Monday, July 31, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 8

Day 8 was mostly a travel day, but I did manage to incorporate one distillery tour which also helped to breakup the driving. My departure from the Orkney Islands was on a different ferry service than the one by which I had arrived, primarily so I could see a greater variety of scenery. While I had considered visiting another of the historic sites before leaving the islands, I wisely opted for a leisurely breakfast, stress-free organizing and repacking session, and an unrushed drive with an early arrival to check-in for the 11:50 ferry.

The St Margaret’s Hope to Gills Bay crossing actually departs from the island of South Ronaldsay rather than the Orkney Mainland. After the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow at the onset of WWII, which I discussed in my previous post, Winston Churchill ordered the construction of a series of defensive barriers to protect the strategic body of water. Known as the Churchill Barriers, these four structures connect the Orkney Mainland to the smaller islands of Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm, and then to Burray and finally South Ronaldsay. Today these barriers serve as causeways, connecting the five islands via the A961 road.

While the views on this ferry crossing were quite nice, they certainly weren’t as spectacular as those on the Stromness to Scrabster crossing. This was, however, a shorter and less expensive ferry trip at 60 minutes and about $70 (one way, for a car and single passenger). By comparison, my outbound voyage lasted 90 minutes and cost about $95. The two routes are operated by different companies, Northlink and Pentland. The shorter crossing is on a smaller, more utilitarian ferry, while the longer one is on a larger vessel with more upscale accommodations. The island terminals are about equidistant from Kirkwall, but the two companies’ crossing schedules differ significantly.

From the port at Gills Bay it was a three hour drive to Inverness, where I would spend the night. Fortunately, the Clynelish distillery was on my path and about midway between the end points. After departing the ferry terminal I was treated to some new views of northern Scotland’s eastern coast from the A99 until I reached Wick. From there I went back down the road I had followed north the week before. Just ahead of the settlement of Brora I turned off of the A9 and started to head inland, going just a short distance before reaching Clynelish.

As planned, I arrived shortly before the 3:00 tour. I started toward the Clynelish visitor center, which was actually the only accessible part of the distillery building; the rest of it was surrounded by a temporary chain-link fence, segregating it as a construction area. When doing my pre-trip research I had seen on the Clynelish website that mechanical and electrical upgrades at the distillery, which were to last 10 months, had begun in April of 2016. Since this work meant that there could be no visitor access to the production areas of the distillery, tours were instead being offered of the old Brora distillery, which is onsite but had previously been closed to the public.

I was visiting a week into May of 2017, so I had assumed everything would be back to normal by the time I got there. Once inside, I was a little surprised to learn that the work was still ongoing and that I would be getting a tour of Brora rather than Clynelish.
The Brora distillery was actually the original Clynelish distillery, and the two facilities had overlapping periods of production.

My tour guide started off with a little local history. The late 1700’s and early 1800’s saw a transition of the rural Scottish economy as raising sheep became a more profitable agricultural activity than farming. This resulted in aristocratic landowners evicting large numbers of tenant farmers during that period, in what became known as the Highland Clearances. While some people ended up relocating to the poorest quality farmland, many emigrated out of the Highlands, going to the Scottish Lowlands or even as far away North America and Australia.

The Clynelish distillery was founded by one of the more notorious figures involved in the Clearances. George Leveson-Gower, who was known as The Marquess of Stafford until he became the 1st Duke of Sutherland shortly before his death in 1833, is estimated to have been the wealthiest man of the 19th century. His land holdings increased dramatically when he married the Countess of Sutherland, Elizabeth Gordon in 1785. In 1807 they had their agents begin evicting subsistence farmers from their more valuable land and relocating them to the coast, where it was assumed that they would take up fishing as an alternative to farming. Patrick Sellar was hired as their factor (essentially a land manager) in 1809 and oversaw the “improvements” to their lands. Sellar’s methods were particularly brutal, even for the standards of the time, and he carried out extensive clearances between 1811 and 1820.

George Leveson-Gower established the Clynelish distillery in 1819. No doubt it would be a profitable business, but the fact that the distillery would purchase barley from local farms guaranteed that rent was paid by the few tenant farmers who remained on Leveson-Gower’s poor quality land. The distillery was leased by a variety of parties through the 1800’s before being purchased outright in 1896. By 1930 Clynelish was solely owned by Distillers Company Limited, which eventually morphed into today’s Diageo.

As a major contributor to the Johnny Walker blended whiskies, there was enough demand for Clynelish during the boom period of the 1960’s that its owners decided to build a new, much larger distillery next to the original. Construction began in 1967 and the new facility was producing whisky the next year. Once it was up and running, the original Clynelish distillery was mothballed.

But circumstances changed quickly. What I was told on the tour was the simplified version of the story; that the old Clynelish distillery was brought back online in 1969 and heavily peated whisky was produced there to cover for the Caol Ila distillery, which is owned by the same parent company, while is was completely rebuilt. The original Clynelish distillery was renamed as Brora after the town in which it is located, and distillation continued there until 1983. I’ll detail the more historically accurate version of these events in a follow-up post.

Of course, the soft demand that followed through the 1980’s and 1990’s meant that a decent number of Brora casks were spared from the blending hall. There have been many independent bottlings of Brora which date back to at least 1995, but the first official bottling from Diageo came out as a 30 year old in 2002. Since then it has become a mainstay of Diageo’s annual special release group, with cask strength offerings in the 25 to 38 year range and typically about 3000 bottles per release. As the cult status of this whisky has risen, so has its price, with the latest release pushing well past the $2000 mark.

From the visitor center we walked away from the Clynelish still house and toward the Brora distillery buildings, with the old kiln’s pagoda roof standing out above everything else. We passed by a row a seven connected warehouses in the traditional dunnage style, and it appears that no modern warehouses were added to the site when the new distillery was built.

Once inside the Brora still house, we were confined to a small viewing area from which most of the distilling space could be seen through Plexiglas panels. The near-hermetic sealing made me wonder if the space had asbestos issues.

In spite of this restriction, it was still very cool to see the stills that produced such an iconic whisky. The Lyne arms are cut off just before where they would have passed through the exterior wall and much of the plumbing was disconnected from the stills, but they still look glorious. The spirit safe is in position as well as the two receivers it fed, one of wood and the other of cast iron.

