Orkney’s stark, bleak but breathtakingly beautiful landscape boasts some of the most captivating historical landmarks in Scotland. Time has left its mark on the Orkney Isles. Part of that story is The Scapa Distillery, which boasts a rich and turbulent history somewhat fitting to its location.
Founded in 1885 by the partnership of Macfarlane and Townsend the distillery survived World War I, becoming a billet for sailors from the Royal Navy during The Great War. It faced closure during The Great Depression, was mothballed during World War II and ultimately it was set against the unpredictability of the harsh island climate itself. The distillery’s location along the banks of Scapa Flow adds a sense of mystery and a poignant reminder of the ravages the Orkney Isles have survived. Scapa Flow itself is littered with the skeletal remains of the fleet of German vessels scuppered there during World War I. The rusting masts piercing the waters of the Flow are the only visible reminder of the sunken giants which lie beneath, now as much a tourist attraction today as the Stone Age artefacts that litter the islands.
The reader could be forgiven for assuming that The Scapa Distillery has simply become one of Orkney’s historical landmarks. A relic of yesteryears and of simpler times – when electricity for the distillery was provided via a simple waterwheel and kept in check by a steam-driven dynamo scavenged from an old trawler.
In 2004 though the distillery received a much needed lifeline. This came in the form of a complete and comprehensive overhaul. The distillery itself was renovated, refurbished and brought into the 21st century, ensuring its survival as the second most northerly Scotch Whisky distillery in Scotland; pipped to the post by its rival Highland Park by little more than half a mile. Owned by Chivas Brothers the distillery once set aside all whisky distilled at Scapa for its 16-year-old single malt. They stopped producing it last year though, replacing it with a non-aged statement called Skiren (an Old Norse word for the bright skies of summer). Occasionally they produce limited edition cask bottles.
The distillery – one of the smallest in Scotland – is manned by a team of five operators and boasts a continually growing reputation. These five operators are almost entirely responsible for the day-to-day running of the distillery. No automation is involved.
Each stage of the distillation process – from mashing, fermentation, distillation and the filling of casks – is overseen by Jon Tait, John Pirie, Michael Swanney, Bryan Ross and Lee Larmouth; giving the malt that gentle, personal quality one doesn’t often see in our technology-driven era. This not only adds to the continuing history of Scapa. It tells of the driving force behind its production – how that personal touch guarantees the quality of the malt and makes sure it continues to live up to its reputation.