Highland Park is one of those distilleries which I have always been intrigued by, partly because of its remote location in the Orkney Islands at the northernmost tip of Scotland and partly because the whisky they produce is exceptionally good.
If I remember correctly, Highland Park was the second single malt whisky that I tried after Isle of Jura many years back and I remember being staggered by the level of complexity along with the sophisticated nature of the whisky which was also dangerously drinkable.
Over the years I have tried some of the expressions from the distillery, most of which (12 Years Old, 18 Years Old and 21 Years Old) I enjoyed immensely, and some (2001) which I didn’t care much for. I believe the latter was an outlier as it was a Duty Free expression that seemed a bit too green and with a sappy aftertaste which made it a real struggle to finish the bottle.
But the one expression which I kept coming back to primarily for its affordability and availability would be the Highland Park 12 Years Old, which is the focus of today’s review. The whisky itself is a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, which is the general make up of most of the Highland Park range (with Freya being the outlier, having been matured entirely in ex-bourbon casks).
While the whiskies at Highland Park are lightly peated, the way in which it influences the spirit is quite different. While the peat bogs of Islay are made from the decomposed matter which originated from vegetation such as seaweed and trees, the peat in Orkney is primarily from vegetation as there are no trees on the island.
As a result, the resulting peat has a more sweet, heathery note to it and this is transferred into the barley during the drying process. This sweet, smoky character follows right through the entire whisky making process and is evident in the final spirit itself after maturation.
The distillery malts part of its barley requirement in house and it is dried for 18 hours over a peat fire before a further 18 hours over a coke fire. The resulting peat has a phenol specification of 30-40ppm phenol, but the distillery also purchases unpeated malt from commercial vendors Simpsons and both types are always mixed before mashing.
As a result, the Highland Park 12 Years Old expression has a phenol specification closer to 20ppm phenol and has a more honeyed character with an underlying element of smoke when compared with the peated whiskies from Islay.
Prior to this year, I hadn’t encountered the 12 Years Old expression for a few years, but had sampled the 18 and 21 Years Old expressions, which were exceptional. Therefore when I had the chance to sample the 12 Years Old expression again earlier this year and again in September, it was akin to seeing an old friend again after a long period of time.
So with that in mind, let’s get to the whisky!
Highland Park 12 Years Old (40% abv)
Colour: Amber sunset
Nose: Initial entry brings with it a dollop of honeyed sweetness followed by just a touch of salted caramel. Elements of orange and lemon citrus then emerge and intermingle well with the sweetness of the malt. Barley sugar, cracked black pepper and some oak make an appearance before the smoke enters the fray.
The smokiness doesn’t overpower the nose, instead choosing to linger in the background and adding another dimension to the sweet and citrusy nature of this dram. As time passes, the oakiness becomes more pronounced and dark chocolate shavings become apparent, giving the nose a very sophisticated feel. Not overly complex, but just enough to make it deliciously inviting.
Palate: The honeyed sweetness carries through from the nose and assumes a syrup like consistency on the palate. Barley sugar, lemons and orange rind are rather apparent on initial entry before some sea salt and smoke emerge.
The oakiness from the nose also makes an appearance after some time and intermingles well with the smoke, which continues to linger in the backgound and thereby allowing the sweeter, more citrusy notes to control the proceedings. Dark chocolate once again enters the fray before some spice from the black pepper and just a touch of salted caramel bring things to a close.
Finish: Medium to long finish, with the dark chocolate and smoke combining beautifully in the background while the honeyed sweetness and a touch of citrus continue their harmonious interplay in the forefront. Faint traces of vanilla and cinnamon towards the very end make this very more-ish and the mouthfeel is satisfyingly oily with a drying element towards the end.
What makes this whisky impressive is that it is able to retain a good level of complexity even at an abv of only 40%. I would definitely love to try a cask strength version of this expression as I believe that the nuances would be amplified and inundate the senses in a different way.
Considering that this bottling is not available at Changi Duty Free anymore, it means that one would have to source for it from a retailer at a much higher price than the $70 it used to go for at the airport. But considering that it is such a good whisky, I wouldn’t really mind paying that higher price.
While Highland Park has started experimenting with the NAS bottlings as well as the Warriors and Gods series, it is nice to see them still committed to age statement bottlings such as the 12, 18 and 21 Years Old expressions and the hope is that they continue to do so rather than phase them out in favour of production, as owners Edrington have done with the Macallan Sherry Oak series.
I look forward to visiting the distillery sometime in the hopefully near future and am quite interested to check out neighbours Scapa while I’m there. But until that day comes, I’m happy to enjoy whatever expression I can get my hands on from the distillery.
Until the next time.