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Back from the brink for Scapa

The Scapa distillery on Orkney is to be reopened full time after years of neglect Dominic Roskrow visited it
By Dominic Roskrow
If the owners of Scapa distillery needed a sign that its time was finally up they got it during a tempestuous evening on Orkney last August. During a storm lightning took the electricity out. Permanently.“The electricians who were quite young took one look at the wiring and said they didn’t know what to do with it,” recalls Allied Domecq’s malt distilleries director Jim McLean. “They said they’d never seen anything like it outside a museum.” And so Scapa reached its inglorious end.Nobody was too surprised. It had been on the critical list for some time, having been effectively mothballed by Allied some seven years before. To keep stocks of the single malt alive it was reopened for a couple of months each year and staffed by former Scapa employees now employed by Edrington at nearby Highland Park.“But the truth be told, we wouldn’t have run any of our other distilleries in the sort of state Scapa was in,” says Michael Cockram, director of malts for Allied Domecq. “And neither would Edrington. So we looked at it and started to ask ourselves why it was acceptable to run it in the state it was in between the two of us.”That should have been that – and if you were a betting man, you’d have bet your last dram on the fact that Scapa was set to be consigned to history.June 2004: The Orkney Isles have a habit of rapidly reclaiming to nature anything abandoned by man. From the Neolithic village at Skara Brae, and the ancient stone circles that characterise this most wonderful group of islands to the chapel built by Italian prisoners during the Second World War, man-made landmarks have been assimilated in to the scenery.The sails of sunken ships dot the shorelines, and in Scapa Flow the sea has reclaimed a whole fleet of German war ships and an official grave marks the spot where hundreds of British sailors drowned when their vessel was sunken by a U-Boat some 60 years ago.While 99 per cent of Britain is enjoying its hottest day of the year so far, Orkney is doing what it does best: gales.We’re not talking dull skies and a smattering of summer rain here. Nope, this is brute force winds, torrential horizontal rain, and great swathes of grey cloud rolling in across Scapa Flow.The distillery itself is a shock. Decked in dark greys with rusty red paint work, it is depressing in its silence. The paint peels from the distillery sign which boasts that it was founded in 1885. The principle building containing the mash tun has no roof and the rain forms puddles in the piles of concrete that litter the floor.The still room, some of its window panes broken, has been occupied by birds. A newspaper lies on a table with a picture of tennis player Tim Henman being beaten in a top tournament and while this gives no real clue to which year it’s from, closer inspection reveals it’s nearly exactly a year old.It’s an eerie place; there are ghosts everywhere on the Orkney Isles, and they’re certainly at Scapa in the empty and damp dunnage warehouses, in the offices with their vintage whisky desks and outdated technology, and in the production areas, where the wiring that brought it all to an end hangs down from ugly piping, listlessly. The whole sorry distillery looks set to slip in to Scapa Flow and take its place next to the battle ships.But this isn’t a wake, this is a turning point. And while the buildings seem to groan and creek from our presence, there’s a spring in the step of Jim McLean and Michael Cockram as we clamber through the building.I am the first non-company person to be here since Allied Domecq announced plans for Scapa’s future and we’re accompanied by the technical director of an internet company that is going to follow this story on Allied’s website over the coming months.In a nutshell Allied is pulling the distillery back from the brink, investing more than £2 million in it, and at the same time putting the world of whisky on notice that as a company it has overcome its corporate uncertainty and is well and truly plunging itself back in to the world of single malt.“It looks bad now but once the roof is back on and it gets a lick of paint it’ll look different very quickly,” says Michael. “We hope to have spirit being produced later this year and to start taking visitors by the start of next year. It’ll be done informally and on a small scale, but if people are coming this far to see Highland Park we think they’ll want to see this place. It’s a very different operation.”The plan is to move the mash tun up to a new mezzanine level and to produce 120,000 litres of new spirit in the first year.There will be a small visitors’ reception area and the tour will take guests through the compact buildings. Windows will be enlarged to provide greater access to what is a stunning view across Scapa Flow. And there will be access to the still room, where a traditional copper wash still sits next to a Lomond still - part pot still and part column still and which allows flexibility as to how heavy or light you want to make your spirit.“It allows the distiller to put in plates which affect what type of whisky you are making,” says Jim.“It allowed for a cleaner spirit and also stronger spirit because it permitted a higher rate of reflux had you wanted it.“The only one like it was bought by Jim McEwan and is now at Bruichladdich. So it makes for something special for whisky enthusiasts.”All of the new spirit will be produced to the traditional Scapa recipe and will be destined for a 12 year old single malt or the new 14 year old, with none going in to blends at all or to be used for reciprocating.“That would make no sense,” says Michael. “No money changes hands in reciprocal deals and because of the location here it costs significantly more to produce whisky here than it would on Speyside.“And indeed, this is a considerable commitment for Allied because it would be cheaper to build a brand new distillery than to refurbish this one.”Events are set to move quickly from now. The distillery will employ three people and the company is predicting that it may not be the easiest task finding the right individuals.“They have to be pretty self sufficient if they’re going to work from a place like this,” says Jim as we try to stay vertical. “They don’t necessarily need to be experienced in the whisky trade but we have to find them pretty quickly to train them.”Michael Cockram acknowledges these are exciting times for Allied and its malt portfolio. With Glendronach on the receiving end of a major upgrade, the company is clearly moving its whisky portfolio forward. Certainly the Stateside operation is bursting with enthusiasm about Scapa.As a product it has heritage, is easy to drink and has a name that people can pronounce and isn’t a me-too Glen thingy. America and the rest of the world is way down the line, though.For now, there is what appears to be a massive reconstruction job to be done in an environment where nature doesn’t help very much.“But they know what they’re doing over here,” smiles Jim. “When there are bad storms across Britain we ring round the distilleries to see what the damage is, and they report back how many slates are off and so on.“For Orkney the answer’s usually none. They know exactly what they have to do here to make sure that once it’s up it stays up.”After my hosts have left me on Orkney with the wind and rain hurtling in, I drink Scapa in a bar with a Scot of Swedish extraction while watching Sweden in the soccer European championships. They win 5-0 and he’s a happy man.“You know,” he says of the Scapa in front of him, “this is a fine dram. It’s the other side of the Orkney story. And having it back properly makes Orkney complete again.”He’s dead right. And suddenly the island doesn’t seem so cold or wet any more.