013, the distillery’s visitor center was unveiled and for the first time, Scapa began inviting tourists and locals to learn about and experience their unique production process.