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The Viking Tour (Part 2)

Scapa Flow
Scapa Flow – Beauty and tradgedy

The institute of Brewing & Distilling expedition continued onwards to Scapa Distillery. Orcadian beauty is abundant on the shores of Scapa Flow. The bay reflects the moods of the weather. We were blessed with shimmering water in glorious sunshine. But even the brightest of days is overshadowed by the tragic events that unfolded within view of the distillery. The green buoy in the bay marks the site where the Royal Oak was sunk during the second world war with the loss of 834 lives. 70 unwanted ships were intentionally sunk to form ‘Churchill’s barriers’ in an attempt to prevent further losses for the navy stronghold. The sense of history in Orkrney provides a powerful context for the production of whisky.

The sign that greets boaters in Scapa Flow

Scapa Distillery recently opened to visitors for the first time so we were excited to get a first peek. Of most interest for me was the Lomond still, the only one used for single malt Scotch whisky. Installed in 1959 it had three internal plates which could be varied to produce 3 different types of spirit. The plates have now been removed resulting in a more standard setup for wash distillations. The spirit still is dwarfed by the beastly Lomond still. A strange couple that work in unison to produce a wonderful spirit. Scapa was also famous for its remarkably long fermentation of 160 hours (compared to 48 hours for most). This helped impart the estery profile to Scapa 16 year old. Unfortunately, recent capacity constraints have led to a reduction in the fermentation time to 80 hours and the discontinuation of the 16 year old. We sampled the new NAS expression ‘Skiren’ at the end of the tour and boarded the bus bound for Scapa’s famous neighbour.

Higland Park Gate
The impressive entrance gate to Highland Park Distillery
HP Chair
The Viking chair at Highland Park
HP Malting
Malting floors at Highland Park

Highland Park is must on any distillery baggers’ hit list. Dominating the skyline on the outskirts of Kirkwall, Highland Park offers the visitor a comprehensive view of whisky production. Locally cut peat, malting floors, mashing, fermentation, distillation, maturation, cooperage… it’s all here. As you pass through the famous gates with their intricate ironmongery you are greeted by a team proud of their whisky and Orcadian heritage. Our guide took delight in retelling the dangers of peat cutting – an unexploded bomb and axe head have been discovered. Further testament to the palimpsest of history unique to these islands. Viking strength is required to maintain the malting floors as the barley is turned every 4 to 8 hours. The result of all their hard work is 44,000 barrels on site, or 9 million litres of spirit. No wonder the entrance gates are so imposing with all those thirsty locals out.

Dunnet Still
The ‘Tin Man’ still at Dunnet Bay
Dunnet Group
All together at Dunnet Bay (Martin – far left)

Returning to mainland we stopped by a distillery of great contrast, but no less impressive. Dunnet Bay has only been open 18 months but such is its success in the craft gin boom that its latest seasonal gin was sold out even before it left the building. The 500L John Doe still looked like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz and is producing magical spirit. Rock Rose gin is winning many awards due to the dedication of Martin and Claire – a couple who followed their dreams and ditched their former careers. In the last year 35,000 bottles were sold, an incredible achievement for a small start-up craft distillery. Long may it continue.

The still cathedral at Glenmorangie

The final destination on our epic Viking voyage was Glenmorangie in Tain. The sense of grandeur in the still room was breathtaking. Twelve of the tallest stills (5.1m) in Scotch whisky give the impression that you were in a cathedral of distillation. Necks creek in the same way as they would in St. Giles. Also impressive was the construction of the new Anaerobic Digestion plant at a cost of over £20m. The facility will treat effluent reducing the distillery’s impact on the environment and will produce methane from stillage which can be used to offset energy bills. We finished off with a great tasting that showcased some of Glenmorangie’s more innovative offerings such as Signet, which contains chocolate malt.

Glenmorangie group
The Viking Tour – Mission Accomplished!

We successfully completed our Viking mission – 5 distilleries and 2 breweries in 3 days. It’s hard work, but someone has to do it!


The Viking Tour (Part 1)

To ‘go-a-Viking’ means to go raiding for loot. The Institute of Brewing and Distilling annual trip was titled ‘The Viking Tour’. For £250 it was possible to ‘raid’ 6 distilleries and 2 breweries over three days with all accomodation and travel included. A coach filled with 21 like-minded viking raiders headed north with a thirst for knowledge and liquid refreshment.

The first stop was Invergordon Distillery. The industrial scale of the distilling columns and the smell of dark grain processing made an immediate impression. It was my first visit to a grain distillery and it presented a welcome contrast to slick touristic malt distilling operations. Invergordon is the workhorse of Whyte & MacKay, pumping out up to 40 million litres of pure alcohol per annum from a mixture of barely and maize. It’s muscular exterior masked a soft, delicate centre. The 1974 single cask we tried was smooth, complex and had a lusciously long finish. The distillery was also notable for its unusual continuous fermentation system. Reduced downtime and faster fermentations can result in considerable cost savings due to lower energy consumption.

We continued up the A9 to Wick and pulled in to Pulteney Distillery. This northern classic is plonked in the middle of the old town of Pulteney. The surrounding houses and local businesses give the distillery a lovely community feel and give the impression that they are protecting their most prized asset! Most of the whisky is matured on site which is believed to enhance the whisky’s salty, sea air character. As no peated malt is used and Old Pulteney has a heavy coastal character I am inclined to agree. After the tour we were invited to try the 12, 17 and 21 year old expressions. All delicious but the 17 was my favourite on the day.

Ring of Brodgar
UNESCO World Heritage site – The Ring of Brodgar

Day 2 and an early start for a bit of sightseeing around Orkney. The last time I was here was 20 years ago and I was soon reminded of why I loved it so much the first time. A cocktail of neolithic archaeology, war history and rugged, treeless landscapes gives Orkney its unique atmosphere. The Ring of Brodgar, a UNESCO World Heritage site, seemed to trap us in its stoned circular trance. What? Why? and How? Only those alive 4,500 years ago will know for certain. Ask an archaeologist today and you are likely to hear ‘ritual monument’, which is the generic term used whenever they don’t have a clue!

At 9:30am our longboat landed at Swannay Brewery. Beer was served for breakfast in the Viking tradition. Rob Hill, owner and self professed ‘plodder’ has been brewing here with passion for 10 years. When you meet people like Rob you are reminded why the craft revolution is a great boon for the drinkers of today. All he wants to do is make great beer, everything else is secondary. He sincerely said, “As long as you have a good pint in your glass, I’m a happy man”. Here, here Rob!

The now considerably more boisterous raiding party continued to Orkney Brewery. We were welcomed with a delicious selection of beer. I particularly enjoyed the Red MacGregor and the Dark Island Reserve aged in a whisky cask was rich and curious (although something I would not normally drink at £20 per bottle!). The brewery is state of the art with a gleaming brewhouse and fermenters, creating 36,000L per week. Orkney Brewery is a great example to what can be achieved with Viking spirit to all other budding start-up breweries. Tune in again soon for Part 2…..