Scapa distillery

Where to find Scapa

Scapa Scotch Whisky

Scapa  (Pronounced: SKAA-pa)
Highlands, Islands, Orkney
5857'47.55"N, 259'5.94"W
Highland Park
Lingro Burn and local sources
1 Wash still (ex-Lomond), 1 Spirit still
1,000,000 litres of pure alcohol per year
Pernod Ricard > Chivas Brothers
Scapa Flow, Kirkwall, Orkney KW15 1SE, Scotland, UK
+441856 876585
No - but it's possible to make an appointment
Yes - 12yo, 14yo and 16yo in recent years
Below, on WhiskyFun and on the Malt Maniacs Monitor

Scapa location

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Scores & tasting notes:

Scapa whisky

Scapa distillery in the new millennium

2004 - After operating for just a few months each year since 1997, the Scapa distillery is extensively refurbished (to the tune of more than 2,000,000 GBP) and full time whisky production resumes. In the same year, the 12 years old standard expression that was available in the 1990's and early noughties is replaced with a 14yo OB.
2005 - Pernod Ricard become the new owners of Scapa throught their subsidiary Chivas Brothers.
2008 - The new Scapa 16yo standard expression is launched, replacing the 14yo that emerged in 2004.

As you can see from the picture at the right, the distillery itself
doesn't look as romantic as many of its mainland counterparts.
Like many distilleries on the more remote islands, Scapa has to
deal with less than favourable conditions. For one thing, it is
far more difficult to get the required natural resources (barley,
yeast, oil, etc.) from the mainland to the distillery.

The Scapa distillery is located on the main island of the Orkney
isles, north-east of the Scottish mainland. Both distilleries on
the main island (Highland Park is the other one) are in or near
the town of Kirkwall. Scapa is situated on the Lingro Burn, two
miles south west of Kirkwall at the head of Scapa Bay.

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Scapa Scotch whisky

The Scapa distillery was built in 1885 by John T. Townsend and one Mr. MacFarlane (whose first name
isn't mentioned in any source I've checked). Their private company was taken over by Scapa Distillery
Company Ltd. in 1919, but this company went into liquidation in 1934. The production of malt whisky
stopped as well at this time, but it was resumed again in 1936 when brothers Maurice & John Bloch
(owners of the Glengyle and Glen Scotia distilleries in Campbeltown) took over the Scapa distillery.
It is said that they needed the malt whisky from Scapa distillery for their 'Ambassador' blend - one of
the very few blends that also had a solid reputation amongst many malt whisky purists.

The Bloch brothers were whisky blenders and brokers that operated under the name Bloch Brothers (Distillers) Limited. Maurice Bloch acquired the title 'sir' at some point and sold the Scapa distillery to Hiram Walker & Sons in 1954. Two years later he set up the Maurice Bloch Trust, a charitable foundation for the advancement of religion and education and for the alleviation of disease. Meanwhile, the new owners went to work on the equipment at Scapa; they replaced one of the stills with a so-called 'Lomond still' in 1959. 

Scapa Scotch malt whisky - 14 years old

The installation of Lomond stills occurred in many more Hiram Walker distilleries;
Glenburgie, Inverleven, Miltonduff, etcetera. Alistair Cunningham & Arthur Warren
of Hiram Walker came up with the idea for the more modern Lomond still in 1955.
This type of still had a regular 'pot' at the bottom of the still, but the traditional
swan neck had been modified. Within the straight pipe three adjustable plates
('rectifier plates') which could be cooled separately. By modifying the position and
temperature of the plates the reflux of the 'boiling' whisky could be controlled.
The angle of the 'lyne arm' at the top of the still could be modified as well.

Hiram Walker tried to influence the character of the whisky in order to better meet the demands
of the whisky blenders. The makers of Ballantine's (as well as many other brands) wanted to be
able to use a wider spectrum of malt whiskies without having to build more different malt whisky
distilleries. The very first Lomond still was installed in 1956 in Hiram Walker's Dumbarton distillery.
Because maintenance of the Lomond stills was very labour intensive, most were removed again
in the early 1980's. However, the still at Scapa distillery wasn't replaced with a regular pot still.
Instead, the Lomond wash still was 'lobotomised' - the rectifier plates were removed so that it
would be able to function (more or less) as a regular pot still.
Meanwhile, the malting floors at Scapa distillery had already been closed in 1962. This was not
unusual in the 1950's and 1960's. In fact, dozens of distilleries had been closing off their malting
installations; malting floors and so-called Saladin boxes. Thanks to a concentration trend in the
whisky industry most companies owned a number of distilleries, enabling them to do the malting
at one or a handful of central locations. For example, after the Port Ellen distillery was closed the
maltings remained operational to supply distilleries like Ardbeg and Lagavulin with malted barley.

