Scapa Distillery: Yesterday & Today

Scapa Distillery is on the largest of the Orkney Islands and is in fact one of the two most northerly distilleries in Scotland. The rather desolate treeless landscape of the area is amply compensated by a glorious seascape. Alfred Barnard in his "Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom" describes the scene in 1887: "But the beautiful sea-scape somewhat compensates for this loss (of trees), for sparkling in the bright sunshine are the white sails of ships, and boats manned by crews who know every creek on the coast, and whose voices can be heard singing the favourite "Orkney Boatman's Song." From its cliff-top position on the north shore of Scapa Flow, the distillery overlooks the scene of a more recent event, the burial ground of the German naval fleet which was scuttled there in 1919.

When Barnard visited Scapa he discovered that "The Establishment is certainly one of the most complete little Distilleries in the Kingdom". This is not surprising, since Scapa only opened in October 1885 and was considered at the time to be the most up-to-date distillery in Scotland. Barnard would have found everything still in pristine condition. The distillery had been built by a prominent Speyside distiller, J.T. Townsend, but in 1919 it became the property of the Scapa Distillery Company Limited.

During the First World War, Scapa provided a somewhat unusual billet for ratings from the Royal Navy. In fact, it was saved from complete destruction by a mysterious fire as a result of the quick action by officers and men of the British fleet, who came to its rescue by the boat load! It was silent from 1934 to 1936, following the company's liquidation, and then passed to Bloch Brothers who sold it to Ballantine's in 1954.

The distillery is built on the banks of the Lingro Burn and a large water-wheel still turns, though more for visual effect than to provide power. On Barnard's visit a hundred years ago, the wheel was driving all the machinery, although even then there was a back-up engine in case the supply was insufficient. The Lingro provides water purely for cooling purposes, the production water being piped in from springs at Orquil Farm. Barnard wrote that "The water supply is from springs and from the Burn, from which it is carried a great distance in large iron pipes"

Barnard describes the malting house in detail, but this in fact disappeared in the 1960's. Scapa now takes its malted barley direct from Ballantine's central maltings in Kirkcaldy. The distillery has two large silos at Kirkwall Pier to which the malt is carried by ship, then transported by lorry to Scapa itself.

Barnard was clearly impressed by the new machinery he saw in operation during his inspection of the distillery. Every detail is meticulously recorded, including size and capacities, which gives us an excellent insight into the workings of Scapa a hundred years ago. Some of the equipment may sound a bit "Heath Robinson" to us today, but in essence the operation remains very much as he saw it.There are no microprocessors or other means of electronic measuring or control at Scapa. The task of checking quality falls to Ballantine's master blender at Dumbarton, to whom samples of each distillation are sent.

When Ballantine's took over Scapa, they extended and modernised it, in keeping with their policy of retaining the essential character of their distilleries, including the installation of new copper pot stills. These enormous, shining, stills are the heart and pride of every malt whisky distillery. They shape the final character of the whisky and determine its quality Their design has remained unchanged for many generations and is critical to the character of the whisky produced. There is no real scientific basis for this, it is all part of the magic and mystique surrounding the making of malt whisky. It is interesting to note that the new pot-stills, installed in 1978, are exactly the same size as the ones installed at the end of the First World War. When Barnard visited Scapa he observed that "The Stills are of the newest type 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"

Scapa today is performing about 14 separate mash cycles per week,each of 3.76 tonnes. Eight mashes.are done between Sunday night and Wednesday morning, and a further six between Wednesday evening and Friday midday, thus constituting two separate programmes. Filling is either into used oak Bourbon casks for storage at Scapa, or into bulk containers for shipment to the mainland for eventual blending.

Scapa can produce about 1.5 million litres per year, but current production averages 860,000 litres. In 1887 Barnard records the annual output as being 40,000 gallons (181,840 litres). The high quality of the pure Highland malt produced at Scapa - a good, clean whisky of darkish colour - can be attributed to the individual character of Orkney peat, the excellence of the water and the sea air.

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