The Twisted Tattoo is the latest offering from Highland Park and marks the opening salvo of the 2019 assault from this Orkney distillery. The fact that it took them until May to deliver a new concept comes as a huge surprise. Perhaps the team were heeding the feedback from 2018, when releases were aplenty and often flawed, ranging from colours to speakers and then animals?
You’d be on solid ground for believing that the river had run dry and things had settled on Orkney. However, if there are two things we know of Highland Park, it makes a quality whisky, and it does possess a sizeable inventory. The fact that things seem to become botched between the warehouse and what is served up at retail is a growing mystery. Not to Laphroaig proportions, but give it time, dear reader.
We know this because of the sterling efforts of the independent sector, such as a joyous Highland Park from Chorlton Whisky, and Cadenhead’s release of a couple annually that sent shockwaves across the Viking fortifications. Even when the independent bars of Scotland were let loose in the warehouse to pick out an exclusive bottling, they came up trumps with 15-year-old first-fill sherry puncheon. While such moments restore your faith in this battered old warrior, there is a growing sense of anger and frustration with Highland Park.
The problem is the brand now is everything. It creates concepts and leads the whisky creation, whereas the whisky itself should provide the opportunity to showcase quality and heighten consumer desire. Instead, like many, I normally hit delete when the latest Highland Park mailshot lands in my inbox. The brand isn’t infallible, with an equal assortment of hits and misses. A scattergun approach is never going to reside with anyone or stir the soul. Neither is the latest concept around tattoos.
Speaking personally, I don’t like tattoos whatsoever. I grew up on a naval base—several, in fact. Bodies were graffitied with those awful homebrew or dodgy backstreet attempts at a tattoo. Seeing these decaying mementoes was enough to put anyone off a tattoo for life. I do wonder how many remain, or have since been painfully removed? Moving into the teenage years, tattoos became hip, and none more so than the Celtic examples. Again, no interest. I don’t follow the herd and I’m quite happy to be in the minority without a permanent marker on my sun-deprived Scottish skin.
Say tattoo to anyone nowadays and they’ll think of the underrated Rolling Stones album Tattoo You, or the inspiring Edinburgh Tattoo held annually outside the castle itself. But Highland Park had a spot to fill, and the brand demanded something that fitted in with the image. The main theme of this release has a Viking twist, as we’ve come to expect from this brand. The packaging is based around the Midgard Serpent and was created by Danish tattoo professional, Colin Dale, utilising the ancient hand poking method. That’s all from the press release, as the sample Highland Park kindly sent me doesn’t feature any such artwork. However, it always comes down to the whisky here at MALT, so let’s put down our needles and begin.
This Highland Park Tattoo will set you back £80, which is a more realistic price compared to some of the teenage releases we’ve seen from this distillery in recent times. Bottled at 46.7%, this 16-year-old is naturally coloured, but no statement on being non-chill-filtered.
In total, 70 first-fill bourbon casks were married with 153 oak casks that were seasoned with Spanish Rioja wine, so more of a flush than a real maturation for those casks. This as a practice is becoming commonplace now throughout the industry. The flush. Just like a toilet, it leaves a residue, but is there a full interaction and long-lasting legacy with the host cask? I don’t think so, in reality. While some red wine casks are too aggressive and uncouth in their impact on the whisky, a seasoned cask is more the cheaper way to go about things and much quicker to source.
The facts do lead to more questions, such as: what quality of Rioja was utilised in this practice? It’s like this is vino con crianza or Crianza, which is the bottom level of the Rioja range. Wines at this level must be matured by the winery for at least 2 years, with only a part of this time being in oak casks and the remainder actually in the bottle itself. Pure speculation, but Highland Park have given us some detail about the casks make-up in this release, but fallen short of full disclosure. Ultimately, it is the whisky that matters so let’s move onto the main event.
Highland Park Twisted Tattoo – review
On the nose: That tinge of gentle Highland Park peat arrives followed by a dirty vanilla and dried fruits. There’s a waft of smoke followed by caramel and a woody note. A mineral element along the lines of limescale, meatloaf and cardamom pass by with apricots and honey towards the end. Water brings a fresher nature with rubbed brass and a jammy quality.
In the mouth: Light and friendly with a gentle smoke. Black pepper, oatcakes, popcorn, cask char and syrup. There is toffee, and midway, a muffled element that is distracting, with a slightly drying nature on the finish. Time is a healer, as this reveals the Rioja element with berries, red grapes and a drying nature, but it feels muted and understated, somewhat manufactured. Water, I felt, wasn’t beneficial, as what balance exists becomes distorted and tannic.
Mixed thoughts on this whisky, really, as the price is better, to say the least, but what point is there to the Rioja element overall? Highland Park has an abundant inventory, it seems, and is game to try some new things, including flushing some of that stock through seasoned red wine casks. The outcome? Nothing memorable, mesmerising or moreish.
Through my support of MALT, I’m becoming a Viking whisky historian and one of the cognoscenti for Highland Park. My gerbil’s pipette (a gift from Adam) has been firmly tossed aside and I’d like to have my Viking weaved socks blown off believe me. There’s no escaping the fact they remain firmly in place right now.
It all feels like an uncomfortable arranged marriage, where you’re never sure what the overall purpose is to the pairing. This feels like a whisky that was created to serve a marketing concept, and not to showcase the liquid itself. I’ve had whiskies were the red wine component is featured and well-deployed as not to dominate the dram. The Ben Nevis 10-year-old cask strength Batch 1 (review incoming) is a case in point, or the Mackmyra Skördetid. In this Twisted Tattoo, the blending and cask influence is more muddled and poorly harnessed.
The best Highland Park’s, in my opinion, are those that haven’t been engineered, poked or prodded. This release serves to underline that once again, but at least the price is under £100 for a change, and that’s a welcome relief. In terms of recommendations check out the Mackmyra Skördetid for £47.50 via Master of Malt or the Ben Nevis Cask Strength for £95. You’ll thank me later.
Lead image from the Whisky Exchange and there are a couple of commission links within this review. As always their existance never affects our opinion and they are just here for your convenience.