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Highland Park Vintersolsnu

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

Colour: ruby.

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.

Conclusions

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.

Score: 6/10

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Ed says:

    Thinking of you tubers and their nauseating merch selling ways… seriously if malt sold a wine coloured T-shirt with the MALT font I would buy it.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Ed

      We’d like to do some form of merch, as we’re asked about it on a regular basis. But all my spare time is focused on the content and members of the team I’m sure are busy. Perhaps one day we’ll come out with a fashionable range of tweed things with apt slogans.

      Cheers, Jason.

  2. Avatar
    bifter says:

    HP have screwed the pooch. I’ve had my fingers burned one too many times to take anything from them on faith these days (Dragon Leg-end was the final straw). The 18 has almost doubled in price in a few years, whilst the quality has suffered a proportionate decline. I would want a taste of anything before buying from them again.

    Another great loss to marketing and greed.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Bifter

      Yes, hard to disagree with any of that. Our Stateside friends, do seem to love the branding and more benign versions of HP nowadays. I’d don’t hold out much hope the new smoky HP will change things, as it seems press samples aren’t forthcoming. Does that perhaps tell you about the quality of the contents? We will have a last-minute ‘Orkney’ review next week.

      Cheers, Jason.

  3. Avatar
    John says:

    I’m pretty much convinced that any Edrington whisky is the epitome of what I say about whisk(e)y these days, college is like whiskey, it’s not getting any better but getting more expensive.

    The new and more eye catching bottles are meant to dupe the less discerning drinker from realizing the truth. The packaging is compensating for it’s quality.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi John,

      Quite rightly you highlight the packaging, rising prices and recession of information. Thing is, I expect many of us have loved Highland Park in the past. They produced a good whisky that spoke volumes. None of this ridiculous Viking-apparel and stupid god-like fanciful LOTR nonsense. Just give us a good whisky, for a good price. It’s simple and we know you can do it, but seem intent on self-destruction.

      Skol, Jason.

  4. Avatar
    Greg B. says:

    Highland Park 12 was my first “good” whisky that made me realize how much I liked quality single-malt back in the ’90s. It was quite unlike the Glenfiddichs and Glenlivets I had first tried, and just seemed better balanced and more flavorful than the 6 Diageo classic malts I had also tried at that point (though I would later come to appreciate some of those as well). It was a relative bargain here at the time and the 12 was my favorite “regular” malt, while the 18 – available at what would now be seen as a ridiculously cheap price in the neighboring province of New Brunswick at about $80Cdn – was my favorite “special” malt. Prices began creeping upwards in the mid-00s but the quality seemed to remain high. Unfortunately in the years since they have descended into marketing madness, introduced the absolutely horrid 10 y-o version here as their entry level, priced the 12 and 18 beyond rational levels, and emphasized special packaging and “limited release” offerings to absurd degrees and at absurd prices. It seems to have become like Macallan (no surprise given the ownership of both) as the whisky for those who know little about whisky other than the belief that higher-priced whisky must be better whisky. I do not recall the last time I bought any HP offering, and that is unlikely to change any time soon. Truly sad.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Greg

      It is sad, and many Highland Park regulars have moved on elsewhere, just like those who used to enjoy a dram of Macallan. There comes a time when the rising prices, variable quality and marketing baloney, becomes too much to stomach.

      There are amongst my friends, a collection of what we call ‘dead brands’, we don’t buy the official releases, or talk about them. To us they are deceased and lost. These include Laphroaig, Macallan, Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Ardbeg and now sadly Highland Park. That list, unfortunately, will continue to grow.

      Cheers, Jason.

      1. Avatar
        Greg B. says:

        That’s a good way to describe those brands. I remember enjoying the late ‘90s/early ‘00s Glenmorangies – I recall they had a Port cask finish, a Sherry cask finish and a Madeira finish that I quite liked, but even their standard offering was good. The last one I bought last year because it was on sale, a Lasanta, tasted waxy and was otherwise forgettable. I have some older bottlings of Balvenie unopened in my archive but haven’t bought any in years because of their pricing. And the only recent Laphroaig I’ve enjoyed lately has been a few of their Cairdeas special bottlings. Thankfully I’ve come to enjoy some new-to-me producers like Arran and Glen Garioch. The circle of life I suppose.

        1. Jason
          Jason says:

          Hi Greg

          Yeah, the current market dictates that we’ve got plenty of choice as consumers. Once you’ve seen through the branding (Highland Park is a perfect example), and know what it was once capable of, you’re left questioning why bother with today’s assortment? Another distillery will fill the preference gap and you move on.

          Glenmorangie used to be a lovely whisky. After they went upmarket and French chic, overnight the whiskies become very boring and expensive. But sales are up and that’s all Moet care about. Good luck to them, but not with my custom anymore.

          Cheers, Jason.

  5. Avatar
    Rolf Isaksen says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Jason and very cool to see my photo in the newspaper! I certainly also wonder what the crazy amount of releases are all about. Can’t see any other reason than to cash in on the current whisky boom as much as possible. Maybe that’s in line with true viking spirit? To the «Vintersolsnu», very interesting and honest review, as we expect from Malt. I have to admit that this whisky impressed me more back when it was released. I was a newbie and more into the woody sherry matured whiskies. With slightly more experience I prefer whiskies with better balance between distillate and wood. I agree it’s better with time and water. I’ll give it a 7. I am biased since I have invested in the bottle and I am a viking after all 😉 I visited Orkney last year and couldn’t help feeling it was my land 😉

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Rolf

      We’ll forgive the home bias, but Orkney is part of Scotland for now! It’s a good dram and 6/10 as you know is a good score for us. We use the whole range. Life is all about balance. Whisky is all about balance and good photographs, so cheers!

  6. Avatar
    Jani Liukkonen says:

    I have lost interest in Highland Park bottlings years ago as I lost count of all the bottles that had a Scandinavian name like Hjalmar, Einar, Thorfinn or something else viking god- related.

    Ps. I did like the basic 12- year old, 18 and 25- yeard olds back in the days. Have not tried them in a few years though.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Jani

      A fair summary, and I agree. Having dropped by the HP age statements on a regular basis the standard has slipped. Things are not the same. The comparison piece I did a while back with several 12’s underlined this. We’ll continue to cover the HP releases as and when. Hopefully, they’ll set a new course, but I remain dubious.

      Cheers, Jason.

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