I have since learned that Brora used to operate with six wooden washbacks at 29,500 liters each and a similarly sized mash tun. I think it’s safe to assume that those vessels had been located in a room not far from the stills, and wish I had thought to ask if they were still on-site.

Next we stepped back outside and I tried to have a look behind the still house. The area was fenced off and other structures blocked most of the view, but I did catch a glimpse of the large concrete blocks that likely once supported the worm tubs.

A short walk took us to an adjacent building where we entered the former cask filling room. The wooden holding tank is still there along with its pair of hoses and filling nozzles, which rest in a pair of casks dating to 1983 according to the stenciling on their heads.

Speaking of which, the old sheet metal stencils were on display in a small office room off of the filling room. There was also a ledger on a desk here, where all of the information about each cask was entered as they were filled; date, cask number, weight of the empty cask, weight of the full cask, weight of the contents, volume of contents in gallons, strength, gallons at proof, etc.

From there we went back across to the row of warehouses and entered one of them. The seven contiguous warehouses are rather narrow and they vary in length as their rear walls terminate at a road that runs 45 degrees to their orientation. But the longest of them is exceptionally long. Together they currently hold about 6300 casks. Among the many Clynelish casks, two Brora casks were clearly visible; a 1977 and I believe the other was dated 1982. Of course Diageo has a policy of storing a variety of casks from their many distilleries at any given site, so there’s no way to get a sense of how much aging Brora they still possess (and I suspect that most of their employees have no idea either).

We did discuss a few other Brora facts along the way, revealing that Brora had modernized in the 1960’s, at least a little. The stills were converted from direct fired to internal steam heating in 1961. Mechanical power had come from a steam engine and a water wheel until electric motors replaced them in 1965. That was also the last year in which the traditional floor maltings were used. In 1966 the coal-fired boiler was upgraded so it could burn fuel oil instead. While Brora had a maximum capacity of just over 1 million liters per annum, it only produced about 40,000 liters in its last year of production.

We also talked a little bit about Clynelish. When operational they use a long-ish fermentation time of 80 hours and typically run 18 to 19 mashes per week. The distillery is a major contributor to the Johnny Walker range of blends, with 95% of its production going there and only 5% being bottled as single malt. The current capacity is 4.8 million LPA and even though the upgrades being performed are extensive, they are not expanding the production levels.

The project includes replacing three of the six stills and four of the 10 washbacks. Two of the 10 washbacks are stainless steel, but they will be replacing the wooden ones with new wooden ones. Other new pieces of equipment include the mash tun, the draff hopper and the water cooling tower. The project also includes the building of a new yeast room, as well as a new roof for the control room.

My guide also mentioned that Teaninich (another Diageo owned distillery), which lies about 40 miles to the south, is considered to be the sister distillery to Clynelish. When it was rebuilt in 1970 the designers essentially copied the blueprint of the new Clynelish plant. Teaninich is actually located just a few thousand feet away from Dalmore, on the other side of the A9, but is apparently much less visible from the main road.

At the time of my visit, I was told that the construction project would likely be complete by the end of June. Looking online now though, I see more recent estimates of the restart happening in August. My guide didn’t know what the fate of the Brora tours would be once the Clynelish tours were being offered again, but we both agreed that it would be a shame for them to go away altogether. Hopefully they will continue separately, or as an optional add-on to the standard Clynelish tour. I even mused about the possibility of Brora restarting as a small-scale, old-style production distillery; sort of a working museum. But I really don’t think anyone at Diageo has the vision or the fortitude for such a project.

Back at the visitor center, I was presented with two samples; Clynelish 14 year old, which is the only regularly produced official bottling, and a distillery-only offering. The 14 year old is aged 60% in sherry casks and 40% in bourbon barrels, and bottled at 46% abv. This was my first taste from a distillery that had barely been on my radar prior to this trip, and I was pleasantly surprised. This is an old-school style malt; a good representation of what coastal highland whiskies used to be.

I only had the tiniest of sips of my sample from the other bottling (for a direct comparison) and took the rest of it to go in what was essentially a stoppered test-tube. This was from a limited run of just 6000 bottles that were released in 2008. It was bottled at a cask strength of 57.3% with no age statement after maturing exclusively in bourbon barrels. Full strength whiskies have a great appeal to me and this one was certainly bold and interesting, but I still preferred the flagship 14 year old. Its sherry cask component brought a level of complexity that the distillery-only bottling just couldn’t match.

On this sort of trip there have to be a few very special drams along the way. You can’t really plan such things in advance though; they just come along when the time is right. Brora has long been a whisky that was on my list of things I really ought to taste. Having just toured the old distillery and with several vintages available for tasting at the visitor center, this was one of those times. I went with the 2014 release, which was a 35 year old bottled at 48.6%. A single drink at £35 (about $45) is a rare indulgence for me, so I try to be picky when I go there. This one was definitely worth it.

The nose was rich and weighty with macerated tree fruits, showing firm but delicate peat smoke.
On the palate, the dry, earthy peat character seemed to have been mellowed by the years rather than diminished by them. There was a rich, waxy quality and nice complexity along with great balance.
The flavors evolved beautifully as it moved into an incredibly long finish.

After wandering around and taking a few more pictures outside of the distillery, I made my way down to Inverness. The city is bisected by the river Ness, which flows from Loch Ness to the sea. The B&B I was staying at was in the heart of the city and right on the east bank of the river. I had some travel issues to sort out after I settled in and that took up most of my evening. I was actually lucky to find a nearby place for dinner that was open past 10:00; otherwise I might have gone without. Needless to say, the only whisky I got into that night was the sample I had taken from Clynelish.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 7

After coming up a little short on my goal of visiting many of Orkney’s historic sites on Day 6, I decided to regroup and dedicate some time to a planning session later that night. I was scheduled for the more extensive “Scapa Experience” tour at 2:30 on Day 7, which their website described as being 90 minutes long. That left me a decent amount of time before (and possibly a little time after) the tour for the sightseeing that I was hoping to do.

