Distillery Focus

The Orcadian phoenix

The Scapa Distillery is producing spirit regularly again after a two year renovation programme. Dominic Roskrow reports
By Dominic Roskrow
It’s the stillroom at Scapa that you remember most, and in particular the large window at one end of it, and the still at its heart.Chalk and cheese really; the window providing vantage across the Flow, and bringing much needed respite to the intensity of the isolated and library-like room; the still angular and rigid, powerful and proud, and intimidating, too. But together they combine to make Scapa’s stillroom a character all its own.In two years this room has travelled from the depths of despair to the heights of glory.But its atmosphere has remained unchanged – and that’s down to the window and the still.Horizontal rain was blowing in squalls the first time I was here, aggressively mocking the heat wave that the rest of Britain was experiencing. We had stumbled across piles of brick and displaced roofing, and made our way through corridors and stairwells smelling of damp and decay, the gloomy silence broken only by our footsteps and the odd bird that had taken residence in the gloom.Even then, though, the stillroom impressed.The window, grimy and neglected, revealed nothing more than a morass, where brown sky met brown sea. The still, covered in bird dirt, its gleaming copper reduced to stained bronzes and sludge greens, stood brooding and sullen.But I felt it, and so did my companions from Allied; this room was proof the distillery was not dead, merely sleeping, and so it has proved.A lot of water has passed through Scapa Flow since then. Allied is no more. Scapa has passed in to the hands of Pernod Ricard, and Michael Cockram who escorted me to Scapa back then, has moved on, and recently joined me on Islay as part of his new job.Once you’re passed the same ugly-ish pebbledash exterior Scapa is all but unrecognisable from the sorry shell it was just 30 months ago.The mash house, roofless and in the throes of dismantlement back then, has been totally rebuilt. State of the art mash tuns dominate it, a new window casts light into the cramped spaces, and there’s a new grist room.Everything is clean and ordered and smells of new paint. It’s all a bit sterile.Then you step in to that still room, rebuilt, restructured and thoroughly ordered. But, with the window and still not only still in place but deliberately featured to give the room its focus, the distillery’s character breathes here. We stand in silence, taking it in, while distillery manager Stuart Pirie beams with pride.“When Allied Domecq decided to reopen it they planned it in three stages,” he says.“Phase one was to totally refurbish the mash house, phase two was to take down the old still house and build a new one, and stage three was to do up everything else and look at having a visitor centre.“Phases one and two have been completed, at a cost of about £1.5 million. Now phase three is being renewed in light of the new company circumstances. But the aim was to first start producing spirit and we’re doing that.” They most certainly are; three full-time staff are producing 70 to 80 casks a week using what Stuart describes as a ‘simple, manual system’ and which from bringing in the barley to rolling out the filled barrels, is an all hands on deck operation.Malted barley is imported from the mainland these days, once Scapa had its own maltings. By the early 90s, with production almost exclusively for the Ballantine’s blend, economics dictated its closure.Scapa has eight washbacks in all, four original ones dating back to the 50s, four more added in 1978.The production process is a simple one – one mash, one washback, one wash still.Water comes from a spring about one and a half miles from the distillery and because fermentation is long, 60 hours, distillation is done using the previous week’s wash during Monday, Tuesday and a part of Wednesday.Thursday and Friday are used for warehouse work and cleaning and administration.The system is designed to make production practical for just three people, but does it impact on the new Scapa spirit? Yes and no, says Stuart.“We experimented with our yeasts and settled on dry yeast,” he says. “The long fermentation doesn’t impact particularly on flavour, beyond giving the new make greater consistency. But the three wort system we are using has impacted on the new-make. It’s cleaner and has less cereal notes. The character of the new Scapa starts at this point.” And of course that still – a rare example of a Lomond still in operation – plays its part too.Not, however, in the way it once would have.Lomond stills were the creation of Alistair Cunningham, who in the late 1950s was given the task by his employers at Allied’s predecessor, Hiram-Walker, of creating different styles of whisky from the company’s many distilleries.His solution was an angular still, part pot still part column, with a moveable lyne arm and adjustable copper plates in its neck.Movement of the plates changed the reflux in the still, allowing production of lighter or heavier spirit, or combinations of both, and thus creating different whisky styles from the same still.Installed at Scapa, Miltonduff and Glenburgie, all distilleries associated with the Ballantine’s blend, the concept was a great success, for a while.“But there was a problem. After a period of time the spirit reacts with the copper to produce alloys,” says Stuart. “The trouble with the Lomond still is that the plates could not be easily cleaned and eventually the interaction between the copper and the spirit was seriously reduced, effectively making the still useless.” Spruced up, pristine and majestic, Scapa’s Lomond still no longer has plates, and doesn’t function as a Lomond still, but its unusual shape does have a major say as to how the whisky might taste. With exceptionally wide neck, heavy spirits can pass up the still. But a purifier has been added to turn them back, giving Scapa a unique distillation process.There is no pressure here to produce great quantities of alcohol so distillation is unhurried. About 8,500 litres are produced here, with the spirit coming off the still at a fraction more than 68% ABV, 70 to 80 casks a week.Today the still sits in pride of place in the still room, which has been designed to resemble the bridge of a ship. The spirit safe sits in the centre of the room at a lower level than the viewing platform. From here you can look out of the window over the Flow, where a buoy marks the last resting place of the HMS Royal Oak, where nearly 800 British sailors were drowned.It’s an impressive, somewhat awe-inspiring setting to taste the whisky. We’re offered the new make first and it’s impressive: sweet and silky, with some spices which Stuart says are attributable to the way the spirit is now produced. It’s also more dominant in the mouth than you might expect, hinting at a more robust final product a decade or so hence.The 14 year old, described recently by Dave Broom as the sort of more-ish whisky that you open and throw away the cork is indeed eminently drinkable, with honey and citrus giving away to a tropical fruit pot-pourri too complex for this palate to deconstruct. And surprise, surprise, distinctive wisps of smoke.A 25 year old is unphased by any wood interference and what influence there is is restrained. But it’s an altogether bolder version of the 14 year old, with the lighter flavours giving away to richer grapefruit, peach and even mango.Best of all though is the cask strength version, which is a distillery bottling available only at Scapa’s sister distilleries, The Glenlivet, Strathisla and Aberlour.The strength of the spirit is given an extra dimension. The most notable difference is the increased presence of spice and a salty maritime characteristic that goes some way to putting the whisky on an island rather than in Speyside.Leaving that glorious room is a wrench but we wander down to the filling store, where traditional copper piping methods are used to fill casks before they’re rolled out for storage.It may have had its problems during the years, but Allied has left the distillery in pretty good nick. Quality casks have been used to store the whisky and there is plenty of stock.When it was closed Allied would pay distillerymen at the nearby Highland Park to produce some stock here annually.All Scapa whisky is matured in the Orkney Isles in racked warehouses. Three dunnage warehouses remain empty but, we are told, there will be no stock shortages. All in all, then, it would seem that everything’s in perfect shape? Not quite.“This distillery has some track record and has produced some great distillery managers,” says Stuart wistfully.“When I first worked here the distillery was working seven days a week and it employed 15 people. I know that won’t come back but you know what would complete the picture?” He points down at a disused water wheel at the side of the distillery.“I’d love to have that water wheel working again as it was back then. Then it would be just perfect.” Alovely thought. For now, though, it’ll do just fine.