Earlier this year, I found myself in Glasgow along with it seemed most of the WhiskyTube community for a get-together. The final hurrah was unsurprisingly situated in a notable whisky bar, with a selection of bottles being poured by a trio of volunteers that included myself. After all, I had to drive, and I wasn’t going to limit someone else’s enjoyment of the occasion.
Roy, Aqva Vitae, had put together the day to celebrate the arrival of the Scotch Test Dummies in Scotland. Oddly, MALT played a roundabout way in this, as Mark’s day job at Waterford meant flying over Scott and Bart from Kansas to visit the distillery in Ireland. No, I haven’t been, if you were curious. To be honest, I’d rather—when I do go over—visit my family in Northern Ireland, especially with the new addition to the family. I’d also like to meet up with Phil, as I have a sack load of well-wishes from the IAAS community to deliver to him.
Seriously, though, it was an opportunity too good to miss. I was also humbled to be invited along to the Tubers’ meal prior to the pub. It’s here I got to know the Dummies, and in particular Scott, a bit more before the shenanigans of the evening descended. The day was more than just a channel, or channels; what’s the collective noun for that? It was about whisky and people. And regardless if you’re for or against the YouTubers, I bet you would have enjoyed that day out, as well as the company within the bar.
A bonus was the feedback from attendees about what we do daily here. It is great to receive these and pass back to the team. Such feedback is humbling because we are valued by many and an important resource for some. These things keep us going through the darkest days of dreary whiskies and another inept release from X-distillery.
Prompting today’s review is a generous sample handed over that evening from @whiskyebb, whom I have to thank for giving me the opportunity (and photograph) to write again about Orkney’s staunchest Viking marketing firm: Highland Park. It’s an exclusive single cask for the Norwegian market called Vintersolsnu, which means Winter Solstice. Distilled in 2001 and bottled in 2017, this was matured in a European Oak sherry butt (#651) and has 58.8% strength. It has since sold out, but you will see bottles excessively priced by some secondary retailers, or you can chance your luck at auction.
To the observer, there has been a shift in what Highland Park consider their future whiskies will be. There is a movement away from age statements other than the core range, towards more concepts that feature animals to gods of some description. Already there is an ensemble of sizeable proportions that we cannot name or keep track of individually. Instead, you can see all our Highland Park materials that Mark will utilise to shape Waterford going forward.
With this vision, it became clear that Highland Park needed to change tack. A shedding of maturing inventory was deemed necessary; then came all sorts of initiatives to enable this. We had the ridiculously overpriced option to purchase your own cask. This is something I expect we’ll see more of from distilleries in the future, when demand for whisky scuttles and maturing stock needs sold off. I’ve yet to meet anyone that took up this offer, given the cost.
Then there came stories of Highland Park touting an enormous bulk of casks around independents, but the sheer numbers were beyond most pockets. And finally, we had another idea to shift maturing stock that didn’t meet their future profile; namely, the single cask format. An avalanche of single cask releases started out as country exclusives (like today’s offering) before morphing into specific States in America, individual bars and your local corner shop. OK, perhaps not the latter, but it feels at times like that’s where it’s headed.
This shedding of stock is worrying from the vantage point of what lies ahead: one wonders, what is coming next? Core ages of the 12, 18 and above will continue, with prices rising. The distillery is ramping up production to support the new image and brand. This will mean more concepts and no-age-statement releases, which can be okay, depending on the blending. That said, we’ve seen some atrocious blending from Highland Park and flawed concepts that almost feel manipulated by marketing to justify their existence and DNA. All in all, very disappointing, but if sales are up, and the brand awareness is on the increase, then Edrington don’t give a damn about the everyday enthusiast.
The annoyance in all of this is that Highland Park on its day can produce a great whisky full of character, signature notes and encompassing a memorable liquid experience. These sing, and the cask releases exist to remind us that not all Highland Park is bad, yet they heighten the frustration: why is this distillery so intent on whisky oblivion?
Highland Park Vintersolsnu 2001 – review
On the nose: very wood and dominated by the sherry cask. Leathery with walnuts, rubbed brass and a faded cinnamon. There’s a sense that the wood has triumphed. Rhubarb, fenugreek leaves, chocolate and pomegranate emerge. Water reveals red grapes, tobacco, orange, cherry cola, and a little disappointment overall.
In the mouth: very oaky, with woody and a heaviness that promotes—for want of a better expression—a degree of flatness. Tannic comes through with a touch a peat, followed by liquorice, chocolate, leather, nuttiness, Parma ham and cloves. Adding water brings out the tannins more, as well as a very drying aspect. More wood, cranberries, smoke, roasted coffee beans and a hint of soap.
Upon the first pour, this felt remarkably closed, with a vice-like grip from the wood—an impressive feat for a sample that will have been oxygenised to a certain extent. The cask is king here, yet I cannot say the outcome is truly what I anticipated, or desired. It feels to me as if this has resided a touch too long in the sherry cask. The balance is distorted and the promise extinguished.
Water helps greatly, as does time and patience. Some enjoyable aspects do begin to materialise, but I cannot shake off the sense that this Viking is a little skewed.