Distillery Focus

Walk on the wild side (Highland Park)

Producing whisky in the middle of the North Sea is one long struggle but the results make it worthwhile. Dominic Roskrow visited Highland Park
By Dominic Roskrow
Cutting peat in late April on the undulating hills high above Scapa Flow on Orkney isn’t for the faint-hearted.You have to make your way to the heart of the 2,000 acre estate that Highland Park owns, navigate bumpy lanes and walk along a pathway littered with muddy pools and then, as the sharp winds whip through you, prise the coveted fuel away from a reluctant earth.Winter doesn’t give up easily in these parts, and even now, with a watery sun reflecting off the brooding waters of Scapa Flow, you’re constantly aware of the bitter chill in the air, and the hazy mist that is turning darker by the second and will soon engulf the bay below.But even this early in the season the clock’s ticking, and the small team of diggers know that they have to push on when they can. At this time of the year a heavy rainfall will mock their efforts, dragging the peat cuttings back in to the earth so that they have to start again. Six months from now and the first squalls of winter will make retrieving the cut and dried peat all but impossible. And it’s hard, physical graft and not without its dangers. “I got a phone call from the team cutting the peat saying they had had to stop work because they’d found a bomb,” distillery production manager Russell Anderson will say later. “I thought they were mucking about. But it turns out that the plate cutting the peat had turned up something shiny which thankfully they spotted.“It was an unexploded wartime bomb and the whole area had to be sealed off while they sent a bomb disposal team up from Edinburgh. It was destroyed in a controlled explosion.”But whatever the elements throw at them – unexploded bombs or severe weather – team leader Robbie gives the impression he really doesn’t mind and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.“It’s not so bad up here,” he says. “And this morning was T-shirt weather.” If you’re of Viking stock perhaps.The task for Robbie and his team is a mammoth one. Over the summer months four of them will cut 1,000 tons of peat. They will raise it so the wind can get among it and dry it. Then they will turn it so that all sides form a skin. And finally they will retrieve it, its weight now down to some 350 tons.That will be more than enough for the distillery’s annual supply: over its 40 or so weeks of production Highland Park’s kilns use six tons a week – 240 tons a year. The peat is made up of three layers that are separated and then mingled together to get the perfect mix of combustible material and smoke.The top layer known as fogg is light brown and loosely held together, its soils riddled with heather roots: the middle section, known as yarphie, is compressed, darker and similar to mud; and the bottom section, known as moss, is like dark chocolate fudge cake when cut. It is hundreds of years old and will dry solidly “like young coal.”Digging it out is a hard labour-intensive process, but a crucial one in the production of Highland Park. Indeed, says Russell Anderson, it’s a cornerstone in the creation of one of the world’s greatest malts.“The peat on Orkney is unlike the peat anywhere else,” he says. “It’s made up of different vegetation and it has been formed in a different way. It affects the barley in a different and having my own supply here means that control of the peating regime is totally in my hands.”And it’s not just the unique smoky qualities best demonstrated in the 18 year old that are a product of Orkney, but the saltiness in the whisky, too. Don’t even think of putting forward the ‘no salt in whisky’ debate with Russell.“That peat sits up on the hills for six months being lashed by wind and rain carried off the sea which is all around it,” he says. “This is a totally maritime environment. You can’t tell me that doesn’t have an effect.“In the ground the peat has been soaked by sea water for hundreds of years. The water on the island comes through ground affected by sea. The scientists, important as they are, can say what they like about whisky and salt but making whisky is a dark art, and long may it remain so. Just because they can’t explain what happens doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”It’s not just the peat that presents a challenge to the folk at Highland Park, either. There are few trees on Orkney because of the severity of the winds, so you can’t take shelter from the elements. Unlike many places, where the wind is fairly predictable, on Orkney it comes from all directions, so that kiln temperatures have to be monitored constantly.Then there’s the water issue. You associate cold and wet with the islands, but things are not all that they seem. Despite the vicious wind chill factor, for instance, the underlying temperatures are surprisingly moderate, creating a water temperature problem in the warmer months.Add to that the fact that there’s water, water everywhere, but not that many drops to drink, and even the most basic requirements of whisky making present a challenge. It’s one of the reasons that the distillery has such a lengthy silent period.“That time is very useful because there are a lot of essential maintenance issues that have to be dealt with,” says Russell.“Closing down completely is a nightmare for the tour guides because obviously there is no production to see. We used to keep a small amount going for that reason but really it’s better that we close entirely.“And that’s important for other reasons, too. The maltings particularly are very affected by the ambient temperature and if the temperature is 16°C to 20°C it’s just not possible to produce efficient malt and you need to have sufficient cold water to cool it.“It’s not a problem in winter because you can warm the water to the desired temperature but in summer you need to have enough water to have the malt and water together for two days and then enough for another seven days controlled germination.“Believe it or not we run in to water shortages here. So another key reason to stop production when we do is to replenish the water supply.”Highland Park, is of course, one of the last distilleries to maintain its own maltings, and although Russell doesn’t actually say so, you suspect that on occasion the logic of maintaining this has been raised by the accountants.“But for me it makes total sense,” he says. “It’s all part of the distillery character and I have total control over the malt operation. I don’t have to rely on someone else to make those decisions correctly for me.”The Highland Park production methods don’t come cheap.Barley is shipped over from the mainland at a cost of about £200 per ton more than it would cost a distillery in Speyside. Ah, but it sure is worth it.After a tour of the kilns and floor maltings, we’re taken back to the visitor’s centre for a straightforward vertical tasting. For your writer, sipping the 18 year old at the distillery is like opening the door to a room full of friends; the fruit, spices, wood and smoke all in perfect accord. It makes all the effort worthwhile.Patricia Retson, brands heritage assistant and my guide for much of the day, sums it up perfectly.“It’s even a struggle to get guides here because the younger ones want to leave and go off to the mainland,” she says.“We have to wait for the seasonal workers and then train them. That takes time – sometimes a few days and sometimes a couple of weeks. But that means we can’t open over Easter because they’re not ready and we’d rather stay shut than send a tour round with someone who didn’t know what they were doing.“Highland Park is all about quality and we go to extraordinary lengths to achieve it. Why after all that would you damage it by not presenting it properly?” Amen to that.