Having spent the last two years noisily banging the bongo for whiskies which are affordable and available to all, I thought I’d start my Malt Review journey with a pair that you probably won’t be able to find, and which will be eye-wateringly expensive if you do. Hail hypocrisy. But there is, after a fashion, a point. Or, at least, that’s my party line, and I’m sticking to it.
Said unfindables made their way into my clutches through the usual manner; which is to say they were an enormously generous donation from a fellow enthusiast. I had set them aside, intending them to be my birthday pours, but when the day arrived I found myself slightly unexpectedly in Rioja. So instead, they’re the subject of my first post on Malt.
You probably want to know what they are. That’d help. First up is Highland Park 1961 ‘The Dragon.’ Bottled from a single Oloroso hogshead at the request of S & JD Robertson Ltd. The name, I gather, comes from a 12th Century carving by Norse Crusaders. Back in 1997 that probably actually was a charming nod by a local company to a real piece of Orkney history, as opposed to the names adorning modern Highland Park bottles, which, as far as one can tell, are the result of marketing chaps at Edrington headquarters remembering that Orkney has Viking heritage, and spooling through Horrible Histories for inspiration.
Second up is something completely different, and mildly complicated. It’s from a distillery within another distillery. In fact it’s kind of from a distillery within a distillery that offshot, like a tributary or a conjoined twin, from another distillery within a distillery. Confused yet?
Basically, the now-closed grain distillery, Dumbarton, contained within its bowels a malt distillery, Inverleven, to help buffer such blends as Ballantine’s. But in 1956 a third Lomond still was installed, with an attached rectification column designed to distil different sorts of spirit. Although it used low wines from Inverleven’s wash still, this operation had, for some reason, to be classed as a new distillery, and the name they came up with was “Lomond”. I like to think that this was the result of some straightforward chap exasperatedly exclaiming “just call it bloody Lomond,” after his colleagues had debated complicated Gaelic names for ages.
Lomond’s Lomond still was decommissioned in 1985, and ended up being plundered by Bruichladdich, where it now produces The Botanist gin. Bottlings of its single malt make hens’ teeth look tawdry and common; this one was the handiwork of the SMWS. Distilled in 1972, bottled in 1992, and yours, if you can find it, for… oh, I don’t know. A kidney? A second-favourite child? A car, if you have a really good car? Something in that region.
Preamble fully ambled, and samples poured. (Forgive the startlingly affectatious glass, incidentally; one of those post-whisky purchases that seem such a good idea at the time. Allegedly it’s modelled on a 1920s Blender’s Glass, but I reckon Angus MacRaild and the Whisky Exchange just evicted some goldfish and banged their bowls on stalks. In any case, it’s a must-have if you like a washing up challenge.)
Highland Park 1961 “The Dragon” (36 years old) 48.1% ABV
Ooh, that’s a funky nose. In that wonderful way that you only really find at Springbank nowadays. Not sulphurous whatsoever, but full of earthy rancio notes and meat. Behind that is an impression of dusty furniture and wood-focussed aftershave, conjuring fanciful thoughts of some Edwardian gentleman’s walnut cologne box. Surprisingly juicy though; partially sultanas, and partially something more tropical. Apricots, perhaps, and a touch of mango. Basically, it’s seriously perfumed, seriously layered and seriously complex.
Still lively on the palate, given the age. The alcohol adds vibrancy and freshness, but the dusty sandalwood notes and juicy, tropical character remain the headlines. A touch of pine pops its head up towards the end. Still makes me think a little of modern Springbank on the finish. Which obviously is a good thing! It’s that rancio meatiness, and ever-so-light smatter of diesel.
SMWS 98.1 (Lomond 1972, 20 years old) 58.3% ABV
Crikey. That nose is vicious with alcohol. A struggle to get your snout anywhere near this without razor-sharp fumes slicing their way up your nostrils. Spring eventually emerges through the tears; white flowers and citrus fruit with little bursts of pear. All overlaid with vanilla and light honey. I’m still double-checking I don’t have a nosebleed, mind you.
Even more fire and fury from the alcohol in your mouth. This is a whisky which believes that balance is something for other people to worry about. Sweetness lurks, but in fairly basic vanilla/honey form. There’s a nuance of hay too, then more “green” notes of Granny Smith and pear. You wouldn’t peg this as a 20 year old, were you to taste it blind. The flavours disappear relatively quickly, leaving only a somewhat sore tongue behind…
Rare, expensive, and old whisky is fitted out with more suits of new clothes than any other Emperor I know. At the risk of slandering my environment, the easiest way for a brand to get good publicity is to bang a few samples of something special and mildly exorbitant in the post to whisky bloggers. 95% of the time the results will be glowing tribute on social media; apotheotic veneration from grateful recipients. Because how can something venerable, unique, and with such an interesting story possibly fall short of extraordinary? How can something worth such a sum be less than magnificent? (How, if I’m being cynical, can you otherwise ensure a steady stream of samples?)
But all that glitters is not gold. Yes, the Highland Park was remarkable; without doubt one of my top five or ten of the year, and a reminder of why I do still love that particular distillery. But its story and background were so much less fascinating than that of the Lomond, which rather left me cold. A piece of liquid history is a wonderful thing. But besides the point if you’re just after something nice to drink.
So, if it falls to Malt to be the somewhat badly behaved little boy in the crowd shouting “the Emperor’s got no clothes on” then so be it. That makes it my sort of site to write for. At the end of the day, not all whiskies are created equal, regardless of how they’re priced. And there’s not much point reviewing something if you’re overawed by rarity and expense.
Like I said at the start, there was a point. Though I don’t blame you if it wasn’t very clear…
Highland Park 1961 “The Dragon” (36 years old) – 9/10
SMWS 98.1 (Lomond 1972, 20 years old) – 4/10
(Huge thanks to Andrew for these samples. Sorry I didn’t like the Lomond more!)
(Ed: Featured image from Highland Park’s website.)