Water wheel at Scapa distillery

In that case the Port Ellen maltings could supply the seven distilleries on Islay with malted barley. However, there are only two distilleries on the island of Orkney. I'm not sure if Highland Park produces malted barley for the Scapa distillery (they are owned by different companies), but since they are one of the few remaining distilleries that do their own malting, that would make sense.

The picture at the left shows the water wheel in the
Lingro Burn that was used to power the distillery in the
good old days. Most of the buildings in the picture were
built during a reconstruction in 1959. Two of the original
warehouses from the 19th century survive, though. The
distillery was mothballed in 1994, but since 1997 a crew
came over from the nearby Highland Park distillery each
year to distill a little whisky. Full time production of malt
whisky resumed in November 2004. Reports on what's
transpired after that can be found in the next section;

Trivia about the Scapa whisky distillery

1) Scapa and Highland Park are both located South of Kirkwall, but their 'house styles' are quite different. As such, they are perfect examples of the limited value of the 'terroirs' theory from the wine world when it comes to whisky.

2) Most of the malt whisky produced at Scapa distillery is still used in blended whisky like Ballantine's.

3) Scapa distillery is the second northernmost distillery in Scotland - located just a few hundred meters South of the Highland Park distillery. For a while it looked like Blackwood distillery on the Shetlands might become the northernmost whisky distillery in Scotland, but that never really got off the ground.

4) Scapa flow (a stretch of water that links the North Sea and the Atlantic) was home to a major Royal Navy anchorage in both world wars.

5) Scapa distillery uses exclusively bourbon casks for maturation.

6) The famous whisky writer Alfred Barnard visited the Scapa distillery in 1886, one year after it was founded.
He wrote "one of the most complete little distilleries in the Kingdom" with "the newest type of stills and heated by steam instead of fire, and are both fitted with collapse valves, which allow air to enter in the event of a vacuum being formed".

7) When Scapa was relaunched in 2004 the distillery had been (mostly) mothballed for a decade. That could be one of the reasons for replacing the 12 years old official expression with a 14 years old version in 2004.

8) Orkney was already inhabited in the bronze age. Vikings from Scandinavia arrived on Shetland and the Orkney islands in the 8th century and ruled the area for well over 500 years. It became a part of Scotland again when the king of Denmark sold the islands to James II of Scotland in 1468.

9) I'm not sure if it's still the case, but in the past Scapa's malted barley used to be entirely unpeated.
However, the water supply of Scapa is said to be very peaty.

10) The shortest scheduled flight in the world is only one-and-a-half miles long; from Westray on the Scottish mainland to Papa Westra on the Orkney Islands. The journey takes 1 minute 14 seconds to complete.

Scapa single malt whisky

Scapa 16yo (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: Starts sharp and dry, but sweetens out after a few seconds. Dust. Several grain notes.
Taste: Malty and medium sweet, drying out quickly. Malted barley. Quite smooth, like an Irish whiskey.
Score: 75 points - it seems a little different in character from last year's batch, but scores the same.

Scapa 16yo (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2009)
Nose: Straw. Rice waffles. Not very expressive. Opens up a little after a few minutes with some organics.
Needs some time to reach "average" territory and drops off soon afterwards. Not a lot of staying power.
Taste: Light and sweetish. Malty, but also flat and extremely smooth like a grain whisky. Great mouth feel.
Grittier in the finish with a touch of smoke. Falls apart. This is what we call a 'doordrink-whisky' in Holland.
Score: 75 points - very easily drinkable; it probably would have scored higher outside the MM Awards...

