The Highland Park Comparison

HIghland Park whisky tasting

Things change. It’s the way of life and the relentless nature of progress and time. Very little of anything stands still and the same can be said of whisky. For several decades now we’ve endured the cascade of efficiency savings, whether it’s the malted barley, distillation techniques or cask management. Every nuance has been streamlined, buffed and stripped bare. The only avenue now left seemingly is the brand itself.

For all our disdain about the re-launched Highland Park brand, there’s no escaping the fact that sales are rising and it’s deemed successful. Industry onlookers will nod in approval if you can sell more whisky, at a younger age, by providing fewer details regarding its contents and instead distracting the consumer with lots of flannel around Vikings. Ultimately, for all our past love of Highland Park and its whisky, the distillery is playing to a new, younger and less knowledgeable crowd these days. An exciting brand it seems can overcome many obstacles.

Yet has Highland Park changed for the worst? Putting the brands aside for now, it should always be about the whisky rather than buying into a certain distillery, brand or lifestyle. Whisky is no longer for the old geezer toddling along to his local watering hole for a hauf an hauf. It’s cool, hip and more than just the liquid itself. Except for Malt, it’s always about the liquid. Therefore onlookers we’ve put together a procession, parade or a raiding party back through time. Let us nose, taste and reflect upon Valhalla and whether the gods are playing tricks on us mere mortals.

For this tasting, various avenues were adopted. The 1980’s and 1990’s were acquired via the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar, which is my favourite watering hole. With this it seemed only fair I take in their non-Scapa Orkney single malt bottled at 17 years of age, from cask #2 resulting in an outturn of 350 bottles adorned with a stylish dragon-like label. Do I actually need to state which distillery this mysterious whisky is from?

It wouldn’t be a tasting without the current 12 year old expression that’s known now as Viking Honour. Prices for a full sized bottle vary with some discounting taking it below an average price point of £35. I have seen it as cheap as £25, but for the purposes of economy and making my cash go further I purchased a sample from Master of Malt along with some other offerings towards current work in progress pieces.

Highland Park 12 year old 1980’s – review

Colour: caramel.

On the nose: a rich toffee, some subtle orange peel, a touch of ginger and maltiness. Rubbed coffee beans, plastercine and milk chocolate mingle well with a floral heather characteristic and a bit of white onion on the finish.

In the mouth: a light body almost spirit-driven, but still some finesse here with cracked black pepper, Jacobs crackers and more of the chocolate. Toffee apples, a weak coffee latte takes us towards a drying oaky finish. The whole dram is underpinned by the subtle layer of peat.

Score: 6/10

Highland Park 12 year old 1990’s – review

Colour: a lighter caramel.

On the nose: similar in style to the 1980’s, it posses that airy nature and the orange is still there but it’s more fruity overall with apples being noticeable. A delicate smokiness. More cereal based now and memories of putty are revived, grapefruit towards the end with mint leaf and chilli flakes.

In the mouth: the texture is immediately different – it’s more dense and evocative. Spent tobacco, traces of smoke, red grapes, black olives, chocolate digestives and oats. Oily as well with some treacle elements, charcoal and a rubbery dryness towards the end.

Score: 7/10

Highland Park 12 Year Old – Viking Honour – review

Colour: toffee.

On the nose: less amplified than the 90’s edition but it sits midway with a nutty praline and caramel character. Toffee and red apples, orange and rubbed brass with elements of chocolate shards and some faint smoke.

In the mouth: a swirl of smoke, chocolate, treacle, cloves and crushed nuts. Wrapped up with toffee, black pepper and then the smoke revives towards the end with a drying charcoal finish.

Score: 5/10

Dornoch Orkney Malt 17 years old – review

Colour: a pale creamy caramel.

On the nose: a faint echo of smoke amongst balsa wood, lemon rind, a touch of sea salt and barbecued pork chops. Orange peel once again, milk chocolate, cigars, cardboard and stewed black tea. A struck flint stone and toasted pine nuts.

