Fly-tipping is a nuisance that blights communities, and frankly there’s been a noticeable change in the output of Highland Park of late that prompts similarities. This once great distillery situated on Orkney, supported a solid range of age statements with the occasional series. Then lately, things have started to get ridiculous, partially prompted by consumer demand, eager for more of these limited expressions to collect, invest or merely flip. Nowadays Highland Park supports more collections than Netflix and it shows no sign of abating.
It’s gorged itself on the Viking heritage and become bloated. The role of Edrington cannot be underestimated, with its blending, design and marketing teams having honed their skills on other brands. Now the change of gear with Highland Park has given us the very disappointing Valkyrie, the Tesco exclusive Dragon Legend and the Rebus bottling that seemed to pop up with every flick across Facebook. These examples are just from 2017 alone and it’s been difficult to keep up at times.
Then there are the rumours of overproduction and vast quantities of new make spirit being offered for sale. Something is happening at Highland Park and whilst it’s not an unravelling, this once formidable vessel is starting to look a little weathered.
As consumers we’re partially to blame for fanning these flames, but more so for not actually voting with our wallets elsewhere. How many of these bottles are actually opened? Does this reluctance to break the seal and experience the whisky play into the hands of the distillery?
It’s an interesting angle, the temptation to shovel out young whisky with few hard facts but plenty of marketing spiel can equate to riches for those involved. I also wonder, few collectors talk about known fakes within their collections and does this reluctance also apply to these special editions that are acquired more for their future profit margin than the actual drinking experience? Have these become mere objects rather than whisky to be consumed?
I’ve previously reviewed the Highland Park Valkyrie, but have yet to pluck up the courage to engage with the Dragon Legend. My experience with the former was very disappointing, especially so when the packaging was adorned with so much story but no actual details regarding the whisky. The Dragon Legend is more of the same and although slightly cheaper at £40, once I’ve been burned I tend to vote with my wallet and purchase elsewhere. As whisky enthusiasts, we’re far too forgiving and invisibly chained to brands. If we become proactive then we force – not just Highland Park and Edrington – but the other brands and companies who have cut corners to maximise profit and shareholder returns, to reconsider.
All of this takes us to the whisky under the microscope for this review. The Highland Park Shiel is the second release in the Keystone series, a collection that had escaped my attention until recently. Named after the wooden shovel that flips the barley by hand as it germinates, the series is based on what they like to call the traditional keystones of their production that have remained unchanged for 220 years. We’ll take that with a pinch of salt – much like Laphroaig – that claims nothing has altered at its distillery in over 175 years. Yeah, right. I’m interested in the traditional floor maltings at the distillery having visited and seen them in action. These only account for 10-20% of the annual needs of Highland Park whilst the true icon of Springbank utilises 100% of its requirements. However, even this reduced level is judged to provide core characteristics of the modern Highland Park and its protected. Great, but for such a process that provides this, what would 100% floor malted barley result in? We have our answer in the Highland Park Shiel.
Bottled at 48.1% strength, the Shiel is a limited edition of just 1200 bottles and was priced at £75 for members of the Highland Park Inner Circle, which I’m a member of.
Unfortunately this sold out amazingly quickly with the current fever around investment and flipping (refer back to the introduction), Highland Park arguably could have charged double the price and demand would have still outstripped supply. Fortunately, the rather splendid Dornoch Castle Whisky bar – who are huge fans of Highland Park and always make sure its well supported amongst their almost invincible range of whiskies – passed on a sample for me to review.
Highland Park Shiel Review
Colour: a very light caramel.
On the nose: oily initially but lacking a buttery richness. There’s a wisp of smoke that permeates throughout the aromas, a worn out vanilla essence is followed by a wood sap presence. Sweetness from tablet, a touch of ginger, pencil shavings and sliced green apples.
In the mouth: lightly smoked sugar puffs? It’s quite cereal dominant, a touch of lemon cuts through this leaving a nuttiness, more vanilla and a light honeyed finish.
It’s a touch young, but the rough edges have been sanded down somewhat leaving a rather flaccid experience. It’s pleasant enough, but I was expecting more depth, detail and rugged coastal features from the overall approach. Given this seems to be fetching over £200 at auction currently, its one that fails on the experience front but delivers to those seeking a profit; what happened to the whisky?