The Undiscovered Scotland website is a great resource for the type of information I was seeking, as it is essentially an online visitor’s guide of Scotland. Its maps, with links to pages about the individual sites, are especially helpful. There are also links to the pages on the Historic Environment Scotland website, which contains more information about the sites, such as hours of operation (something I only realized out after the fact). Using Google maps to figure out drive times, I was able to plot out a schedule for the day’s activities.

The owner of the B&B where I was staying had informed me that there was a bit of an issue / controversy with visiting cruise liners coming into the port at Kirkwall and flooding the island with huge numbers of tourists. Apparently they all flock to the well known historic sites and essentially overrun them; all while spending very little money during their time on the island. This was enough of a concern that he had a schedule of the planned dockings so his guests could avoid these tourist influxes. I had heard that the liners couldn’t dock in times of high winds and I think that may have been the case this day; in spite of one with 6000 passengers being on the schedule, the sites I went to were only moderately busy at best.

I got on the road around 10:00 and arrived at my first stop, the Broch of Gurness, about 30 minutes later. A broch is a circular defensive tower made of stone and the one at Gurness is encircled by a community of smaller buildings, which is not always the case. Of the roughly 500 brochs spread across northern Scotland, the Broch of Gurness is one of the prime examples.

The upper portion of the tower collapsed long ago, but is believed to have reached 30 feet in height. Amazing amounts of detail can still be seen in the lower portion of the structure, which is 60 feet in diameter. The broch and its surrounding smaller buildings are encircled by a ring of defensive ditches 150 feet in diameter

The entire site was constructed some time before 200 BC, in the middle of Britain’s Iron Age. 700 to 800 years later it was largely abandoned and had been filled in, allowing the site to remain undisturbed until it was rediscovered and excavated in 1929.

My original plan had been to make a counterclockwise circle around the north-west lobe of the island, staying close to the coast. That would have brought me to three more sites; the Brough of Birsay, Skara Brae and Maeshowe. The Brough of Birsay is an abandoned settlement that was inhabited by the Picts and the Norse at various times. The site is on a tidal island that is accessible by a small causeway, but only for two hours before and two hours after low tide. The tidal timing didn’t line up with my schedule and I really didn’t have time to explore four sites before my distillery tour anyway. I was just going to stop by the area near Birsay to check out the coast views.

That plan changed after a chat with the gentleman manning the visitor center at the Broch of Gurness. He explained that access to Maeshowe is tightly controlled, with guided tours leaving every hour, on the hour. I had driven through that area the day before and seen a sign saying the parking lot for the site was closed. A new visitor center for the site, which is a mile or so down the road from the original one, was built recently. Groups leave from the new facility and take a shuttle bus to the old parking lot before walking out to the site. Fortunately this was explained to me at the Broch of Gurness, because there is not good signage for this new arrangement at the old visitor center.

Getting in the car and checking the GPS, I saw that if I went straight to Maeshowe I would arrive five minutes before the noon tour. So off I went, circling back around to the south. Maeshowe (pronounced ‘maze-ow’) is a chambered cairn; essentially an earth covered stone-mound style of tomb.

This looks like a simple grassy mound (24 feet high and 115 feet in diameter) from the outside, but the inside reveals its astonishing stone construction. The entrance passage is only about four feet high and maybe three feet wide, making for a stooped walk down its 36 foot length. This leads to the central chamber which measures 15 feet by 15 feet. Smaller passages in the other three walls of the main room open into smaller side cells.

Exact dating here is difficult, but it is thought that the tomb was constructed around 2800 BC, making it about 200 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Consisting of sandstone slabs weighting up to 30 tons, this is an impressive monument. Estimates of its construction effort range from 40,000 to 100,000 man-hours. Large vertical stones buttress each corner of the central chamber and it is thought that these may have been free standing before the rest of the structure was built around them; they could even have been in the center of a larger circle of standing stones. The entrance passage is perfectly aligned with the profile of the Barnhouse stone, a 10 foot high standing stone located almost half a mile from Maeshowe. On the winter solstice, the last rays of the setting sun pass directly down the tomb’s narrow passage when the sun passes over the top of the Barnhouse stone.

When the site was abandoned after a few hundred years of use, its entrance passage was filled in and sealed off. In 1153 a group of marauding Norsemen broke into the tomb through a corner of its roof, seeking shelter from a winter storm. They carved runic graffiti in the walls, leaving behind the largest collection of such inscriptions known to exist outside of Scandinavia. The modern excavation of Maeshowe in 1861 was done rather poorly by today’s archeological standards. The upper portion of the roof collapsed and had to be replaced by modern construction in 1910. The inner walls rise vertically for four and a half feet before they gradually begin sloping inwards, eventually forming the beehive shaped ceiling. It may have originally been 15 feet or more in height, but the repaired top limits the height to 12.5 feet now.

The only downside to the tour of Maeshowe is that photography is not allowed inside the tomb. By the time the shuttle bus got us back to the visitor center, it was almost 1:00. I was only 15 minutes from Skara Brae, but that was in the opposite direction from the Scapa distillery, so it would take another 30 minutes to get back there. That left me just 45 minutes to see Orkney’s most famous Neolithic site; it would be a quick visit, but better than not seeing it at all.

Skara Brae is a Neolithic settlement that was occupied from roughly 3200 BC to 2500 BC. The site consists of eight clustered houses that were built of stone and sunk into the ground, which provided insulation and structural stability. Passing through the visitor center brings you outside, behind the building, where there’s a modern recreation of one of the Skara Brae houses. Visitors can enter this “model house”, which has a complete roof (unlike the excavated originals) and recreations of many household items that likely would have been in such a place.

From here it’s a walk of five minutes or so, toward the ocean and then along the coastline, to the actual site. The reasons for the abandonment of Skara Brae aren’t known for sure, but everything was covered in sand not long after it stopped being used. The buildings are so well preserved that the site is often referred to as Scotland’s Pompeii.

Each house is a little larger than 400 square feet, on average. Stone furnishings, including hearths, cupboards, dressers, beds and seats remain to this day. The village also has a drainage system which connects to a primitive toilet in each of the houses.

