We had incredible luck with weather in Scotland this year. Last June, it rained a lot on both Skye and Islay. This year we spent two weeks in Edinburgh, the Speyside, the northern highlands and Orkney and encountered only two days with rain worth noting; one was our last day, on our drive back from the highlands to Edinburgh. The other was our first full day on Orkney. The day started out nice and sunny and we had a lovely time visiting Skara Brae and the breathtaking cliffs at Yesnaby. It started raining lightly after lunch but it didn’t bother us as we walked across the low tide path to the Brough of Birsay (utterly stunning). By the time we got to the Ring of Brodgar it had begun to piss down and as the family grew damper their enthusiasm for being out also dampened. Accordingly, I dumped them back at our B&B (the highly recommended Foinhaven farmhouse) circa 4 pm and went off by myself to take a look at Scapa, just about 15 minutes away. It was drizzling throughout, it was not far from closing time and so I did not linger or even think about a tour. Here is a quick look courtesy my cellphone camera.
Scapa is very much the second of the two distilleries on Orkney—not surprising considering the other is Highland Park—but it has by far the more attractive location. While Highland Park is an urban distillery—just at the southern tip of Kirkwall—Scapa is situated right on the beach on the northern shore of Scapa Flow. It’s lovely back there and I think it is possible to approach the distillery from the beach. Alas, it’s less attractive getting there the way most people do. You drive by dark grey warehouses and park in an entirely dispiriting carpark before entering the visitor centre/shop. The buildings looked rather depressing in the grey drizzle and somehow I doubt they get more charming in the sun.
As at Aberlour—to take another distillery owned by Chivas—the visitor centre/shop is small and it is obvious no interior designer—at least no one unrelated to the manager—has probably been involved in its layout. This is not a criticism, merely an observation. Unlike at Aberlour, not much of an effort has been taken to spruce the place up. I’d guess this is because with their location on Orkney they don’t see quite as much tourist traffic—our ferry going over from Scrabster was rather empty and the average age seemed to be in pensioner range. And I’d guess the non-whisky geek visitor is likely to just go to one distillery and that distillery is probably Highland Park. Indeed, I think it’s only relatively recently that Scapa has even opened to the public.
It was, as I said, just about an hour before closing that I got there. There was a small group in the shop, seemingly finishing a tasting at the end of a tour. No one was particularly interested in my presence—and there was no fill-your-own or any other bottles of interest—and I eventually wandered to the rear of the distillery. I wasn’t sure at first if I was supposed to be back there. I kept expecting someone to pop out of a building and yell at me—and it wasn’t particularly attractive until I got to the very rear and discovered the seafront part (after dodging a bit of “Danger of Death”). This was rather lovely indeed. If I’d been arsed to look it up, it would have been an easy sell for the family to hang around there and on the adjoining beach while I’d toured the distillery.
As to whether a tour is worth it, I don’t know. There is one basic tour for £10 and another for £20, which is the same as the first except with two more whiskies in the tasting, one of them a warehouse cask. If you’ve taken a tour there recently please write in and say what it was like. I know they have a Lomond still there (though not a genuine one in operational terms) and I hung around by closed still house door for a bit hoping someone would open it so I could get a look—but no dice.
At any rate, here is a look at what I did see—inside the shop and on the grounds. Take a look and scroll down to see what’s coming next.
I obviously cannot speak to the quality of the tours but if we ever go back to Orkney [we won’t], I would very much like to do the combo beach and distillery thing I mentioned above. A tour and then a picnic lunch on the beach would be just the thing.
I’m almost at the end of my Scotland distillery reports. Up next, Highland Park (where I actually did a tour) and then Tomatin (which the whole family toured). I’ll close the series with a report on the Dornoch Castle Hotel’s bar and distillery.