A Look Inside A Scotch Whisky Distillery

whiskeyI must admit that despite my name I’ve never been much into whiskey. Rum? Yes. Beer? Yes. Wine? Yes. Absinthe? Yes. Mead? Oh yes! But whiskey has never really been on my radar.

A taste of 25-year-old Scapa whiskey changed all that.

Scapa prides itself as being the second northernmost Scotch whisky distillery in the world. Highland Park Distillery beats it by less than a mile. There are more northern whiskey distilleries in Scandinavia, but of course those aren’t Scotch whisky distilleries.

The Scapa distillery was founded in 1885 and sits on the southern shore of Mainland Orkney. I met with Ian Logan, International Brand Ambassador for Chivas Brothers, to take a look around this distillery that’s otherwise closed to the public.

As we entered, Logan explained that Scapa is a small operation that produces 120,000 liters of single malt whisky a year. I thought that sounded like a lot but my guide simply shrugged.

“A major distillery will do that in two weeks,” he said.

Scapa only has three employees who work equipment that’s a mix of the old and new along with a few museum pieces. The mill, for example, is 75 years old and was built by a company that no longer exists. Their still is a Lomond still from the 1930s and the only one still in operation. This equipment works just fine for a small distillery like Scapa so there’s no reason to change it.

“A distillery is all about consistency,” Logan explained.

After the sifting and milling, a combination of local spring water, sugar, and starch is poured into the mash as it’s slowly turned. Two more infusions of water follow. Fermentation takes 135 hours and then it’s sent to the Lomond still to be distilled.

%Gallery-161374%After the whisky cools, it’s put into 190 liter casks on site.

“Not many places fill their own casks these days. Most send it to a central point,” Logan said.

The casks are all American white oak, which lends a vanilla flavor. As Logan took me around the rows of casks in their warehouse, I noticed most of them were stamped “Jack Daniels.” According to U.S. law, barrels may only be used once. They are then sold to the UK where they’re reused. Used casks are actually better for Scapa’s purposes because that first use gets rid of the stronger flavors and later uses give a mellower whisky.

Casks are reused three times for single malt whisky after coming from the U.S., and then are used for blends.

“It’s a terrible analogy but a cask is like a tea bag. The more you use it the less you get from it!” Logan joked.

Logan then sat me down to try their 16-year-old and 25-year-old samples. I lack the vocabulary of the connoisseur, so let me just say that I found both to be mellow, smooth and rich with a velvety texture. I could certainly taste the vanilla that comes from the American oak, along with hints of other flavors I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Logan offered me some water to mix with it but I found this diluted the delicate flavor. This newbie drinks his whisky straight.

If you can’t find Scapa at your local liquor store, you can order it from many online retailers and also find it as one of the elements of the popular Ballantine blend.

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “My First Experience Driving On The Left Side Of The Road!