Friday, December 8, 2017

A Time To Keep with Scapa Whisky

Whilst whisky, specifically Scottish whisky (Irish whiskey has an e in it by the way) is on my mind there are a few more things I want to say about it and my relationship with it.

When I started out in the wine trade (August the 5th 1999, my first day in Oddbins) I found myself in a shop with some extremely knowledgeable people who were generous about sharing that knowledge and I learnt a lot. I also found that they each had their specific vinous passions, and to be taken seriously by the customers I felt I needed to find my own particular niche. There was also a vague assumption that because I'd grown up in Scotland I knew about whisky.

Reader, I did not. I wasn't even convinced I could drink a whole glass of it at the time, but it seemed like a good place to start, not least because 20 odd years ago it was a somewhat more conservative market - distilleries released a very limited number of expressions, blends where unfashionable, and all of it was much cheaper. Basically it was an easy place to start. We had quite a few tasting bottles under the counter, and as I worked my way through them, read more, and learnt how to taste* the stuff, I fell in love with it.

There is a misconception that malt whisky should be drunk neat - it can be if that's how you prefer it, but it's not how a lot of people prefer it. Everyone I've met in the trade adds a drop of water, apart from anything else it helps release subtler flavours and aromas. Cutting the alcohol is also easier in the nose (stick your nose straight into a glass of spirits and sniff and you'll get a burning sensation and be unable to detect anything much. You have to approach the glass with care, and sort of waft the fumes towards you - things like this are why it's so easy to ridicule tasting as an activity) which matters. If you want to add coke, lemonade, ginger, green tea, coconut water, whatever - it's up to you, and don't let anyone suggest otherwise. Drinking whisky is meant to be a pleasure.

Meanwhile, Scapa is Orkney's other distillery (the first one is the rather better known Highland Park). Scapa has had a bit of a chequered history in the past few decades. Unloved and in the verge of being mothballed for a while it's now back in production, finally has a visitors centre, and a couple of nas expressions on the market. Like Highland Park there are honey and heather flavours in Scapa, but it doesn't have as much smoke or peat, and there's more of a hint of salt (like on a gentle sea breeze; and descriptions like this are another invitation to ridicule, but you have to describe it somehow). It's the sort of flavour profile that makes it a good beginnners** malt, as well as one for aficionados.

It's also an excuse to push George Mackay Brown's short stories at you again. He liked his whisky (a bit to much to be fair) and reading him the scent of a dram feels as present as the smell of a peat fire. He captures the Orkney he knew so well, recording the islands of his childhood and before, finding the timeless elements of the place. There is nostalgia here, but he avoids sentiment, and I much as I struggle with his novels, I find the short stories wonderful.

*Tasting is different to drinking, it's primarily about evaluating, mostly with your nose, and there's every chance you'll spit out whatever you've been trying at the end. It's an intellectual exercise that assesses quality before preference which in turn encourages me to keep an open mind about everything but cream based liquors which do a horrible mouth coating thing that I cannot like.

**A bad malt for beginners would be something at the really peaty smokey end of the spectrum. The iodene/seaweedy/tarry notes of something like Ardbeg can be offputting, as can the hot pepper of a Talisker. Much better to start at the gentler honey/toffee end and work up.


  1. I no longer drink scotch, but had a good flirtation in my 30s, always adding a splash of water. We used to get MacPhails from Oddbins whenever we passed a shop - a good value single malt, but my favourite treat was Bruichladdich, more subtle than the other peatier Islay ones!

  2. what price an old bottle of bruichladdich now? (Hundreds at least). The older I get the more I appreciate spirits - one small glass of something is enough for me.