Skara Brae was discovered in the winter of 1850, when a severe storm removed earth from the site and exposed the outline of the village. Partial excavations took place in the 1850’s and 1860’s. The site then laid undisturbed until it was partially plundered in 1913 and one of the houses was damaged by a storm in 1924. Finally the decision was made to protect and further study the site.

The visitor ticket to Skara Brae also includes access Skaill House. This is the 17th century mansion that was the home of William Graham Watt, the man who discovered Skara Brae. My expedited tour kept me from venturing into the mansion, but I had plenty of time to examine and photograph the Neolithic village. I probably wouldn’t have lingered much longer even if I could have, given the blustery weather that day. With a few minutes to spare back in the visitor center, I stopped to watch the short introductory video that I had skipped on the way in, before heading back to Kirkwall for the 2:30 tour of the Scapa distillery.

One of the greatest things about the visitor center at Scapa is that there is a visitor center at Scapa; this relatively new addition to the distillery went online in 2015. Tours were known to happen before that, but I don’t think there was any way to arrange them in advance or to guarantee one at all. From what I had read, the suggested protocol was to just show up and knock on the door. If the staff on-hand had some free time they would show you around. If they were too busy with the matters of making whisky, you’d be asked to leave (politely I presume).

When I arrived just in time for the 2:30 tour, I joined a small group. The other four people were family members who had toured many distilleries and were all quite knowledgeable of the whisky making process. One of the women actually worked as a consultant in the Alcohol sector and was studying energy efficiency and byproduct use in distilleries; finally, someone on a tour who was asking harder questions than I was. We all got along quite well and shared many of our past tour experiences. Eric, our tour guide (who I had met at the pub the night before), did a great job. He was relatively new to leading tours and still learning some of Scapa’s technical and historical details. A lot of tour guides would have been intimidated by a group that already knew so much and asked so many challenging questions. But Eric was happy to absorb some of our collective knowledge, share the interesting bits that he knew, and write down our more esoteric questions for his own research.

We learned that the distillery is currently producing about 1 million liters per annum, with a crew of five still-men. Unpeated Concerto barley is used and 28 ton deliveries are made two to three times per week. Scapa normally operates seven days a week, but one of the five production workers had recently broken his wrist and was unable to work, so they were not running over the weekends at the time.

Unfortunately photography was not allowed on the tour, so I don’t have much to show. We soon learned that Scapa was closed from 1994 through 2004, but that extensive renovations had occurred in 2004 and 2005, increasing the distillery’s production capacity. During the closure period the crew from Highland Park came over and made whisky at Scapa for two months a year starting in 1997. We were told that this only went on for a few years, but looking online I’ve seen independent bottlings of Scapa that were distilled in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003, so I think it’s safe to say that there was limited production each year from 1997 through the reopening in 2004.

In spite of the changes made in 2004/2005, the distillery, which dates to 1885, still retains plenty of older equipment and the production processes have not been automated. There are no computers on site, and the Porteus mill is connected to an auger and a dresser which are both housed in wood. Cask filling on-site did stop in 2014 however, and the new spirit in now tankered to Keith for filling.

There are eight washbacks in total; four newer ones of stainless steel and four older ones of corten steel which date to the 1950’s. Each takes a charge of 13,500 liters of wash at 8% alcohol. Fermentation is a relatively lengthy 80 hours, but that figure had been over 100 hours before production was increased in 2005.

Up to the still room, we were presented with beautiful views of Scapa Flow through the area’s large windows. This is a body of water which is sheltered by half a dozen of Orkney’s islands that surround it. There’s a lot of fascinating history here, with Scapa Flow having been home to Britain’s naval fleet during WWI and WWII. The German fleet was scuttled by its own crews here at the end of WWI as the details of the Treaty of Versailles were being negotiated. Our tour guide also talked a bit about the HMS Royal Oak, a British battleship that was torpedoed and sunk in Scapa Flow by a German U-boat in 1939 with a loss of 833 lives.

The two stills at Scapa are quite interesting. The wash still is a Lomond Still. This was a design that came into use in the late 1950’s and these were only employed at a small number (four or five) of Hiram Walker owned distilleries. They look similar to traditional post stills, except that the part above the pot is a constant diameter cylinder which has three plates inside. The angle of the plates could be changed from horizontal to vertical, and they could also be cooled with cold water. This allowed variations in the distilling regimes to produce different types of spirit. Scapa is the only distillery making whisky with a Lomond Still today (Bruichladdich uses a repurposed one to make gin), but the plates were removed in 1978. The Lyne arm comes straight out of the side of the cylinder near its top. That then makes an “S” turn down and out before going into a purifier and on to the condenser. The spirit still has a more traditional tapering upper section and swan neck. The lyne arm is angled slightly up, but it too makes a downward “S” turn before it continues into the condenser.

We made our way out to the grassy area behind the still house for an even better view of Scapa Flow. There’s an old waterwheel out back which presumably once powered the works here. Today the distillery operates on electric motors and steam produced in a fuel oil boiler. It was also nice to see the distillery name in bold, black letters on the side of the whitewashed warehouse facing the sea. This is something that is most commonly associated with Islay’s distilleries.

We then entered one of the four newer warehouses on the site. These have casks in racks that go six high. Several older dunnage style warehouses still stand, but are no longer used because they contain asbestos. Cask filling on site stopped in 2014, and spirit is now tankered to Keith for filling. 30,000 casks from Scapa are stored in Speyside; the 15,000 casks at Scapa are from a variety of Pernod Ricard owned distilleries.

We did see several Scapa casks in the warehouse we toured and the oldest one was from 1993, so there is definitely still some pre-closure whisky yet to be bottled. The distillery does use a very small number of sherry casks, but most of the production goes into bourbon barrels. The majority of that is aged in first fill barrels and destined for single malt, but some goes into second fill barrels and is set aside for blends, primarily Ballantine’s 17 year.

The tasting portion of the tour actually started in the warehouse. There was a tiny, separate room attached to the building that held a single duty-paid cask. Samples were drawn directly from it and deposited in our souvenir tasting glasses. This was a bourbon barrel that had been filled some time in 2004, making it at least 12 years old, and the alcohol level was between 56% and 57%. All of the Scapa expressions I had tasted previously had been chill filtered and bottled at 40%, so it was interesting to see the other side of the house style. This one was big and boisterous; a bit fiery but still with plenty of flavor development.

