Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Orkneyingasaga: Hero Worship and Fond Farewell. September 10th, Highland Park and Scapa

So I'm sat in Scrabster waiting for my ferry as I nurse a coffee in what is undoubtedly the twee-est (real word) cafe in the world. It's the sort of brilliant cafe where no two cakes look the same, and the tea would probably be served in a pot accompanied by a floral cosy. There's even a knitted - knitted! sign in the toilet bearing the rhyme 'if you sprinkle while you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie,' beside a second sign written in the same vein about the correct disposal of feminine hygiene products. After a long drive up from Inverness I am at this moment in time an extremely relaxed and contented pilgrim.

I'm even more contented a couple of hours later when the ferry sets sail, and I find myself on deck,
not a cloud in the sky, sun just beginning to dip below the huge and distant horizon and watching the gannets diving and the vast rocks of the Orkneys beginning to loom. The route from Scrabster to Stromness takes us around Hoy, and quite a crowd gathers cameraphones-in-hand as we plough past the Old Man, a massive spear of rock erupting out of the sea to guard the storm-battered cliffs. The ambience is briefly threatened by a chap who has clearly taken advantage of the on-board bar sliding about, crashing into people and loudly shouting 'let's have it in the Orkneys' but happily his bravado and face are irreparably put paid to when, in the act of trying to take a selfie with the Old Man he accidentally flings his Samsung
overboard and into the brine. It's almost a shame he didn't have a second camera just to capture his subsequent facial expression.

We reach Stromness with only the slight hitch of having seen my German stalkers cross the on board bar, and after sprinting through the dark streets in search of an ATM I board the last bus to Kirkwall with seconds to spare. The subsequent journey however is fraught with nervousness. I looked in the boot of my car before abandoning it to board the ferry and found the tent staring back at me with its customary malevolence. At that sunlit moment on the Scrabster Quay I decided life was too short! There would be, I was certain, some cheap hotel or other in Kirkwall which could offer me shelter for the night. However I am now on the bus and the immediate future seems clouded and uncertain so far as where I am going to sleep is concerned. It is pitch black, the internet signal is predictably non-existent and I find myself wondering how comfortable the Kirkwall benches are likely to be. The glittering streetlights engulf the bus, my nervousness reaches
its zenith, and then suddenly - salvation! And in the unlikeliest of guises. My ears must be deceiving me. The nice group at the front of the bus, not a one of whom can be young enough not to have a free bus pass tucked away somewhere can't possibly have just asked whether this is the stop for the youth hostel can they? But yes - they reiterate their question and the driver is giving his affirmation. And a twenty minute walk sees me agreeing a very reasonable rate for a twin room of which I am apparently tonight's only occupant. And the cherry on the cake comes at three in the morning when I drag myself out of bed, haul myself South of the city and drink in the indescribable magnificence that is the Aurora Borealis. I didn't take my camera with me - my phone is charging in my room, so no photos I'm afraid, but that's possibly just as well. No photo ever taken has done the Northern Lights justice, so let this simply serve as a sincere encouragement to you, dear reader, to get yourself in a position to see them for yourself.

The morning sunrise brings with it a view of pagoda roofs from my window. Entirely the wrong direction to be Scapa, which can make it only one other distillery. I check out of the hostel and, following the map, make my way to the building which produces, in this pilgrim's opinion, the best whisky in all the world. The bottle of whisky which means more to me than any other comes from Glenfiddich. The entry level which I rate most highly comes from Springbank. The whisky I consider my favourite is the Aberlour A'Bunadh. But for overall quality of every single expression they make the distillery I have always admired most is Highland Park. If I am a pilgrim, then this remote distillery in the windswept Orkneys is my temple and place of worship. As I pass beneath the gateway and book my ticket I'm actually literally shaking. This place means that much to me. And if that sounds stupid then I would ask English football fanatics how they feel when they go to Wembley, or Welsh Rugby supporters how moved they are by a home game at the Millennium Stadium. I may only follow sport moderately, but Whisky is my passion, and in Whisky terms that's where I am now.

