There’s a darkness to the waters of the North Atlantic in April. (Or was it the North Sea? My knowledge of oceanic borders was fuzzy.) Whitecaps divided the brawling ocean into sloppy lanes, enhancing the blackness between them. It was 10 a.m. on a Monday, and I had already started drinking.
The excellent dram an hour earlier in the Edinburgh airport kept me distracted from the sobering scene below. A lesson from college had resurfaced; it turns out that a buzz and lack of sleep form a potent team. Grim visions weren’t typically my style anyway. But my inner monologue was channeling Jeff Goldblum circa Jurassic Park, determined to punch holes in the safety spiel as I peered through the plane’s windows at the sea. ‘If our scrappy prop plane went down and somehow survived the crash, rafts might very well inflate at the exits, but our yellow plastic saviors wouldn’t be beating this particular piece of ocean. Not by a long shot.’ Idris Elba’s head peeked out from backseat pocket in smug agreement.
The gut checks and rattle of overhead bins subsided as we neared the airport. The modern convenience of air travel proved sound: we had made it to Kirkwall in under an hour and the weather had shifted for the better. Clear skies and sunlight coaxed color from the formerly black waters, releasing hints of green and blue.
Glass display cases scattered throughout the airport’s hanger-sized “terminal” are a cheat sheet to the community’s various claims to fame. Hand spun wool, celtic-style jewelry, replicas of Viking artifacts and war memorabilia made for the kind of eclectic visual buffet you encounter visiting the homes of your grandparents. I was there for the bottles of whisky gleaming at eye level.
A full Scottish breakfast of eggs, sausage, haggis, grilled tomatoes, beans, mushrooms and tattie scones was making fast work of my morning single malt. My jet lag prevention strategy was also shot to shit. I needed a syringe of adrenaline rammed through my sternum, but would settle for a strong cup of coffee. School was almost in session, and I wasn’t sleeping through a lesson plan like this.
From Mainland to Mainland
The northern Scottish archipelago of Orkney, comprised of approximately 70 islands, isn’t all that remote by today’s standards. Its most southernly portion sits a mere 10 miles off the northern tip of Scotland. Still, many of its early inhabitants happened upon Orkney the hard way, sailing across the mouth of the brutal North Sea from Norway as long ago as 6660 B.C. Surely the place felt a world away to them.
Evidence of Orkney’s busy past is easy for anyone to spot. Miraculously well-preserved Neolithic monuments dating from as early as 2500 B.C. dot the landscape. Some sit in farmers’ backyards. Vikings used the islands and their protected waters as the primary staging grounds for raids against Norway starting in the late 8th century. The influence of these legendary Norsemen, along with Gaelic heritage drawn from the Scottish mainland, creates a distinctive culture that saturates the islands to this day.
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney
In 1999, UNESCO named four monuments — collectedly called “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” — World Heritage Sites. Lucky for you, seeing them all is easily done in just a few hours, leaving all the more time to try whisky.
Maeshowe, considered the finest chambered tomb in north-west Europe, is over 5000 years old. Archaeologists know little about the tomb except that its construction was highly advanced. The chamber and entryway passage are crafted from slabs of flagstone, each weighing up to 30 tons, and the tomb is positioned so that sunlight during the winter solstice fully illuminates the back wall. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside.
Standing Stones of Stenness
Four large megaliths, the tallest measuring 19 feet, are all that’s left of what was once an ellipse. Carbon dating ages the site at at least 3100 B.C., making it one of the earliest stone circles in Europe.
The Ring of O’Brodgar
The defining monument of Orkney originally consisted of 60 stones that formed a ring measuring 341 feet in diameter, but today only 27 still stand. Estimates peg the ring’s age at somewhere between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, making it the youngest great Neolithic monument in the area.
Described by some as the “Scottish Pompeii” due to the excellent state of its preservation, Skara Brae is the most complete Neolithic village in all of Europe. Consisting of 8 clustered homes that were inhabited from sometime between 3180 and 2500 BC, it’s older than both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids.
Kirkwall is the largest settlement in Orkney, situated on the largest island in the group known as the “mainland”. Roughly 75 percent of the archipelago’s 21,000 residents lives here. It is the seat of the local government, and connects the string of geological Old Red Sandstone outposts to the rest of Scotland by ferry and air.