We then went back to the visitor center for the rest of the tasting, with samples of new make spirit, the flagship Skiren and Glansa, which is the newest bottling. There was a lot of conversation among the group as we tasted, so I neglected to make any tasting notes. Un-aged spirit is something that I wouldn’t want to drink on a regular basis, but it is always nice to have as a reference when exploring the aged expressions. I was kind of unimpressed by the Skiren (non-age stated, 40%) when I tried it on the ferry ride to Orkney two days before, but I found it a bit more appealing on the tour. Skiren does express the light, fruity and heathery house style, but it still comes across as somewhat youthful and lacking balance, especially compared to the 16 year old. Glansa is another NAS, 40% bottling, but it has been finished in casks that previously held heavily peated whisky. It was introduced in the fall of 2016. This expression still has the minor flaws seen in Skiren, but with the added complexity of some delicate peat smoke.

When I wrote about Scapa back in early 2014, I compare the 14 year to the 16 year and speculated about the makeup of each and the future of Scapa’s official bottlings. Our guide told us that there was no sherry cask whisky in the 16 year old, so I appear to have been wrong there (though I still suspect that there might have been a very small sherry cask influence in it). We were also told that it had whisky as old as 18 years in the mix. I had correctly speculated that there was older whisky in some of the batches, as its production years would have otherwise spanned the three years of total closure. My final bit of guesswork was that the 16 year would continue on and be joined by a 10 year old later in 2014 or a 14 year old in 2016. What actually happened was the mid-2015 discontinuation of the 16 year and introduction of Skiren.

Unfortunately, Skiren holds the same price point that the 16 year did, retailing between $70 and $80. I’m guessing that it’s a vatting of younger whiskies (maybe 6 to 9 years old), and I’m hopeful that this strategy will allow them to build stocks and reintroduce some age stated whiskies in the not-too-distant future. A modestly priced one aged in the low teens and a more expensive one aged to the high teens would be nice.

Keeping a close eye on the time, I realized that I would be able to visit one more historic site before the day was over. On the north side of Kirkwall, less than two miles from the Scapa distillery, are Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces, which are combined as one attraction with a shared visitor center. I got there about 45 minutes before closing time, so my tour was somewhat fast paced, but I did manage to see every part of each building and photograph them pretty extensively. These two buildings are across the street from the St. Magnus Cathedral, which was built over the course of three centuries, starting in 1137. The Cathedral is well light at night and looked quite impressive on my walk home from the pub the night before.

Bishop’s Palace was built in the 1150’s as a residence for Bishop William the Old, the first Bishop of the new Cathedral. The building started as a large, but relatively straight-forward two-story house, the ground floor of which is still largely intact. The building was remodeled with significant additions by subsequent occupants.

King Haakon IV of Norway took up residence there in 1263, shortly before his death. After falling into disrepair, the palace was renovated in the 1540’s by Bishop Robert Reid. This is when the large tower was added. Visitors can climb to its highest level for great views of the Cathedral and surrounding parts of Kirkwall. The palace was next taken over by Earl Robert Stewart in 1568 and further renovated by his son Patrick in 1600.

Earl Patrick Stewart then decided to have something more impressive built and acquired the land next door where slave labor was used to construct Earl’s Palace in 1607. This building remained in use in the death of Bishop Mackenzie in 1688, and then fell into disrepair.

Earl’s Palace is impressive in both scale and design, and is one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Scotland. The upper floors are roofless, but the grandeur of the place is still exemplified by its, huge fireplaces, corbelled turrets, massive windows, and the grand hall.

I found myself back at Helgi’s latter that evening for dinner, and I had to finish with the Scapa 16 year again. I was hoping to taste as many different whiskies as possible during these two weeks, but I knew that I was unlikely to have an opportunity to enjoy this lovely malt again.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 6

I’ll start this post with a quick note about the end of day 5 since that piece ran long, before I get on to day 6.

After the Wolfburn tour I had several hours to kill before catching the ferry to Orkney. A bit of sightseeing was in order, but it couldn’t impose any time constraints (translation: wouldn’t make me late for the ferry check-in). My research brought me to Dunnet Head, which is a small peninsula that includes the northernmost point of mainland Scotland. The open grasslands here are atop 300 foot cliffs that go straight down to the sea. The single track road out to the area ends at a parking lot near Dunnet Head’s lighthouse. A walking path leads to a fenced in viewing area which is about 10 feet from the edge of the cliff, but it’s quite common for people to walk well beyond, where the rest of the drop-off is unsecured and you can go right to its edge (or over if you’re not careful). I was there for the stunning views, but the area is quite popular with bird watchers as well.

If you’re taking a car to Orkney by ferry and don’t want to spend an overnight on the seas all the way from Aberdeen, you have two choices; one goes between Scrabster and Stromness, the other between Gil’s Bay and St Margaret’s Hope. I decided to take one ferry out and the other back to get a variety of views. Dunnet Head is actually about midway between the two departure points, so for the outbound trip I had to make my way back through Thurso and just beyond, to the tiny town of Scrabster. This route has a one-and-a-half hour crossing time and I was on the last passage of the day, departing at 7:30.

I stayed outside on the viewing deck for a bit after the boat launched, then settled into the lounge to enjoy a glass of Scapa Skiren as a preview to my island adventure. After that it was time to eat. Please learn from my mistakes; if you are going to have dinner on this particular ferry, do it early in the ride. The views of the sea cliffs that form the western face of the Isle of Hoy are amazing on a clear day, especially when the sun is getting low in the sky. I should have been topside taking pictures rather than seeing it through a salt laden window while trying to scoff down my Viking Burger.

Once on Orkney, it’s about a 30 minute drive from Stromness to Kirkwall. This is the main city of the archipelago’s largest island and home to its two distilleries, Highland Park and Scapa. I was staying in lodgings that were just a short walk from Highland Park, so once I was settled in I went for a late evening stroll by the distillery. Of course, I hadn’t fixed in on my bearings yet so I turned the wrong as soon as I came out of the driveway, making it quite a bit longer of a walk. Much like I had seen at Pulteney the night before, the distillery was clearly operating and its various scents were wafting through the air. Unlike the previous night though, the entrance gates were closed so my preview was limited to what I could see from the street that bisected the distillery complex.