I have to say though, only Glenfiddich can match Highland Park's video for corniness! There's a
particular montage dedicated to the passing of time during which I have to cough a bit to disguise a snigger. But our guide Martin is brilliant, and clearly, like all the best guides, a true devotee of the distillery around which he leads tourists. Inevitably my German 'friends' have contrived to join the same tour as me, but here, in this place, I don't care. We're shown the difference between HP's signature heather-peat and the sort of peat used elsewhere - Martin even opens the kiln to burn a small piece and demonstrate the smell. There's a chalked message 'Swallows back 09/05' on the kiln and Martin explains that the birds return to the kiln rooms to nest every spring, and that their arrival is keenly anticipated by the distillery workers. It's also the first kiln I've ever seen 'in action,' and a fitting tribute to a distillery which still conducts its entire process from barley to bottle on site (albeit only doing 20% of their own maltings due to volume.) The other standout moment for me (tasting aside) comes at the nosing of the casks. The overwhelming majority of Highland Park is
matured in ex-Sherry butts. However of these butts some are made from European oak and some from American. We are shown one of each, both of which had the same Oloroso inside them, both of which have subsequently held the same HP spirit for the same length of time. The difference in aroma, I am here to tell you, was phenomenal. I'll admit to being more than a bit of a nerd where learning about oak and casks is concerned, and this was probably my most interesting and enjoyable practical lesson.

And so to the tasting. I don't suppose a month has gone by in the last 5 years during which I have not sampled the HP12, but of course nothing can beat the experience of trying it 'in situ.' Whilst the German mother drivels away to my right about how in her opinion it's another Scotch that doesn't get near Islay for calibre I just shut my eyes and drown it all out. They even let us keep the glass at the end, and whilst it may not be the biggest in my collection it has subsequently become my go-to dram vessel!

Highland Park 12yo - Heather honey, heather honey, heather honey. Nice saltiness, splash of orange, teensy wisp of smoke. Oh, hang on, I'm getting something. Yes - it's heather honey. Nice bit of zip on the palate, but complexity of flavour and natural oiliness keeps it mellow and smooth. If I had to be really picky there's a smidge of sulphur on the nose after smelling for ages, which does convert into the mildest palate bitterness on the finish, but most people won't notice this. Still my favourite distillery, and for class and complexity only one or two entry levels can compete. 40%ABV

I wander down deserted roads, briefly getting lost as a result of a wrong turning as I head South towards the vast blueness of Scapa Flow. The Germans are in the corner of my eye as I stroll along the curve of the beach, with cliffs and great white distillery walls ahead of me. Highland Park's a tough act to follow for anyone, and especially for me, but one of the distilleries capable of doing so is certainly Scapa. I came across it at University in its 16yo entity through a close friend who cited it as his favourite. My timing really couldn't be better for starting the pilgrimage either; Scapa only opened its doors to tourists in April, and I'm so glad they did, because the view from this place is something else. I've mentioned before that Dalwhinnie might have my ultimate distillery exterior, and that my favourite room is the stillhouse at Glenmorangie. Combine those with what you can see from the immaculate lawn behind Scapa and you have, in this critic's opinion, the recipe for aesthetic distillery perfection!

The visit's tinged with a certain sadness though, because the 16yo which my friend loved so much, and which I have come to love too, is due to be discontinued, replaced like so many other age-dated whiskies with a non-age-dated expression, the Skiren. I haven't tried the Skiren of course, so I can't possibly pass judgement, and the age versus non-age is a debate for another entry on another day, but I do know how I feel about the 16, and I know that its passing is a shame. The distillery is a cracker though, and worth visiting just for the view and for the only Lomond still currently in action in Scotland. No photos allowed I'm afraid, but it basically works the same way as a column still does for vodka, and is a hangover from the old days before Single Malt became fashionable. These days the
spirit is subsequently fed into a more typical pot still, but not before it has induced a heightened rectification and therefore purity and 'cleanness' to the spirit. We peek into the cask house where we learn that all spirit currently made at Scapa is put into casks and matured in Speyside, before returning to the visitor centre for the sombre moment that may be my final taste of the 16 year old Scapa.

Scapa 16yo - First thing that jumps out to me is a tropical fruit character - banana, pineapple. Bloke next to me has been showing off and shooting his mouth all tour, and loudly proclaims there to be no vanilla. He is mistaken - there is lots. Bit of peardrop too, and a whiff of something floral. No salt despite location - more creamy vanilla, honey and coconut on the palate. For me this needs to be
6% stronger - flavours are gorgeous but so much cleaner on nose than palate. Lovely Almond and Marzipan on finish. 40% ABV

Between finally visiting HP and tasting what might be my last ever Scapa 16 I'm in a very reflective mood as I make my way back to Kirkwall bus station and the long journey via bus, ferry and corsa that will take me back to my friends in Inverness. My predominant feeling though is that 24 hours is far too little time to spend in such a remarkable place as the Orkneys. Without a doubt this has been the best day of my whole pilgrimage, and I have no doubt whatsoever that I will be back again. For now though I have one day left of this most magnificent of pilgrimage legs - a day that will take me from Inverness to Skye, from Skye to Fort William and finally from Fort William down the long long road to the Wirral and to home.


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