Our Orkney food blogger, Rosemary Moon, has been taste-testing some of the latest special editions from Orkney's whisky distilleries.
Two world famous whisky distilleries make Orkney a whisky dream destination. There are not as many distilleries here as in Speyside, for example, but you have to pass some absolutely legendary producers to get to the islands if you are driving up the A9. Do remember to save some space in the car for your Orkney bottles too. And check out Wolfburn in Thurso if you have not yet discovered them: I am mounting a bid to make them an honorary Orkney producer.
Once safely installed in your holiday accommodation there are tours at both Highland Park and Scapa to suit all levels of whisky knowledge and budget, and there are drams to be tasted and bought that are not available either on-line or in specialist bottle shops.
At Highland Park you’ll find a site steeped in history, with an almost village-like feel to the actual core buildings, even if the warehouses have less appeal - apart, of course, from the spirit that they hold and nurture.
Scapa is equally as fascinating but in a very different way. A compact space around the hopper and mill gives way eventually to an airy hall housing the stills, a place that always reminds me more of a water pumping station than a distillery. And the view across Scapa Flow is incredible, now matched by the wonderful new tasting room which somehow manages to blend a walk through Skara Brae with being inside a wartime look-out. Visit, then you’ll understand what I mean.
The Scapa warehouse that you might see holds casks of the distillery’s first spirit made from bere barley, Orkney’s ancient grain - you will taste it in our baking, beers and oatcakes. Yes, Bruichladdich do produce an Orkney-grown bere whisky but I cannot wait to taste Scapa’s spirit, distilled in 2020. It will be another few years yet…
I am a Whisky Woman through and through and need very little excuse or prompting to try a dram of a new expression of the Water of Life. Friends travelling to visit sometimes bring a bottle from a distillery they visit en-route, a distillery special, and often they don’t quite hit the mark. I am delighted to say, however, that I have yet to taste an Orkney distillery special that hasn’t delighted me.
Whisky prices, like everything else, have gone up and the most recent tax increases according to alcoholic strength or abv do not help the cost of that which, in my opinion, should be taken daily. With whisky friends staying this year I must confess that I have broken my usual budgetary guidelines a couple of times to give a unique Orkney whisky experience but, in the case of the Highland Park specials, I square it with myself that many are produced for Orkney charities and institutions, with each cause getting money from the sales.
I drink my whisky, I don’t keep it for a rainy day (we have so many of those that there is nothing special about them) and so lament that I do not have either the RNLI or Ness of Brodgar Highland Park special editions, both of which were delicious. Collectors buy two bottles of each, one to drink and one to keep. I bought one, drank it and luckily got another in both cases - and yes, then drank the second bottles too!
My Highland Park distillery specials this summer have been a mighty sherry bomb of a 12yo from a single cask produced for the Orkney Folk Festival, which celebrated its 40th year in 2023. Limited to 664 bottles at 65.5% abv, this was a treat purchase full of boozy Christmas cake notes, toasted almonds in their skins and an immense fruitiness. An end of the session dram for sure.
At a modest 58% abv, The Orkney Rowing Club special edition is a non-age statement whisky produced in support of the club founded in 2014, the custodians of five traditional skiffs and yoals for coastal rowing. A more affordable dram at £65 a bottle, this is much more accessible than the Folk Festival edition, but more leathery and honeyed. A dram to warm you up after being on the water for sure, and Warehouse Manager Keith Moar is a keen member of the Sailing Club.
Distillery specials from Highland Park usually number 4-5,000 bottles and go very quickly: to Highland Park Appreciation Society members and visitors to the distillery and the HP shop on Albert Street in Kirkwall. If you are planning a visit this autumn, my Folk Festival and Rowing Club editions may well be sold out but there is a new special supporting the Scottish Ballet, frequent and popular visitors to Orkney.
And so, to Scapa, and their exclusives - not to be called Scapa Specials: that’s an excellent ale from Orkney’s Swannay Brewery!
Scapa has had much to celebrate in 2023 with the opening of their wonderful new tasting room just in time for Easter. My distillery exclusives from them include a 19yo bottled at 51.3% abv cask strength and finished in a Pedro Ximénez hogshead giving lots of barrel contact and thus flavour. This was my most expensive whisky purchase of the season and is a real treat.
I wondered how Scapa, an American oak matured whisky, would fare in casks that held the sweetest of all sherries. It is whisky elegance, all sugared almonds and Lübeck marzipan with the trademark Scapa notes of heather honey and creaminess. It’s a 50cl bottle and it’s going down: is the rest for me or special friends indeed?
Regularly in my whisky collection now for sharing with visiting whisky lovers is the 12yo Distillery Exclusive bottled at 48.2% abv. Full of Scapa flavours and heading towards the iconic 16yo (which is sometimes tasted at the distillery), this is a dram that all whisky drinkers should sample in Orkney. Come and grab yourself a bottle.
Rosemary Moon ‘retired’ to Orkney after a long association with the salmon industry in the islands. The author of 19 cookery books and countless more recipes, including writing for Waitrose and Lakeland, she has brought journalists and food writers to Orkney in the past to show off our diverse and delicious food and drink. After several holidays here Rosemary and her husband Nick have settled in South Ronaldsay but, once a cookery writer always a cookery writer, Rosemary is finding it impossible to stop jotting down the new recipes that she is creating with the island produce.