I’ve been flirting with Scapa for a year now… tasting it here and there, but never in a situation where I could contemplate and write about it. It surprised me at WhiskyFest 2011, standing out amid a throng of other whiskies that had me pretty much in the bag by the time I got around to the Scapa table. My notes amount to “Mm! Gud!” Finally, I got to have a nice long conversation with a pour of Scapa 16 at K&L this week. It delivers. Just when I was starting to think I’d discovered all the exciting single malts around. It’s not often that I’m taken by a scotch aged solely in ex-bourbon casks (100% first-fill, in this case), but the flavors here are deep and focused.
Scapa is located by the ocean in the Orkney Isles, off the northeastern coast of Scotland’s mainland. Like Highland Park, it shares the distinction of being among the northernmost distilleries in Scotland. Unlike Highland Park, Scapa does not use the local Orcadian peat to dry its barley. Also unlike Highland Park, Scapa restricts itself to aging in those first-fill bourbon barrels, which is probably the least intrusive way to age whisky – only a 3rd- or 4th-fill ex-bourbon cask would impart less influence on the whisky. In fact, at its essence, Scapa is as simple as single malt gets: good malt carefully distilled, aged in the simplest possible way, and bottled without flourishes, finishes, or fanfare. I only wish it were bottled at 43% ABV and was not chill-filtered, alas. I marked it “Must Try” because I feel that Scapa showcases what can be done without fancy barrel finishes. It’s a great whisky to try if you’re looking to step out of the mainstream.
Nose: Briny. Sugar cookies and vanilla saltwater taffy. Very floral – honeysuckle. Elegant. It rewards a lengthy pondering by evolving more depth – not so much new aromas. It definitely reminds one of the sea – briny air, seaweed washed up on shore, and driftwood drying in the sun.
Palate: Light in body and flavor, but focused – a nuttiness like salted cashews, and distinct vanilla and malt (which continues to show as sugar cookies and saltwater taffy).
Finish: Light and of medium length. Vanilla bean and fresh dairy cream. Elegant to the last, and devoid of bitterness.
With Water: A surge of banana (ugh), but that fades and reveals syrupy melted ice cream. Definitely try it with a few drops.
Overall: Quite good. Scapa is light in nature, but delivers surprisingly deep and complex variations on the theme. Not just vanilla, but rich, roasty vanilla. Not just taffy, but briny, homemade saltwater taffy. Not just a good sipping malt, but elegant and accomplished from nose to finish.