The next day I took the short walk over to the distillery (short now that I knew which way to go to get there) and passed through the entry gates, coming into the inner courtyard. There were signs directing me to the visitor center, where I soon learned that I’d be the only one on the tour; this is always a welcome bonus for me.

After a brief introductory video, we set out onto the distillery grounds. My guide informed me of the Norse traditions of the Orkneys, explaining that these islands were part of Norway for 500 years before they became part of Scotland. All of the production buildings are easily accessed from that inner courtyard. Stone dunnage warehouses make up most of the perimeter and across the street there are many more warehouses, as well as a station for filling tankers with spirit.

After a bit of conversation my guide realized that I was quite familiar with the distilling process already and set out to come up with some information that would be new to me. He managed to do that almost immediately, mentioning that The Edrington Group had recently (actually just the day before) reacquired the Glenrothes brand from Berry Brothers and Rudd. I had detailed the arrangement of Edrington owing the distillery and BB&R owning the brand back in this post.

The first stop of the tour was the malting floor. Highland Park is one of just eight distilleries in Scotland to maintain traditional floor maltings (if you count Glengoyne, which uses the malting floors at Springbank when that distillery is down for maintenance). BenRiach and Balvenie are the only other two to do so in the northern part of the country and I wouldn’t be touring either of them, so this was my only chance to see the beautiful sight of an entire room dedicated to germinating barley. My guide confirmed what I had heard before; that 20% of the barley used at Highland Park is malted in-house. The other 80% is commercially malted and unpeated; that way all of the peaty flavors comes from the Heather based peat that is hand cut at the nearby Hobbister Moor and burned in the kilns at Highland Park.

Given those percentages I was surprised when we got over to the kiln and saw that they use a combination of peat and coke. I had assumed that they were peating their own malt as heavily as they could to get the desired overall peat level. I may have to follow up with email to confirm the overall peat level and that the commercial malt is indeed unpeated. When I was at Springbank’s Whisky School, they were using a combination of peat and hot dry air (I think it was and electric heater/blower). I had asked how malt would have been dried without peat smoke prior to this modern method, and was told that coke (which is refined coal that burns without smoke) was used. It was cool to see that still happening at Highland Park.

Another thing that my guide pointed out was that the steel grates in both of their kilns had recently been replaced, improving efficiency and reducing kilning time. Unfortunately neither of the kilns was in action on the day of my visit; timing such things for one’s tour is mostly a matter of luck.

For some reason (I not sure why) we skipped the mill room, so next we came to the mashing and fermenting space. This part of the tour seemed a little less “up close and personal” than many other tours; we passed through the part of the room that took us by the stainless steel mash tun and stopped for a look in, but didn’t approach any of the 12 wooden washbacks (a mix of Larch and Oregon Pine) that occupied the rest of the room. Moving on, we had a quick look at the second, older kiln on the way out of the building.

Back across the courtyard, we headed for the stillhouse. This is easy to spot with its condensers on the outside, which presumably reside where the worm tubs once did until that change was made in the 1970’s. Photography was semi-restricted here, only allowed from the entrance doorway. Good views of the four copper pots could be had from there, and I was able to get a photo of the spirit safe from this vantage point as well. This brings up another interesting point that my tour guide mentioned; apparently spirit safes are all made from brass because it is a metal that doesn’t create sparks when two pieces contact each other, allowing the unit to be opened and closed without fear of igniting the flowing spirit.

We made our way over to one of the warehouses next. This had a space that was set up for visitors with displays of cooperage and warehouse tools, barrel head stencils and oak planks. Unfortunately there was a wall of Plexiglass separating us from the aging casks (one of the other distilleries I had been to had a similar setup; I think it was Blair Athol). It just feels a little weird to be in a warehouse but not be able to walk among the casks and smell the Angel’s Share. They did have a few empty casks in that space for nosing though; American Oak sherry and European Oak sherry, as well as a recently emptied cask from 1968 (bottles of that fine liquid were available in the shop for £3000).

We talked about the cask policy at Highland Park and I learned that they use sherry seasoned (for 2 years with Oloroso) casks almost exclusively. A minimal number of bourbon barrels and port pipes are used and only for limited edition bottlings. There were a few other interesting points of note as well. The annual loss to evaporation from the aging casks is only about 1% here due to the minimal temperature fluctuations on Orkney, where it is about 2% for most other parts of Scotland. Also, the 15 year old and 21 year old expressions of Highland Park are soon to be discontinued from the core lineup.

I had opted for the slightly more expensive Viking Hero tour, so three tasting samples were waiting for me back at the visitor center. I started with the 12 year old (at 40%), which is a well known classic. Next up was Valkyrie. This is a new expression which was released (28,000 bottles) just 10 days prior to my visit. This is the first of a series, with Valknut (pronounced val-newt) and Valhalla to follow. It was non-age stated, at 45.9% and aged in a mix of Spanish and American Oak sherry casks along with a few bourbon barrels. It was good; fairly bold and a little different without straying too far from the typical house style. It’s also reasonably priced, at £55.

My guide had mentioned that he’s supposed to pour these in order of increasing strength, but he prefers to finish with the 18 year (at 43%), it being his favorite bottling. I deferred to his logic and was glad I did. This whisky is just stunning. It’s been several years since I polished off the last bottle I had purchased of it, but I may have to pick up another in the near future.

I spent a good bit of the afternoon writing before heading out to explore some of the many Neolithic sites that can be found across the Orkney Islands. I was hoping to photograph them in the more interesting light of the late afternoon / early evening (the sun sets quite late this far north in the spring and summer). I didn’t realize that many of these sites have controlled access and close at 5:00 though. But I was able to spend a good bit of time examining at photographing the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The former is the remains of an ancient henge and ellipse of standing stones which dates to 3100 BC and the later is a henge and stone circle which dates to between 2500 BC and 2000 BC.

After a late dinner I made my way to Helgi’s, a popular Kirkwall pub. I started off with a Highland Park 15 year, since it’s slated to go away soon. This expression is aged primarily in American Oak, where the 12 year and 18 year are aged primarily in European Oak (all sherry seasoned for all three bottlings), so it is quite a bit different. It wasn’t bad, but I really prefer the flavor profile of the 12 and the 18.