Scapa 14yo (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2007)
Nose: Light and fruity with a hint of dust. Gentle sweetness. Cheese cake?
A big solid presence, worth a score in the 80's - but only just. This is more complex that I remembered...
Taste: Smooth start, solid fruity centre. Fairly harsh burn in the finish, almost pulling it back out of the 80's.
Score: 80 points - which is notably better than a batch from 2005 that I tried earlier; that one scored 75.

Scapa 14yo (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2005)
Nose: Very sweet. Honey? Grainy, but not in a bad way. A little sharp. Glue? Toilet freshener?
I got more fruits during a second try. Still sharp, but much better than I thought. Nose opens up quite nicely.
Taste: Phew! Bitter and grainy. Pine. Eucalyptus. Still, there's a sweet undercurrent.
It seems much sweeter on the palate during round 2. Some bitterness too, apart from pine and eucalyptus.
Score: 75 points - just not really my type of malt. This Scapa whisky seems decidedly average.

Scapa 1993/2005 (45%, Gordon & MacPhail for La Maison du Whisky)
Nose: Grainy start. Maybe a tad dusty. Grows a little spicier with time. Not too bad...
Taste: Dusty and oily. Feels like a bourbon. Quite hot. Short finish. Very dry and herbal aftertaste. Aspirin.
Score: 68 points - but I should probably add that this was dram #13 of a long, long session. Must try again.
Revision: Sweet, grainy and dusty in the nose again. And again dust on the palate again as well. Hmmm...
My initial score of 68 points is a bit harsh, but I really can't go above average for this. So, 75 points it is.

Scapa 12yo (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2003, L01752/LF0480) sells for 30 Euro's these days.
That's not a bad price at all, but earlier batches I tried scored only slightly above average.
Nose: Wow! A spicy punch I don't recall from earlier batches. Organics as well.
It settles down within a minute, growing maltier, fruitier and much more subtle.
Hints of grey clay. Maybe some very faint chloride? Well-rounded but quite MOTR.
Taste: Smooth; not as powerful as I'd expected. Fabulous sweet & malty centre.
Liquorice and fruity notes pop up here and there. Could be a tad more expressive, though.
Score: 77 points - I had it at 78 for a while, but the sweetness on the palate eventually evaporates. I imagine this would perform a lot better at 46% - that could make it a little 'bolder', maybe pushing it into the 80's.

Scapa 23yo 1979/2003 (55.6%, Chieftain's, Sherry Butt #663, 564 bottles)
Nose: Very rich, very sweet with sherry and wood. Pipe tobacco & cigar smoke. Tea.
Lemon? Then more spices and oriental organics - another classic sherry monster.
Very expressive and everything hangs together rather well. Serious stuff...
Taste: Ah, yes. Big and sweet with lots of substance. Lighter and fruitier later.
Very smooth and sweet. Malty and chewy. Liquorice root. This is just lovely!
Oh yes, this is extremely pleasant, especially later on. Extremely likeable.
Score: 88 points - my kind of malt; big, sweet, smoky and chewy. Lovely.

Scapa 9yo 1988/1997 (43%, Signatory Vintage, Distilled 25/01/1988, Bottled 9/1997)
Nose: Very mellow at first, growing spicier. Hey, now I get lots of liquorice root. Dusty.
Slightly 'farmy' with mild organics. Quite restrained, but I have to admit I still like it!
Taste: Soft and sweet. More powerful and a little gritty in the centre. Medium finish.
It doesn't perform too bad on the palate, but it's not worthy of a 'recommendable' score.
Score: 78 points - but based on the fun nose I could have gone for the lower 80's.

And there's more to tell about Scapa...

These were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Scapa Scotch whisky I've tried over the years.
Besides, these tasting notes only reflect my own, personal opinion; your tastes might be different from mine.
Fortunately, you can find the scores and tasting notes from up to two dozen other whisky lovers in the 'Malt Maniacs Monitor' - an independent whisky database with details on more than 15,000 different whiskies from Scotland and the rest of the world. Visit the Scapa page on the MMMonitor and select 'scorecard view' if you want to know how other whisky lovers felt about the dozens of Scapa expressions that were released in recent years. However, if you'd like to learn more about whisky in general (and single malt Scotch whisky in particular), you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky (10 chapters filled with everything you need to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky) or the mAlmanac (sort of a rudimentary whisky shopping guide.)

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