Judging A Whisky By Its Cover – Scapa Skiren

Normally, I’m not the member of The Water Of Life that starts each article with a confession. Those of you who’ve read a few of our reviews will have noticed that Dave cannot begin to write about alcohol without admitting some gap in his knowledge or difficult preconception. However, it would be difficult to write about the Scapa Distillery’s entry-level offering without making a bit of an admission: I have never tried a single Scapa whisky before. It’s not a brand that has ever really come up when I’ve considered the next bottle to buy. It has always been just another supermarket shelf offering to be ignored while stopping in the spirits aisle in vain, hoping that there might be something exciting on special offer.

I must also make a second confession: the recent purchase of a bottle of the Scapa Skiren was entirely due to its packaging. The attractive blend of blues and greens and simple branding made it stand out from the other standard supermarket offerings that I perused during a brief break in the weekly food shop. This is not how I would typically buy whisky. Still, having never previously considered Scapa as an option, I realised that I simply did not know enough about the whisky in front of me to make an informed purchase. Instead, I was merely judging the whisky by its cover.

This does raise a question: how much can you usefully learn from a whisky’s packaging? Crucially, how correct will any assumptions be? As I have so little knowledge, and certainly no pre-formed opinions, of Scapa Distillery, their entry-level offering allows me to test some of this. It will also probably reveal a few of my prejudices, although increased awareness of these is not necessarily a bad thing as a whisky reviewer.

The Scapa Skiren’s packaging is quite attractive. The blend of blues and greens is in tune with its sailing ship logo: a whisky linked to the sea. The logo itself seems quite modern, suggesting a post-millennium relaunch rather than an unbroken lineage from the 1885 establishment date quoted on the top of its box. There is a mention of the Norse heritage of the Orkney Isles, where the Scapa Distillery sits. Still, the rest of the words on the packaging refer to the lifestyle of the Orkney Islanders rather than the Viking heritage adopted by the archipelago’s other distillery, Highland Park. For a supermarket offering, there is quite a lot of information about the spirit’s production displayed on the front of the carton: this particular bottling in the SK19 batch matured in 100% first-fill American Oak Casks.

However, we can also learn quite a lot from what isn’t mentioned. The lack of an age statement is less controversial than it might once have been and certainly not unusual for an entry-level offering. However, I am slightly cynically assuming that the lack of information about chill filtering or colouring means that both have featured in the production of this dram. This is somewhat at odds with the information on the spirit’s batch number and casks, which would generally hint at something produced by the sectors of the industry eschewing any adulteration of their whisky.

So, what am I expecting? The packaging certainly hints at a maritime character, but it is likely to be quite different from those found among Islay offerings without any mention of peat or smoke. I am assuming that the first-fill American oak will result in some sweetness with bright, fruity aromas and flavours, although I must admit that I am not expecting any great depth. I do tend to score non-chill filtered spirits higher on average; as this is likely to have been chill-filtered, I suspect that I will end up scoring this down. The same is true for the bottling percentage: I do tend to favour whiskies above 40%, which again reduces my predicted score.

All in all, I expect this to score about 4.5/10.

So, having made all sorts of assumptions, let’s leave the packaging aside and turn to the spirit itself.

Scapa Skiren

Island Single Malt Whisky, produced at Scapa Distillery owned by Pernod Ricard.

40% ABV, matured in 100% first-fill American Oak.

Chill filtration and colouring were not disclosed.

£35 (Asda)

Nose: Crisp apples, honey and cream, with sugary shortbread giving a buttery sweetness. There’s a little maritime saltiness and a touch of caramel: perhaps honey roasted almonds.

Palate: Honey, pear, citrus, and apricot. The buttery sweetness is still there, combined with the fruit notes to give a taste of apple crumble, accompanied with a sweet custard. The mouthfeel is quite rich and oily.

Finish: A medium finish of honey and a little oak, with a peppery warmth.

Opinion: As an entry-level offering, the Scapa Skiren performs quite well. The spirit itself is nice but doesn’t amaze me. It will never be the main event of an evening but is perfectly adequate as the accompaniment to a conversation. While there are some more exciting whiskies at the same price point, the Skiren is more or less what you should expect from a £35 whisky. However, this seems to be the lower end of the range of prices at which the Skiren can be bought, and I would definitely have second thoughts about it as it approaches the £40 mark.

Broadly, this whisky met my expectations, but the one area that surprised me was the texture of the spirit. It is thicker than I had expected and hasn’t suffered much from being bottled at 40%. However, the predictions I made were all fairly safe bets for an entry-level, unpeated Island Single Malt. The fact that these expectations were met just shows that Scapa has produced the whisky you would expect them to. It’s pleasant enough to drink but otherwise doesn’t offer much to excite.

On first inspection, the Skiren’s packaging suggested a slightly more artisan whisky, but a closer look lowered my expectations slightly. I’ve not been totally turned off Scapa by trying the Skiren, but I may not rush back to the distillery’s whiskies. That said, I would be very interested in trying a release that attempted to live up to the promises of that first glance. As it is, the Skiren was slightly better than I had anticipated, although there was little unexpected or exciting about it.


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