Highland Park distillery has been in (legitimate) operation since 1798 and has always remained in the original spot where Magnus Eunson, a direct descendant of the Vikings, ran his illicit distilling production. At one point, the distillery was called High Park due to its location, overlooking Kirkwall. High enough to see the taxman’s arrival!
The Orkney-based operation is Scotland’s northernmost distillery and lies almost in the Arctic Circle. To put that in perspective, the distillery is closer to Oslo than it is to London. Which also explains their 600-year Viking history.
The unique weather conditions contribute to the distinctive flavour of their whiskies. Even though the weather can be brutal at times, the island has a climate that lacks extreme temperatures, from 2°C in winter to 16°C in summer, allowing an even-paced whisky maturation.
A while back I did tour of the distillery premises, which, by the way, is like a small village with several buildings steeped in history. Highland Park proudly state their whisky is crafted by modern-day Viking souls. It is said that one in three islanders bears Viking DNA, and it is clear that many Orcadians are strongly connected to this heritage, including our tour guide (he had even braided his beard like a true Viking).
5 Keystones of production
The distillery has its special way of creating a range of whiskies that are instantly recognisable as Highland Park. These are the five key components that make their whiskies unique.
1 Floor malting
There aren’t many distilleries left who still turn the malt by hand. Well, they do have a small machine that moves across the room turning the malt, but they still need someone to do parts of it by hand. The malt is turned every eight hours, seven days a week, to maintain airflow and allow the right amount of moisture (5%) to absorb the aromatic smoke (also known as reek).
The peat is from Hobbister Moor, located just seven miles from the distillery. Due to the merciless winds, hardly any trees survive on the island, so the peat is woodless. Instead it is dense and heathery, creating a sweet and floral aroma. The peat is cut in April and left to dry naturally during the summer. It is then burned in the 100-year-old kilns, where it will infuse the barley.
3 Sherry casks
Highland Park buys both European and Spanish oak and cuts it into barrel staves. These are then sent to the sherry region in Spain where they are made into casks, filled with Oloroso sherry and left to mature for two years or so. After this, the casks are emptied and sent back to Orkney for Highland Park whisky production.
4 Cool maturation
Kirkwall has an oceanic climate, which influences the temperature. They have cooler weather in the summer (you’re lucky if it goes up to 16°C), while winters are damp, chilly and windy, but due to the Gulf Stream, the temperatures are milder than you’d expect at their location.
5 Cask harmonisation
For each batch of Highland Park, their Master Distiller carefully combines up to 150 (!!) casks. The new (and final) batch is then left to rest for at least a month before being bottled. This resting period is important to allow enough time for the flavours from each cask to combine and blend into a rounded whisky.
The whisky selection
Highland Park’s range is huge! They have special editions and collaborations coming out regularly, so I won’t be listing it all here; it is impossible to keep up. Below you can find more information about their core range and some of the special bottlings I sampled during my visit.
10-Year-Old Viking Scars
The 10yo is not widely available in the UK (mainly online), as the 12yo seems to be the go-to over there. I’ve come across it more in other European countries. Its style is typical of Highland Park whiskies, yet in a softer, milder way. It is a good entry-level whisky if you are interested in peated expressions. You get coastal notes with heather honey, followed by subtle citrus, crisp apple and vanilla.
12-Year-Old Viking Honour
There has been some discussion on whether the 12yo has changed in flavour over the years, the most common thought being the lack of sherry influence or the richness the cask often brings to the spirit. The one I tried wasn’t that rich, but crisper and grassier, although you could still find the sherry influence. Sherry helps to balance and mellow the iodine, peat and spicy notes.
18-Year-Old Viking Pride
HP 18yo is lighter than you’d expect. It is juicy and dry at the same time. Winter spices such as cinnamon and allspice, together with coffee, combine with a touch of heather honey and marzipan.
This is a whisky with impressive depths; it is rich and sweet with a nutty toffee flavour – a combination of dark chocolate, sticky toffee and dried fruits. The finish is very smooth, almost silk-like. I would have loved to get myself a bottle, but the price (£400) is a bit too hefty for my budget.
This is fairly similar to the 25-year-old HP, but with a bit more floral smokiness and winter spices. The sticky toffee is also a bit saltier. Absolutely delicious (and expensive at £800 a bottle).
The Light & The Dark
The Light represents the spring and summer, while the Dark is designed with the Orkney autumn and winter in mind. Both are bottled at 52.9% and are 17 years old.
The Light is aged in bourbon barrels and the Dark in sherry for a deeper appearance and fuller flavour. The tropical notes of the Light work well together with the smokiness. There’s roasted pineapple and caramelised pear together with oak and nutmeg. It has a subtle spiciness to it. The Dark gives a wonderful spicy tingle with gentle peat. Christmas spices and ginger biscuits. I enjoyed them both and really struggle to pick a favourite. If I could just sample them again….
What do you think about Highland Park distillery? Which expressions have you tried?
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