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 located at the head of Scapa Bay, some 2 miles south-west of Kirkwall.
The Scapa distillery was built in 1885 by John T. Townsend and one Mr. MacFarlane, whose
first name isn't mentioned in any of the sources I've checked. Their private company was taken
over by Scapa Distillery Co. Ltd. in 1919, but that 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 at the time) took over Scapa distillery.
It is said that the brothers needed the malt whisky from Scapa distillery for their
'Ambassador' blended whisky - a blends with a solid reputation at the time.
Bloch Brothers (Distillers) Ltd. were originally whisky blenders and brokers.
Actually distilling whisky wasn’t their core business, so in 1954 they decided
to sell the Scapa distillery to Hiram Walker & Sons. The new owners went to
work on the equipment at Scapa and in 1959 they replaced one of the stills
with a so-called 'Lomond still' - still something of a novelty at the time.
Alex Vesco worked at Scapa and he provides an eyewitness account:
As far as I know, the Lomond still is still in use at Scapa, and for many years it was the only one.
In 2010, Bruichladdich bought the old Lomond still from Inverleven and installed it as well.
“I worked at Scapa for a number of years in the fifties and sixties. The Lomond Still was installed
when its use at Hiram Walkers other distilleries at Miltonduff proved indifferent. They didn’t want
to simply scrap the Lomond Still and just shipped it north. where it stayed until the present.
It’s a pretty indifferent whisky to be honest.”
Meanwhile, the malting floors at Scapa had been closed in 1962.
This was not unusual in the 1950's and 1960's - dozens of distilleries had
been closing off their own malting installations. Local malting floors and the
so-called Saladin boxes were replaced by central malting facilities.
For example, after the Port Ellen distillery was closed, the maltings remained
operational and were expanded to supply distilleries like Ardbeg and Lagavulin.
The picture below shows the water wheel in the Lingro Burn that was used
to power the distillery in the good old days. Most of the buildings shown in
the picture were built during a major reconstruction of Scapa in 1959.
The Scapa distillery was mothballed in 1994, but since 1997 a crew came over each year from the Highland Park
distillery to distill a little whisky. Full time production of whisky resumed in November 2004, but I’ll get back to that.
The Scapa distillery is situated on the South coast,
along the ‘estuary’ of the fairly insignificant Lingro Burn.
According to Alex Vesco: “The water supply for cooling
came from the burn and nowadays from the town supply.
The water for production was piped from a source in a
nearby hill. It is surprisingly rich in lime given Orkney’s
geology and people with rheumatism would come out
from Kirkwall to take some home to drink, saying it
improved their condition.”
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.)
transported from the mainland to the distillery. Scapa’s isolation also makes it harder to benefit from tourism.
1) Most of the current distillery buildings at Scapa were erected in 1959 - and they are not fancy.
Two of the original warehouses from the 19th century have survived the progress, though.
2) The Scapa distillery is the second northernmost distillery in Scotland - located just a few hundred
meters South of the Highland Park distillery. Both are located South of Kirkwall, but nevertheless
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. The differences are much more
likely caused by Scapa’s Lomond still and their (almost) exclusive use of ex-bourbon casks.
In the past, refill sherry casks were used occasionally, but fresh casks went to Highland Park.
7) Scapa's malted barley is entirely unpeated - which is quite unusual for an island malt whisky.
3) Most of the malt whisky produced at Scapa is still used in blended whisky like Ballantine's.
6) Maurice Bloch (owner of Scapa in the mid 20th century) acquired the title 'sir' at some point.
Two years after selling the Scapa distillery to Hiram Walker he set up the Maurice Bloch Trust, a charitable
foundation for the advancement of religion and education and for the alleviation of disease.
5) 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".
4) Orkney was already inhabited in the bronze age. In the 8th century, vikings from Scandinavia
arrived on Shetland and the Orkney islands. The norsemen ruled the area for over 500 years.
It became Scottish when the Danish king sold the islands to James II of Scotland in 1468.
8) 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.
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
12yo standard expression that was available in the 1990's
and early noughties is replaced with a 14yo OB.
2008 - The new Scapa 16yo standard expression is launched, replacing the 14yo that emerged in 2004.
2005 - Pernod Ricard become the new owners of Scapa
throught their Chivas Brothers subsidiary. The distillery
is closed again briefly in order to complete the second
phase of the refurbishment
2015 - Scapa launches the NAS expression ‘Skiren’ and opens its doors to visitors.
2016 - In the past the malt whisky from Scapa used to be unpeated, but with the ‘Scapa Glansa’ the distillery
releases its first peated expression in recent memory. They’ve neglected to add an age statement though...
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 & fruity; a hint of dust. Gentle sweetness. Cheese cake? 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. A solid presence.
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 with some vanilla. 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.
Second try: Sweet, grainy and dusty in the nose again. And again dust on the palate again as well. Hmmm...
Score: 75 points - my initial score of 68 points was a bit harsh, but I really can't go above average for this.
Scapa 12yo (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2003, L01752/LF0480)
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.
My own tasting notes for some expressions of Scapa malt whisky are collected on this distillery profile.
Those were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Scapa I've tried over the years, but the notes should
convey how I felt about those whiskies. However, these tasting notes only reflect my purely personal opinion.
Your tastes might be different from mine - so it would be prudent to check out some other opinions as well.
Serge Valentin’s Whiskyfun website offers tasting notes on thousands of whisky bottlings, including Scapa.
The Malt Maniacs Monitor provides opinions of several other aficionados on over 15,000 different whiskies.
But perhaps you'd like to read a little bit more about whisky in general or single malt Scotch whisky in particular?
In that case, you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky - 10 chapters filled with (almost)
everything you need to know in order to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky. Or, if you’d like
to dig a little deeper, the Whisky Lexicon offers more detailed information on a bunch of whisky-related topics.