The bartender recognized me and asked if I had been at the Skapa distillery that afternoon (which I had, I stopped in for a quick visit of the shop ahead of the next day’s tour). He told me that he was also a tour guide at Skapa and would probably be leading the tour I taking the next day. Knowing that, I asked if the 16 year Skapa that I was sizing up for my second drink was something we would taste on the tour. He confirmed that it was not, and knowing that it hasn’t been bottled for at least a couple of years, I went for it. I’ve had and enjoyed the 16 year in the past, but it was even better than I remembered it to be and a big step up from the Skiren that I tasted on the ferry the day before.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Scotland 2017, day 5

By the time I made my way up to Wick, it was late in the day and I was pretty exhausted. The plan for the evening was to get some dinner, do a little writing and catch up on sleep. Sitting at a table in the bar area of a local restaurant, I noticed a dozen Old Pulteney bottles on the shelf behind the bar. Feeling excited that they must have the full range as well as several limited edition bottlings, I started to reconsider the idea of not having a few whiskies after dinner. But closer inspection revealed that every one of those bottles was the flagship 12 year old.

I was staying very close to the distillery though, and decided to take a walk around the place. Along with Springbank, this was the most urban distillery that I’ve set eyes upon. While no people were visible, the front gate was wide open and the place was clearly operating; wonderful smells were abundant. I ventured in just a little ways, to the edge of the courtyard, for a quick preview of the tour that I would have 12 hours later. Back out to the road, I started to go around the outer perimeter of the place, which is essentially a ring of aging warehouses. On an unpaved path around back I came to the rear gate, which was also open. From there I could see what appeared to be the worm tubs, with vapors rising into the cool night air. I went a little further around back but the path faded away and the ground became boggy as the buildings started to look more industrial.

Wick itself is looking a little rough around the edges, at least the small part of the town I saw. There were quite a few buildings with boarded up windows and even some with collapsed roofs. I’ve been told that the town never fully recovered from the collapse of the Herring industry, which happened long ago. There was talk of the renewable energy industry soon breathing some new life into the town, and I did see a few old stone buildings enveloped in scaffolding.

In spite of its exterior surroundings, the Pulteney distillery’s visitor center is modern and well appointed. Our tour group was small, five or six people, and our young guide was somewhat unscripted and a bit opinionated. I found that incredibly refreshing. There were also no restrictions on photography here.

The visitor center is located in the former cooperage, and when we walked out into the courtyard out tour guide directed our view back toward that building, pointing out the squares in the wall where upper floor windows had been filled in. She also made note of a recess in the wall where part of a connected roofline used to be (the shadow just left of the drainpipe in the photo). This is where there used to be an elevated walkway over the entrance, connecting the buildings on either side of it. I believe the old barley lofts were above the cooperage and the building that had been connected to that used to house the malting floors.

While we were in the courtyard, our guide also mentioned the large, industrial looking buildings in the back corner of the distillery complex. This is a wood-chip burning biomass plant which provides heat for the stills as well as 200 area homes.

The distillery, which dates to 1826, hasn’t malted its own barley since 1926 and the configuration of the distilling equipment seems to have changed several times over the years. Today unpeated malt from the Inverness area is supplied by Bairds, with 30 ton deliveries coming 2 to 3 times per week. Dried yeast is used here, partly because the location is too remote for liquid yeast to survive the transit.

A Porteus mill deals with the grain, which then goes on to a five ton copper topped mash tun. Six stainless steel washbacks are quite new; the distillery was closed from May through October of 2016 while they were installed, replacing the cast iron units that took over for the wooden washbacks in 1950. The fermentation time is 60 hours.

The stills here are quite unique. The wash still is flat-topped, and as with Dalmore there’s a story about incorrect measurements being taken before the still was delivered causing them to cut off the top and reconfigure the lyne arm. On the spirit still, the lyne arm quickly turns down, then out into a purifier. It emerges from the top of that and quickly turns out through the back wall. Both stills feature reflux bowls, but the one on the wash still is much larger. When I asked out tour guide about the purifier she replied “Oh, that hasn’t worked in years”.

Next we went outside of the still house to see the worm tubs, confirming what I had seen the night before from outside the back gate. These are the rectangular style, but since they were in action, I couldn’t see the configuration of the copper tube inside (some are squared off circles, others run back and forth).

The distillery currently runs 24 hours per day, 5 days a week. It produces 1.2 million liters of spirit per annum, with 40% of that going out for blending and 60% kept for onsite aging, and to be used as single malt or as an ingredient in their Stroma Malt Whisky Liqueur.

We ended in one of the warehouses, which all together have a capacity of 24,000 casks and are currently holding about 20,000. We also learned that the oldest cask on site dates to 1967 and may soon be bottled as a 50 year old.

Back into the visitor center, those who paid for an upgraded tour sampled the 12 year, 17 year and 21 year Old Pulteney. Standard tour participants were given the choice of the 12 year old or the Stroma Liqueur. I was curious about the latter but if I was only going to taste one thing at the distillery, it would be their whisky. I mentioned to the staff that we get the 12 year at 43% back home while it is 40% in most other places (definitely the UK and Canada). I asked if the higher strength version was exclusive to the US and was eventually told that South Africa gets it was well, but they were unsure if there were any other markets it went to.

Another noteworthy point; there were two casks set up in the shop that visitors could fill bottles from. Both were ex-bourbon casks, one distilled in 2005 and the other in 1997. There were available as 70 cl fills, priced at £80 and £140, respectively. I really wish more distilleries would do this. The only slight improvement they could make here would be to have the option of a smaller format, say 20 cl, for those flying home with limited luggage capacity.

I had spent as much time asking questions and taking pictures as I could without making myself late for the tour that I had scheduled next. From Wick it was a drive of a little over 30 minutes to Thurso, where I had arranged to see the relatively new Wolfburn distillery. Their first spirit ran early in 2013, with the first cask serendipitously filled on Burns night. When it was established, Wolfburn unseated Pulteney at the northernmost distillery on Scotland’s mainland. Last fall I started to see their single malt on store shelves in the US, and wrote this post with a little background information about Wolfburn.