Highland Park has officially been making whisky in Kirkwall since 1798. The distillery requires no introduction for rabid fans of single malt. F. Paul Pacult, known as one of America’s foremost experts on spirits, heralded the 25 year old expression as the “Best Spirit in the World” in 2013; it’s an honor he’s also bestowed on the 18 year old twice before. For more casual imbibers, noting Highland Park’s relationship as the sister distillery to The Macallan generates a good number of nods.
On foot, the grounds seemed smaller than I had imagined. A short cobblestone path from the entry gates squeezed between the tightly knit triangle of the still house, visitor center and mash house. It was only later on the roof that the mass of warehouses and other facilities surrounding the main entryway finally came into view. The low drone of machinery drowned any sounds coming from the road into town.
My first swig of coffee finally arrived while seated in a tufted leather wing chair next to a crackling peat fire. A limited edition Linn Sondek Lp12 turntable sat in the corner, connected to two Akurate 242 speakers. Bookshelves stuffed with literature on whisky making lined both walls. Highland Park’s entertaining room located on the second floor was the Valhalla you’d imagine finding in a single malt distillery, but it wasn’t home for long. Knee-high rubber wellies and thick windbreakers emerged from the storeroom. We were going to trudge through the mud.
A Walk in the Moor
Wind rules these islands. It’s why there’s no trees — they simply can’t take root. It also explains the ubiquitous turbines whirling along the roads. The strong influence of the Gulf Stream keeps average temperatures in a mild range of 46°F and 54°F throughout the year, despite Orkney’s northerly latitude. The constant stiff breeze was a wake up call of its own as we stomped towards the wall of earth ahead.
The distillery requires no introduction for rabid fans of single malt. F. Paul Pacult, known as one of America’s foremost experts on spirits, heralded the 25 year old expression as the “Best Spirit in the World” in 2013; it’s an honor he’s also bestowed on the 18 year old twice before.
Peat, technically defined as “an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation”, is a distinguished ingredient for most single malts. The mud-like substance is responsible for the rich smoky flavors that often separate Scotland’s take on whisky from the rest of the world. The peat within Highland Park’s Hobbister Moor is over 4,000 years old and crucial to the spirit’s balanced profile. Wild heather, which grows on the peat’s surface, is credited with imparting a sweet tinge to the smoke created by Highland Park’s peat kilns.
Harvesters cut bricks out of the moor each year, traditionally using a special turf-spade known as a sleán or slane, slowly stripping a large top section of earth from the area. The sectioned pieces are then laid into rows on the ground and rotated periodically to dry over the summer. Today, modern cutting machines make faster work of the critical ingredient, carving away at the land with 21st century efficiency. I threw my full weight at the clay-like substance from above and barely fractured the face of the wall with a slane while a woman half my size sliced three fresh blocks with ease. Finesse clearly played a role in the old school technique, and I needed some practice.
The rusted hulls and masts of sunken ships protrude out of the waters along the shores of Orkney. I caught my first glimpse on the road back to the distillery. These are a reminder of islands’ strategic role during both World Wars as the main base of the British Grand Fleet. Scapa Flow is the name given to the 120-square-mile body of protected water formed between the Orkney islands of the Mainland, Graemsay, Burray, South Ronaldsay and Hoy. Its bottom is sandy and relatively shallow, with a depth ranging between 100 and 200 feet, making it one of the world’s finest natural harbors.
The 74 ships of the Kaiserliche Marine’s High Seas Fleet were held captive in the sound at the close of WWI. The German admiral gave orders to sink the entire fleet on the evening of June 21st, 1919. He hadn’t received word about the last-minute extension of negotiations on the Treaty of Versailles and moved to prevent the fleet from being used by the allies. Much of the wreckage was eventually salvaged, but many ships still remain, making Scapa Flow a bucket-list destination for wreck divers around the world.
Men had been distilling Highland Park long before these waters were changed forever by war. As I learned during our tour, nailing down the distillery’s early history isn’t exactly an academic exercise. Texts from the late 1800s cast an image of Highland Park’s founder and original patron Magnus “Mansie” Eunson that seems pulled straight from a Hollywood script. W. R. Mackintosh, author of Around the Orkney Peat-Fiores published in 1898, described the charismatic Norseman’s diverse career path and approach toward life succinctly. The “flesher [butcher], beadle [church lay official], and successful smuggler” was “brimful of pawky humor and resource, which extricated him from many a scrape.” Tales by other whiskey historians recount Magnus narrowly hiding his supply of illegal distillates from a surprise tax collector using the lid of a coffin and a white sheet to stage a fake funeral for a countryman supposedly struck down by smallpox. Valid or not, the anecdotes of Magnus’s exploits are a source of rebelliousness for the brand and a deep part of its ethos.
