Highland Park yet again. I know, I hear you and I’m so sorry. We’ve given this brand so much coverage on MALT this year you’d suspect Edrington have a stake in the website. Last month with the conclusion of their travel retail range I firmly believed that was it. No more Highland bloody Park.
Or at least for 2018 at least. This Orkney distillery has been spewing out releases in all shapes and forms and rather than individually list all of these just go take a look instead. Production has been increased and an assortment of whiskies deployed around the globe in all shapes and forms. If I could pick a single word, to sum up, my experiences with Highland Park this year it’d be frustration. And I’m being very polite today.
Take for instance my last 2 whiskies; the candidate for this review and the North American exclusive in the form of the Highland Park Magnus. A real high and low. If you haven’t taken in the score at the foot of this review then I apologise for the spoiler but this is a whisky that reignited the memory of what Highland Park can achieve. That moment when the power of the distillery is harnessed by the single cask format – stuff Mark and his GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 7 rant about the advantages of vatting – and you become a believer. Highland Park is alive and kicking.
Then the Magnus experience brought me back down to earth with a real bone-crunching thud. A vile whisky that almost prompted me to deploy my first ever 1 score. An insult to the distillery and its legacy. A sign of where Edrington is taking the name and flogging it to a growing market until the last possible drop of profit is excised from its lifeless corpse.
Around the same time, I read this heart breaking business tale of how splendid things are going for the brand which is USP of all things. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned and should be relegated to the back of the pub now, where all the old geezers once sat and told tales of old whiskies and their experiences. The fellas who started me on this journey. Their numbers have depleted with the ravages of time but their voices still echo within. They’d be furious about Highland Park as it is today I can tell you.
You don’t create a premium whisky. The old way was simply by reputation. Whiskies of a higher quality could get away with charging that little bit more. You’d be happy to step up and pay a few extra brown spots for the Highland Park 18 over say something from Speyside. It was quality and you appreciated it. We’ve seen several distilleries try to create their own premium range with mixed results the abomination that was Mortlach or remember the joke that was Longmorn? Glenrothes also owned by Edrington is starting out on its own journey and the new 12 and 18 are shaky foundations.
The argument laid out by the master distiller and brand director is flawed. The essence of what made Highland Park so great was the whisky; simple as that. A whisky that wasn’t prodded and poked as much as it is today. Highland Park had an age statement and an unwritten guarantee. Nowadays we have filth like the Magnus and the godawful Valkyrie that are tragic in comparison. Do these showcase what makes this distillery so different or its location? No, they underline the new business of whisky and churning out releases that could come from any distillery if the branding was removed. I hate to use the term Highland Park-lite as even that sounds like a positive.
Last time I visited the distillery a Viking wasn’t working on the site, so let’s dispense with that nonsense.
The Viking bling is a classic piece of misdirection that any magician would be proud of. It brings nothing to the whisky except allowing Edrington to charge a little more and cover the packaging in worthless material that tells you nothing about the whisky. For some, it does look good and Vikings like zombies seem fashionable nowadays. Does it make for a good whisky? Does it heck.
There’s much within the article that underlines the problems within whisky today. Highland Park loves to highlight the element of their floor malting which isn’t enough to save us from some tiresome whiskies. They may have dragged the brand into a more premium sector but it has come at the cost of its reputation. Highland Park is no longer the staunch whisky of quality it once was and anyone else who tries to tell you differently either is lying or hasn’t tried a whisky out with the last 5 years.
This is reinforced by Edrington’s move to protect the Highland Park name from independent bottlers. Now forced to bottle as an Orkney malt or another meaningless title. This has nothing to do with protecting the consumer. Instead, it helps Edrington mislead consumers as these Orkney casks highlight just how poor and overpriced most of Highland Park’s current range actually is. It is within these independent releases you’ll still find echoes of what made this distillery great before it was sacrificed on the altar of profit for the greater good of its shareholders.
Distilled in 2003 before being bottled in 2018 at 15 years of age, this Highland Park resided in a 1st fill European sherry oak Puncheon. Cask #1306 resulted in an impressive outturn of 660 bottles priced at £95 with a startling strength of 58.1% ABV. These unsurprisingly have since sold out given all things limited and Highland Park like being an addiction for some. Obviously, if these guys – owners of some of Scotland’s greatest whisky bars – cannot pick a good cask between them, then we’re all doomed.
Highland Park for Independent Whisky Bars of Scotland – review
Colour: a cold black tea
On the nose: intriguing with the pungency of wood dominating but retaining layers of complexity. A rich mahogany, maple syrup, smoked hickory wood chips and hot chocolate. A dried fruit loaf accompanies an assortment of spices including nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and rolled tobacco. Then the fruits with dried raspberries, red apples and orange peel arrive with a flash of varnish, toffee and honeycomb on the menu. Adding water cleared much of the trees leaving more meadow fruits and peaches.
In the mouth: not as forceful as the nose suggested. Very drinkable at cask strength. The tradeoff is that the whisky isn’t as layered or detailed. There’s a pleasing array of wood influences and a touch of wax. Figs, cinnamon buns and a touch of smoke throughout. Dark chocolate, aniseed and blackcurrants. Adding water I felt wasn’t so beneficial, highlighting more toffee, almonds and a creaminess. I preferred it without water overall and that rugged natural quality.
A fleeting moment of official Highland Park quality. Taken out of the hands of the master distiller and marketing brigade. The single cask roars. The end result is a whisky that revives memories of what made this distillery so great. Sadly far from representative of what you can purchase on the shelves today from this brand. Good pick fellas.