The distillery is open to the public, but currently by appointment only. The tour guide, Charlie Ross, lives nearby and has another part time job, but is very accommodating when scheduling tours. In spite of not having worked in the spirits industry before, he is quite well versed in all things Wolfburn; from local distilling history to the story of the modern distillery’s founding and the technical details of its production process.

Wolfburn was founded by a pair of business partners, who, despite having no previous whisky industry experience, seem to have thus far done everything right, including hiring all of the right people. They set about finding a location that had historical distilling significance which might lend them a name. Of course, available land and an accessible water source would be necessary as well. They found all of that on the outskirts of Thurso. I believe that the part about being farther north than any other distillery on the mainland was just a bonus point.

Even though the last wolf there was killed around 1700, the area still has an association with wolves, hence the nearby stream being named Wolf Burn. Part of the foundation of the original Wolfburn distillery can be found nearby, in spite of it having ceased operations more than 150 years ago. It had been established in 1821 and records show that in 1828 it made 12,000 gallons of spirit, not far behind the 17,000 gallons produced at the Pulteney distillery that year. When exactly it closed is uncertain, but there are newspaper clippings from 1860 showing the distillery’s equipment for sale.

The founders spent time in 2011 and 2012 touring Scotland’s distilleries and working on their business plans before they started looking for a master distiller. Shane Fraser, the man who ultimately took the position, started his whisky career at the age of 16 with Royal Lochnager. He moved on to Oban, before making his way to Glenfarclas, where he spent seven years as their distillery manager. That’s quite an achievement for someone who’s still in their 30’s, and for many that would be the pinnacle of their career. But the opportunity at Wolfburn was unique. The owners’ were offering the chance for whoever they hired to design the new distillery and have complete control of the style of whisky that would be made there. That was enough to lure Shane over from the heart of Speyside.

Iain Kerr was hired on as the assistant distillery manager. Work on the site began in September, 2012 and by the end of January, 2013 the stillhouse and two warehouses were up and running. I asked if the still design was influenced by those of other distilleries and was told that it was really driven by the style of spirit they were aiming for. Apparently Shane and Iain sat down with the owner of Forsyths of Rothes and in a matter of a few hours the three of them had worked out all of the details for the new stills.

The goal was to make a gentle floral spirit, and the means to that end include a long mash (5.5 hours) which produces a clear wort, long fermentation times (ranging from 72 to 92 hours) and a slow distillation (4.5 hours through the wash still). They started off using completely unpeated malt, but began working with peated malt on a limited basis in July of 2014. This is done for six weeks out of the year with a moderate peating level of 10 ppm.

While there are no computers or remotely controlled pieces of distilling equipment, this is very much a modern distillery in respect to its layout. The equipment is arranged logically in the order through which the processes go, and all in one open rectangular space. This is quite a contrast to the older distilleries which tend to be more multi-leveled and more compartmentalized, and often have pieces of equipment located wherever they fit, then plumbed to the rest of the system.

Everything here looks very new, and one of my first questions was whether they had sourced any surplus equipment from existing distilleries. There were indeed a few items which had come from Caperdonich, a Speyside distillery that ran from 1898 to 1902, and again from 1965 to 2002 before it was demolished in 2010. These include the malt bin auger, which moves barley from its holding bins over to the mill, as well as two former wash backs. The stainless steel washbacks have been repurposed, one as a storage tank for process water and the other as a holding vessel for spent lees and pot ale. Another interesting feature is a heat exchanger which uses the outgoing pot ale and spent lees to pre-heat the incoming wash still charge, saving energy.

At some point I asked if they were selling any spirit to blenders or independent bottles. Charlie smiled and laughed slightly, going on to explain that every once in a while he’ll get a similar question midway through a tour only to learn that the “tourist” is actually there on behalf of a blender, broker or bottler. He assured me that Wolfburn is keeping everything they make to be sold as single malt. He went on to tell me that the owners were in the fortunate position to have started with enough capital that they could establish the distillery and continue to operate it for up to four years without generating any revenue. This has also allowed them to avoid selling un-aged spirit or gin as a sideline. The big challenge now is managing to balance investment in future growth against their current profits.

Wolfburn started off at 115,000 liters per annum, running six mashes per week through their three washbacks. The first expansion came at the end of 2015, with the building of a third warehouse, half of which is used as their bottling hall. Then, in May of 2016, they added two production employees and a fourth washback. In theory that could put them up to 153,000 LPA, but they are running 6 to 8 mashes per week right now, so it’s probably closer to 134,000 LPA.

After a little time in one of the warehouses, we moved on to a tasting. I started with the unpeated new make spirit. It’s clean and bright with a fruity nose and floral palate. Next up was the peated new make. It had a nice, rounded peat profile. It seemed a bit more phenolic than expected for 10 ppm, but I’m sure a little time in the cask will temper that.

Next up were the two standard bottlings that are currently being offered; Aurora and Northland. They are both made from unpeated spirit which has been aged a little over 3 years and bottled at 46% without chill filtration. Aurora is a marriage of whisky aged in 1st fill bourbon barrels and sherry hogsheads. It’s balanced and rounded, with well integrated flavors. This one certainly seems older than its age. Northland was aged in 2nd fill quarter casks, which previously held peated whisky (we can safely presume that was Laphroaig). The subtle peat smoke on the nose comes through nicely on the palate. This one does, however, show it’s youthfulness a little more readily. I’d love to see where it goes with another year or two in the cask.

Then came the real treat; a cask sample from a sherry hogshead which had been aged for between 38 and 39 months and was at 58-59% abv. In spite of the intensity of its cask strength, this one was very well behaved with absolutely lovely sherry character. It could easily be passed off as a much older whisky. After a few sips I told Charlie about the casks that were set up at Pulteney from which visitors could fill bottles. I continued on to say that if such a program were in place for this cask, I would absolutely have bought a bottle.

I really enjoyed the Pulteney tour so the bar was set high for the day, but Wolfburn met and exceeded my expectations. I’ll likely buy a bottle of Aurora when I get home, and I can say with confidence that this is a distillery to watch in the coming years.