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.