I have long been of the opinion that a well-selected, independently-bottled single cask can highlight those strengths of a distillery that are otherwise obscured by the master blender’s hand and dilution in the production of officially-bottled single malts.
I’ve had a pair of supporting examples of this phenomenon from the Single Cask Nation label. Both the Glenrothes 2007 and the Glenrothes 1997 stripped away the layers of varnish that accumulated around the official range (both old and new), allowing the core distillate to shine through in its interaction with some salutary casks.
I’m pressing the bet today with another independent bottling of a distillery whose official bottlings have become the MALT poster children for mismanagement, ineptitude, malpractice, and all-around silliness. At least, I think it’s that distillery.
This is another regional mini-mystery from Single Cask Nation, which is periodically compelled to bottle casks without naming the source of the whisky. As in the case of the anonymous 28-year-old Speyside malt, there are some clues left lying around to help aid in our unofficial identification of the whisky’s source.
The first is that this is from Orkney, which narrows the possible distilleries to two. I’m told that a working title for this bottling was “Not Scapa,” thus we’re left to assume this is Highland Park. I’m sure you’ll agree that the margin of error, given the above information, is tolerably small enough that we may confidently proceed with that assumption of this dram’s origins.
A list of the Highland Park expressions reviewed here on MALT would quickly try the patience of even the most indulgent reader. To summarize: most of them weren’t very good. The culprit was not the raw material so much as the translation thereof by the master blender into a finished product. A promising start often seems to give way to muddled flavors presented at low strength, with the end product barely hinting at the promise of this remote distillery.
Given the age of this independent bottling, the most appropriate comparison would be the Viking Pride 18-year-old, reviewed in its travel retail format by Jason. It fetches $150 in my neck of the woods, which is a bit cheaper than this single cask. However, it is also bottled at 43% ABV, putting the strength-adjusted price closer to $190 when brought up to equal that of this bottling. So, more or less an apples-to-apples comparison on an adjusted basis.
Let’s see if doing nothing, in this case, yields a preferable outcome to the master blender’s art?
This was distilled in November 1999 and aged for 18 years in a second fill bourbon barrel (cask #453) before being bottled in May 2018 at 54.8% in a run of 186 bottles. I paid $180 for 750 ml and this release is available via Master of Malt for £199.95.
Single Cask Nation Stones of Stenness – Review
Color: Pale maize.
One the nose: Cheery and pleasant. A floral, perfumed nose straightaway, like sticking your face deep into a spring bouquet. There are some additional aromas of green apples, plums, a wisp of white pepper, clove cigarette smoke, and cinnamon hard candy, but this returns time and again to the vernal scent of flowers. There’s also a fair bit of malty character in this, which I like. It’s indicative of the strength of the underlying distillate that it can continue to assert itself even after such an extended maturation. Some time in the glass allows a rich note of honeyed wood to emerge.
In the mouth: This is light, yet heavy. An ephemeral flavor of underripe honeydew melon is balanced by a richer oaky note of vanilla, no doubt the result of the bourbon barrel. This tightens up at midpalate before a long, spicy-woody finish that once again has a melon note of cantaloupe. Again, some time in the glass produces a stickily rich fruit and honey note that is pure deliciousness. There’s also another exotically ashy note of extinguished Djarum and a lingering sense of iodine, to keep things interesting.
Aromatic intensity, depth of flavors, complexity, balance. This ticks all the important boxes. As noted above, it’s a very pure expression of the underlying malt, which has interacted well with the cask wood over a long period of time. The finished product is really very nice, indeed.
As with the Glenrothes, this goes to show that under all the marketing and packaging and blending and other faffing about, there’s a solid distillery awaiting a careful hand to guide it to its full potential. If Edrington will only take note, we may hope to see Highland Park—or another Orkney distillery of the same name—rise again to its former glory.
There’s a commission link within this review if you do decide to make a purchase. This doesn’t affect our opinion.