Part 4 is the final installment in my Orkney Odyssey series – until I go back later this year! To toast these magnificent islands farewell, how about a local wee dram or two? Orkney boasts the two northern-most whisky distilleries in the world!
Orkney’s two distilleries are conveniently located in Kirkwall, southside of town. Which one is the northernmost, you ask? Well, Highland Park Distillery edges out Scapa Distillery by a mere hop, skip and a jump. Not much at all, but in the immortal words of “Highlander”: “There can be only one”!
When the spirit moves you
I visited both distilleries and, while not a connoisseur, I do like a dram and can honestly say I liked ‘em both. In fact, I had a fun moment on my return to the US. The Customs Officer frowned at my big bag, but broke into a big smile when I explained what spirits I was trying to spirit through. Perhaps “Officer McGregor” was a kindred spirit….
The devil’s dram
Fun fact: as whisky ages in the barrel, there is some evaporation. Scotland mainland sees an annual loss of about 2% but the Orkneys only about 1%. Their weather is different indeed! Distilleries use the lovely term “Angel Share” for this loss: doesn’t that sound heavenly? However, real Scots don’t fiddle around and call this wasted whisky the “devil’s dram”, begrudgingly giving the Evil One his due!
Scouting out Scapa
Scapa Distillery is just a few minutes from downtown Kirkwall, at the water’s edge of Scapa Flow, a location full of history (see my Orkney post number 2). I did the regular tour with a sampling at the end, and yes you get to keep the logo’d glass.
Owned by the Pernod-Ricard Group, you’ll see the name of their subsidiary Chivas Brothers on the door name sign. Luckily these remote owners favor an arm’s length relationship and they let Scapa do their own thing: producing a darn good dram.
Scapa, the Orcadian
Scapa Distillery has some unique features. For starters, they have their own underground water supply, piped in as peat-free as feasible. And they don’t use peat to dry the malt. A Scapa single malt dram does not carry the smoky peaty traits one might expect in the highlands and islands. Scapa is also the proud operator of the last Lomond Still in Scotland, a beautiful copper wash still. And, they use American Oak casks for a softer and sweeter taste, honeyed, almost fruity.
Fun fact: the leftover grains go to feed the local cows. No wonder they seem so happy: even in the unpredictable Orkney weather, they know they have a dram built into their meal!
The low-down on Highland Park
Highland Park Distillery is located on the outskirts of Kirkwall and as said, beats Scapa to the title of northernmost distillery – albeit barely. Or is that barley? Right off the main road south, it is well signposted with a good size parking area.
A Highland Park dram has several unique characteristics too. It starts with the Distillery’s ownership. As tour guide James explained, they’re part of the Edrington Group, privately owned via the Robertson Trust by Scottish sisters, under strict rules to stay fully Scottish. The Group also owns the Macallan and the Famous Grouse, among others, and the Trust is one of Scotland’s largest charitable organizations.
A dram good single malt
Unique here is that Highland Park Distillery still malts its own barley in-house, on a stone malting floor.
For fuel, they use locally obtained heather peat and coal.
Spanish and American Oak is the choice for casks. Highland Park has a nice display of how casks are made and some other educational displays.
The resulting single malt has a distinct – and award-wining – lightly peaty smoky flavor, not nearly as overbearing as say an Islay.
I had signed up for the expanded tour with a triple tasting: the 12 year old, Leif Eriksson and Dark Origins, which was my favorite, but tastes differ. I’m glad I did the expanded version though: I got to keep 3 logo’d dram glasses and was done shopping for souvenirs in one fell swoop.
Fun fact: you may have had some Highland Park single malt without knowing it! The Famous Grouse blended whisky uses some Highland Park, only in small quantities of course.
A dram-atic farewell
Packaging my purchases carefully, it was now time to leave the Orkneys. The island outing was spectacular, from Standing Stones to Distillery Drams and everything in between. As on any trip, there’s never enough time, no matter how long one travels. Then again, visitors often see more than locals! No matter where we live, we assume that what’s next door will be there and we should travel as far as we can – while we still can. I’ll drink to that, with an Orkney dram or two!
DISCLAIMER: My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine except where credited as noted, as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
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