The better half of an afternoon flew by as we walked through each of the steps involved in transforming grains and water into liquid gold. Though steps to modernize Highland Park’s distillation the process have been introduced over time, mirroring the techniques used throughout the single malt industry, a few distinct elements remain the same for Highland Park to this day.
The distillery is one of ten in Scotland that still floor malts a percentage of its barley — a technique that involves air-drying germinating malt on the ground by turning the grains constantly over a period of days using a flat wooden shovel known as a shiel. Most of the resulting spirit is stored across 23 warehouses on site (a rarity in Scotch production today) in a mixture of traditional Spanish and American sherry oak casks of varying sizes to benefit from the island’s moderate temperatures.
Tales by other whiskey historians recount Magnus narrowly hiding his supply of illegal distillates from a surprise tax collector using the lid of a coffin and a white sheet to stage a fake funeral for a countryman supposedly struck down by smallpox.
Our tour ended in the far back corner of a warehouse, surrounded by rows of aging whisky. We reverently circled a single American Oak cask whose contents dated back to 1968. The warehouse manager inserted the aptly named whisky thief into the barrel, extracting samples to fill our eager nosing glasses. Two thirds of the cask had been consumed over the years, leaving plenty of room for air to exercise its will on the dwindling supply. The remaining contents were far different than the first sample ever tasted from the cask. Evaporation known as the Angel’s Share had reduced the spirit’s ABV to roughly 41 percent, a level dangerously close to the minimum ABV of 40 percent dictated by law. The process was accelerating with each dram sampled, and would eventually strip the cask’s contents of its legal designation as whisky.
Patricia Retson, Brand Heritage Manager for Highland Park, felt the expression in its current state was the best whisky she had ever tasted in her life. Several others at the distillery agreed. The liquid was a light gold in hue and noticeably less dark than the 40-year-old expression offered in Highland Park’s core lineup I had sampled earlier — a reminder of the foolishness pushed by some that a whisky’s color is correlated to its age and quality. I cupped the glass with both hands in an effort to warm the spirit above the chilly temps of the warehouse.
Its low ABV was only obvious via the tell-tale thick tears running down the side of the glass. The expansive finish that stretched for well over five minutes as we walked back to the main gates was the most remarkable aspect of the dram. Citrus and peach, spice and a final whiff of peat each had their moments in the spotlight. It was complex and fantastic, not to mention distinct from anything officially bottled by the distillery. Was it the best whisky I had ever tasted? Possibly. It was easily the oldest. Discounting the bias introduced by the entire experience was next to impossible. Regardless, like the Neolithic monuments and wreckage of Scapa Flow, the whisky of the 1968 barrel was a window into another time on the island, slowly weakening in the hands of the salt-filled air.
Over the Edge
The rain stung. Combined with uninhibited wind from the sea, the brooding atmosphere was perfect for the Old Red Sandstone coastal cliffs of Yesnaby that mark the western edge of the Orkney mainland. Surf hammered the 50-foot walls, throwing spray back at the sky. Columns of sunlight pierced the haze on occasion, as if a higher power was anointing select patches of ocean into his kingdom. The scene had my chaperones worried, and they reminded me to keep a healthy buffer between my feet and the edge. I pulled a flask from my breast pocket and chewed a sip of Highland Park 18 before swallowing.
Somewhere long beyond the horizon to the west, the northeastern shores of Canada would eventually appear — to the north, the ice flows of the arctic ocean. The water was a shade of navy today, but still appropriately intimidating for what must have felt like the edge of the earth to many before me. There was a familiar warmth crawling through my veins as I wiped the water from my face and headed back to the van. I was glad to hear the smack of the rain on the door instead of my back.
If ever there was ever a place in need of a fine whisky-making tradition, Orkney was it. Even here, in this outpost between two seas, the affairs of the world had somehow always left their mark on the islands. It was only right that something from Orkney consistently left its mark on the rest of the world.