The Coastal Path is a blog about walking around the coast of Britain. Our walk does not include islands (although if there is a bridge to an island then we will generally try to include it). The Orkneys were never meant to feature on our walk. A cluster of some 70 separate islands, they are located about 25 miles off the north coast of Scotland (depending which island you are on). Still, when my friend Campbell suggested holding a business meeting up there I jumped at the chance.
The trip lasted two days, of which the second day was the walking day. The first concerned itself with a trip to the Highland Park distillery – the northernmost whisky distillery in the world.
Highland Park is located on the Mainland, the largest of the islands, on the southern fringes of Kirkwall, their administrative centre. It is a beautiful looking distillery, particularly when its lanterns are lit in the dark winter afternoons.
Our tour started with a real treat – the malting floor. Of the 100-odd whisky distilleries across Scotland, only eight have their own malting floor and malt their own barley. The rest use commercial maltings and have it shipped in already malted. Malting the barley is the first critical step to making whisky. The process involves modifying the starch to produce sugar maltose which will eventually convert to alcohol during the distillation process. To start this off the barley is germinated, by wetting it and then aerating it. This takes place on the malting floor, where exactly every eight hours it is turned, using a shovel called a shiel.
The next stage is to dry the green malt. At Highland Park this is done in one of two kilns, the oldest of which is over 100 years old. The green malt is actually on the floor above, dried by the heat and smoke produced by the kiln.
Highland Park also add peat smoke. Peat gives a heavy smokiness to the whisky. Highland Park only use approximately 20% peat, so the end result is not a heavily peated whisky. For the remainder of the drying coke is used. We were lucky enough to see the peat fire in action.
Once dried, the malted barley is milled into a rough flour, known as grist. This is mixed with hot water in a mash tun, often with liquor left over from previous mashings. The water dissolves the sugars. The resultant liquid, known as wort, is drained off and kept. The remaining grain and husk in the mash tun is generally given to local farmers who use it as feed (at this stage fermentation has not yet started so there is no risk of drunken cattle rampaging through the neighbourhood). The wort in the mash tun tends to go through several cycles, each time at a higher temperature. It is then transferred to washbacks, huge wooden vessels, where yeast is added and the fermentation process starts. In the following photo the mash tun is the metal vessel in the foreground. The washbacks are in the background.
During fermentation the sugars turn to carbon dioxide and alcohol, and the alcohol begins to react with the malt to start producing some of the flavour of the whisky. The fermentation usually lasts for two days or more, and at its end the alcohol content of the liquid is about 7-9%.
It is then pumped into the still house, where it is distilled two or even three times (hence the phrase “triple distilled” which you will see on some labels).
The shape of the stills has an important effect on the final flavour of the whisky. The first distillation is through the “wash still”, which starts to remove impurities from the liquor. It is heated to the point at which the alcohol starts to evaporate, rising to the top of the still and across the lyne arm. It then condenses into a liquid known as “low wines” which are about 17% alcohol. The low wines are then distilled for a second and sometimes third time. During the process the stillman exercises control over which part of the spirit is collected. It is the “middle cut” he aims for. One stillman told us, several tours ago, to think of it like a cooked fish – they get rid of the head and the tail by pumping it back for further distillation, keeping the middle cut which is the best part. They control this through a locked spirit safe, which allows both the stillman and the taxman to observe and monitor the spirit, diverting the middle cut at the correct time. The middle cut is by now about 60-70%, and is pumped to the filling store for cooling and transfer to casks.
The spirit comes out of the still clear and colourless. In the cask it gains both colour and flavour, and the difference the cask can make to the flavour is significant. Scotch Whisky producers only use oak casks, and generally only casks which have been used previously for the storage of either bourbon or sherry. That alone makes a huge difference to both the nose and taste of the whisky. My 10-year old children can, most of the time, tell you whether a whisky has been matured in an ex-bourbon or ex-sherry cask just from its colour and smell (I don’t know whether to be proud of them or ashamed of myself – probably a bit of both)!
At Highland Park they only use sherry casks. We were shown two used casks. One was made from American oak and the other from Spanish. Even the smell from those two oaks was remarkably different. Funnily enough, the Spanish cask was more fruity and raisiny, which I would associate with a whisky from an ex-sherry cask. The American one gave off a smell more of citrus and vanilla, which I would associate with an ex-bourbon cask. Why the difference? Because American oak grows more slowly than Spanish, meaning the wood is less porous, with a tighter grain, meaning there is less interaction between the spirit and the wood.
We moved on to the bonded warehouse. By law the spirit has to be matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years before it can be called whisky. Many whiskies are matured for longer than that. If you see a 12-year old whisky in a shop, this means that the whisky in that bottle has a minimum age of 12 years. This is because whisky from many casks will be married into each bottling. The whisky from some casks may be older than 12 years, but if the bottle says it is a 12-year old then the whisky in that bottle will never be younger than that. During the time it takes to mature the whisky, some natural evaporation takes place, known as the “angels’ share”. Depending on the climate, evaporation is about 2% per annum.
So finally to the tasting room. We tried the 12, 15, 18 and 21-year old. Whisky is often drunk with a small amount of water, as this splits the oils and enhances the taste. A few drops of water does not always improve the whisky, however, and at Highland Park I found a prime example of where, for me at least, a whisky was better without adding water. The 15-year old was fantastic without water, but to my palate lost a lot once water was added. By comparison, the flavours of the 18-year old opened up considerably with the addition of a few drops of water.
But the point of all of this is that palates are different. Half the fun of whisky is experimenting with the different smells and flavours.
Note, by the way, that in the following picture the whisky goes left to right from a 12-year old to a 21-year old. One of the indicators of the age of a whisky can be its colour, as with a greater time in the cask more of the colour of the wood seeps out into the spirit.
All I can say is that if you are ever up in Orkney, a trip to Highland Park is well worth it. It would rank as one of the best distillery tours I have done and seeing the malting floor was a rare treat.
Location of Highland Park Distillery (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth): N 58° 58.097 W 002° 57.317