In the mouth: oh yes more of those barbecue notes with a charcoal fire and plenty of dried bark, black pepper and cinder toffee. Amidst all this fire and anger there’s a real juiciness going on with smoked lemon, stewed apples and some farmyard funk midway. Dried basil leaves, pork scratchings and Lapsang Souchong takes us towards the finish when the oils come out to play. Damn, why didn’t I buy a bottle of this?

Score: 7/10


Initially I thought I’d like to return to the 1980’s edition and give it a whirl again. Perhaps it’s lost some of its potency in the bottle, but then again it has been watered down to a meagre 40% strength. The more I returned to the whisky, the more the peat foundation shone through. The 1990’s is superior though – isn’t that the case for everything? – it just feels more assured and robust. More agreeable and detailed, it’s almost as if there’s older stock in this release.

The Viking Honour is the most timid and less focused of the trio. It lacks the depth and range of flavours when pitched against its forebearers. It’s still a solid single malt – especially as an entry level introduction to Highland Park – but the weak runt of the litter compared to bygone decades.

The Dornoch single cask being distilled at the turn of the millennium is a different beast altogether. It feels more savoury, herbal and rugged. Proving that Highland Park is still capable of producing decent whisky but for whatever reason, selling off casks to the independent sector. I haven’t tasted all of the current core range and I doubt many have as it expands quicker than clover on a newly laid lawn. However, this brief back to the future tasting has confirmed the quality has slipped when it comes to the 12 year old expression.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Pete says:

    It’s regularly available at 25 quid a bottle and is better than anything else at that price point. The dornoch is nearly 3 times the amount online.

    1. Jason says:

      Hi Pete, thanks for dropping by. I’ve been through this on another article before, but I’ll reiterate for you. Based on where I live in Scotland it’s not that common to see it discounted. I’m just typing this in a Co-op queue and I can see it behind the counter for £34.99 again.

      Also this isn’t a price comparison piece – sub £25 I can think of better malts than the 12yo – more how it rests against its previous incarnations. The Dornoch bottle you refer to is ultimately better value in the long run due to the experience it offers. Cheers, Jason

  2. Claus says:

    I can indeed confirm that earlier versions contained older stock – I have this from a very reliable source in the industry.

    I recently tried 12, 18 and 25 from the standard range.
    I agree that the 12 is but a shadow of its former glory although its, all things considered, still a decent malt, but doesn’t that go for most entry level malts, really?

    The 18 is just that tad better, but the price increase from the 12 to the 18 is also substantial x3-4 …and if you move up to the 25, which IMO its still one of the best standard bottlings out there, the price on that one is also x3 from the 18.

    Old(er) whisky at decent prices is but a (viking) saga, these days – but that’s an entirely different discussion.

  3. Dave says:

    I wonder if the HP12 is a victim of it’s own success. I always thought it was lovely dram for the price but the quality has definitely slipped. It’s be interesting to see how production has changed to keep up with demand, what the stocks are like in the warehouse and what they’ve had to do to keep their margins bearing in mind how often it is discounted.

  4. Brad. Civiello says:

    Hi Jason,

    I have been drinking Highland Park Scotch Whiskey for more than forty years. It seems to me it had a better nose (somewhat smoky), was fruiter and smoother, and had a long finish with a bit of bite and some smoke. The last fifteen years or so it has not been the same.

    I am in my eightieth year and I want your opinion on which Highland Park Scotch to buy. Price should be under $200.00

    Thanking you in advance for your response

    1. Jason says:

      Hi Brad

      Thanks for commenting and I totally agree that there’s been a change in the whisky, sadly not for the best. The official range is hard to recommend right now. HP are moving more into single casks themselves, which is good news. More natural presentation and strength do remind us what the distillery can produce.

      I’m not sure of your location. I know many of the independent bottlings are worth your time either bottled with the distillery name or as Orkney. But these are not readily available everywhere. If you’re in the States, I recently attended an online tasting where the Highland Park 12 year old First Fill European Oak Sherry Hogshead # 5046 Binny’s Handpick 2006 went down well. An exclusive pick to the Chicago retailer, so that might be an option?

      Cheers, Jason.

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