For all the changes and Norse cavalcade nonsense, the 18 year old retains the mantle of being the classic Highland Park expression. The younger 12 sibling harbours a core following, but as our recent decade comparison revealed, it has fallen on tough times. The question being has its older brother followed suit into the depths of Helheim?
Once you have established a definitive core expression in the marketplace, the next stage is the treadmill of supporting the component stock. Arguably this is the toughest and most tiring aspect. A long slog facing the distillery blenders and a constant balancing act. At times there will be batch variations and Ardbeg has struggled to maintain its staple decade offering, going so far at times to put older stock into the component mixture. This is nothing new.
The emphasis on quality and retaining your loyal consumers was until recently paramount. Nowadays things have changed somewhat, unfortunately. We’re now seeing on a regular basis, the influence and end result of production changes, the efficient grain strains- that lack flavour – and some bad cask management coming to market. Commercial decisions and cost-cutting that alienates many longstanding supporters at the expense of a new market or dynamic.
Again, this is nothing new. In my younger years, there would always be the chancers and the companies attempting to pass off a deluxe Scotch or something similarly labelled, as being the best that Scotland had to offer. You’ll have seen some of these historical oddities at auction with bizarre names and outlandish statements. Several have found a new purpose in life as humorous relics of the past due to their overall presentation. Occasionally, there will be a gem, yet the majority of bottles are anything other than deluxe.
Highland Park sought to rebrand its range recently with an elaborate bottle design and packaging that showcase its Viking heritage. Rather than regurgitate some of the nonsensical articles we’ve seen lately about the distillery, we’ll just focus on the facts.
The newly designed 18, looks more feminine than before and the ugly monster of batch variation has potentially raised its head amongst the community. Except here we have the travel retail edition of the 18 year old, bottled at a slightly higher strength of 46%. On paper, this is a good move and hopefully more representative of where the brand should be rampaging towards. A recent foray with the Highland Park Loyalty of the Wolf proved to be a rather disappointing encounter overall with a timid 42.3% strength undermining the experience. A smoky misjudged venture across Orkney, I suppose you could say nothing ventured nothing gained. In reality, I’d like distilleries to try new things, push boundaries and step out from the comfort zone of their core range. As long as the price is right, the reasoning sound and the information available. For all my criticism of Bruichladdich, they do ensure their fanbase have some interesting releases each year to decipher. Yes, that’s a compliment.
The nature of travel retail is that it can be a very lucrative option for a distillery and the retailer. The realm is full of pitfalls, disappointing concepts and an abundance of lacklustre whiskies. Entering the den armed with knowledge is a vital strategic edge and more useful than any Norse weaponry. Even I, a whisky purist according to some, will take a random punt on something like the Grant’s Elementary Carbon 6 year old and totally regret it. At least, I can warn others about the dangers.
Even after all of this, there is the stature of the Highland Park 18 year old to conquer. Potentially a little bashed and more lightweight than it once was, there’s still a healthy respect for the old warrior. The memories of the legend and when the name and that age statement are brought together… For old times sake, we’ll do battle one last time.
Highland Park 18 Year Old Viking Pride Travel Edition – review
Colour: bashed gold
On the nose: a gentle peat adds seasoning, an autumnal vibe and not the coastal Islay variety, but more earthy with char, black peppercorns and a subtle dark toffee element. This takes us into the chocolate note and then a touch of salt amongst the beef stock. There’s a resinous quality throughout assisted by stewed apples and delicate spicing of sweet cinnamon. Water brings a freshness to the fruit, vanilla and that characteristic heather note.
In the mouth: a pleasant texture greets us with more toffee, dark chocolate, maple syrup, Scottish breakfast tea and honeycomb. Then the flaw – even at this higher strength arrives – namely, there’s no structure of note it just plummets into Ragnarökr; off the edge into the abyss. Gone with only a wisp of ginger and a hint of cracked pepper. Returning this time with water there’s a fluid inoffensive since with a touch of smoke that lingers. Be gentle with water as it has a suffocating dousing effect without transforming the whisky greatly. More toffee and smoke with a resin-like quality but nothing revolutionary.
A large proportion of what once made the Highland Park 18 so engaging and demanding has been lost here. I’m torn in many ways as that impressive armour, weight and clout has been stripped away. Instead, we have a more streamlined and approachable whisky. A good whisky it must be stated, but not an excellent or demanding experience. A whisky for a new generation? Perhaps, a dram we can still enjoy to a certain degree with friends and strangers. A voyage to Orkney where you can remember what once was and departed foes.
Image from ScotchWhisky and my thanks to Highland Park for the sample.