The Ring of Brodgar feels like the perfect spot to wrap up a year of Island Odysseys. The mysterious stone circle is one component in Orkney’s outstanding range of neolithic world heritage sites, and although its specific purpose is unknown, it speaks of an early and sophisticated society at work, and play, in these northern outposts.
The standing stones of Brodgar are immaculately positioned within a rolling and fertile landscape, with an entirely different feel from the often scratchy, hard terrain of some of our other notable whisky islands. This is a place people came to and settled because of its relatively moderate climate and the richness of the land and its seas. Three thousand years since these stones were erected, Orkney is proving to be more productive than ever.
At Highland Park, assistant distillery manager Erik Smith is starting the day organising a tour group from the luxurious Seabourne Quest liner, currently berthed in Kirkwall on a month-long food and drink themed cruise.
The born-and-bred Orcadian has been involved with the distillery most of his life, and can reel off a list of the roles he’s held.
“I’ve been working here for 27 years now, in the cooperage, as a mashman, in the malting, and before that I used to come here to take deliveries of the whisky until they offered me a full-time job,” he says. “All the guys here are multi-skilled and take a huge amount of pride in Highland Park and its place within Orkney. The whisky is a result of the distinctive peat we cut from Hobbister Moor, seven miles from here, as well as the local water.”
Erik’s not only a familiar face at the distillery – he’s also been a lifelong participant in the Kirkwall Ba’, a traditional event pitting both sides of the town against each other in a no-holds barred ball game with up to 200 people on either side – and another reminder of what makes Orkney distinctive.
From the distillery’s home on High Park overlooking Kirkwall, we can also see across the isthmus to Highland Park’s little neighbour, Scapa. The distillery is perched on the cliffs next to shore of Scapa Flow and the good news is that for the first time in its history, it’s open to visitors.
Distillery manager Richard Clark is there to show us what whisky enthusiasts have been missing.
“We’ve had people knocking at the door for years at Scapa asking to come in, so it’s great to have the visitor centre up and running. In our first year we’ve already had 5,000 visitors,” he says.
The attractions are clear; Scapa is one of those distilleries where time seems to have stood still. The equipment is delightfully dated, from a 1950s model Porteous malt mill to the Lomond still salvaged from Hiram Walker’s Inverleven distillery, which is used as a wash still at Scapa in its two still set up.
“We rely on the instrumentation, but the instrumentation doesn’t control the process,” says Richard. “We’re proud that we have a distillery that even in this era is reliant on our operators doing a job that’s very similar to the one that was done 100 years ago. You can see that throughout Orkney, where the traditions are based on handcraft – you only have to look around the islands to see so many examples of traditional arts and crafts, music, everything. That all ties in with Scapa.”
The islands’ traditions also survive in Barony Mill, built in 1873 and still going strong. Although the grinding is done in the winter, miller Sam Britten is on hand to crank up the machinery and demonstrate how the local bere barely has been ground here for generations.
The mill has been instrumental in maintaining supplies of this particular strain of barley, used for bere bannocks – a kind of scone – and home brewed ale, primarily for local consumption. The six-row barley is an ancient variety, but is now finding a new lease of life – thanks to its increasing use in the whisky industry.
It was used initially by Arran, where Unfiltered started our Island Odysseys. From Lochranza, they produced a one-off Orkney Bere bottling in 2004, limited to 5,800 bottles. Since then, the Agronomy Institute at Orkney College UHI, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, has started a longer-term collaboration with Bruichladdich to supply the crop for its Bere Barley expression.
“When we started working with bere in 2002, there was only a limited local market for bere meal, so we were very interested in finding new markets to help its conservation,” says Dr Peter Martin, director of the Agronomy Institute. “Clearly if you want farmers to grow the crop, you have to find them a market, and distilling seemed to be a good one because bere had a traditional role in the whisky industry up until around the mid-1800s.”
Bere is thought to be the oldest cereal crop in continuous cultivation in the UK, with written records going back to the 1530s and clear links with the Vikings and the Norse settlement of the Orkneys. Its rapid growth and ability to mature early were prized, but the development of higher-yielding barley varieties saw a steep decline in its use.
“Distilleries like big plump grains for maximum alcohol extraction, but it’s been very interesting working with Bruichladdich, because they recognise the benefits of combining a crop which is grown in a magical place like Orkney and using it in an island like Islay, which has such a strong reputation for distilling.”
From the fields of bere barley overlooking the island of Shapinsay, we make a final stop at the Swannay Brewery, a local Orkney enterprise run by father and son team Rob and Lewis Hill. Among their offerings is an Orkney Porter, aged for 18 months in the very same casks used by Arran for its Orkney Bere bottling.
As our Island Odyssey draws to a close, it’s a reminder of the interconnectivity of the industry, its ingredients, and its people – that what goes around, comes around. Our whisky islands each have their own characteristics, unique distilleries, different landscapes and histories. There’s only one thing for it – it’s time to start planning an Island Odyssey of your own.
Unfiltered’s Richard Goslan put a video together of his visit to Orkney, which you can watch below
This feature is from Unfiltered issue 33, October 2016. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership