Just when I thought I had escaped the clutches of the Norse marketing gods, a package landed just prior to Christmas. Odin, or the Valfather, had tracked me down to the backwaters of Fife and handed me this final instalment in the Highland Park Viking Legends trilogy.
2019 seems like a year Highland Park took their foot off the accelerator somewhat and reconsidered the avalanche of releases from the distillery. Less is more: perhaps the realisation that things had gone too far or pausing for a new offensive in 2020? We’ve written a great deal about Highland Park and its branding in recent times – so much so it prompted Mark to debate whether we should actually ban another article. A little harsh arguably, but underlining the fact that things had become too excessive.
Meanwhile the independent realm has been relegated to using a variety of names after the ability to use the distillery name was taken away. The only exception to this rule seems to be Cadenhead’s with their usual pre-Christmas excessively aged release. Namely, a 30 year old Highland Park for just over £200 and a fine thing it is to. However, you cannot have indies releasing such great whiskies using the distillery name and thereby eroding the brand.
A quick search online confirms that the current 30-year-old expression retails for around £725 or more. A ridiculous price and underlining what you’re paying for with an official Highland Park beyond the mere addition of a wooden box. I’ve never been a huge fan of the official 30, much preferring the 25 as the sweet spot before things become over-oaked. The exception is always the mystery of the single cask format, where the distillery still enjoys a fan base willing to remind themselves of the glories of HP prior to the Viking bling.
This takes us nicely onto the topic of pricing and availability going forward as I’m going to quote an interesting segment of the covering letter I received from Edrington with the sample:
‘We have spent quite a bit of time considering our very established and popular prestige range – 25, 30 and 40 year old. To create interest and provoke debate, all of these aged products will become limited batch releases and have some stunning new packaging – focused on making the whiskies more visible. Additionally, we have been to re-introduce our very popular 21 year old to our prestige range, which will become an annual batch release.’
Now, the cynics out there will see this as manipulating demand and a new look, prompting higher prices. You can already see the emphasis is on the prestige rather than just a whisky. This is classic branding and creating something to aspire to – is it too much to ask to aspire to an affordable whisky that provides a reasonable experience? Already I ask with the existing 30 being excessively priced, where will the new incarnation land?
The best way to create interest and debate in whisky is a simple recipe. Put together a solid whisky with an appropriate price. Entice consumers with that sense of quality and also value. These fundamentals ensure debate and increased interest. Not the general disdain that follows a price increase (see Aberlour) during a shuffle of the core range. It always comes down to the contents and get this right and you’ve pretty much won the battle regardless of packaging and fanfare.
My own verdict is one of the disappointment, as another nail in the coffin is firmly struck into Highland Park. What was once a joy for so many is now becoming the roost for the investor and bling junkie. The whisky is also tumbling down the quality stakes prompting even the staff – off the record – to recommend indie releases over the official bottlings.
This Valfather release is bottled at 47% strength and is widely available including via the Whisky Exchange, Master of Malt or even Amazon for £54.95. Utilising refill casks to work with the most heavily peated Highland Park to date – and we know the Vikings will give us more (including peat) as they plunder and pillage the everyday whisky consumer. Apparently the use of refill casks was meant to echo the ethereal and lighter feel of Valhalla or Odin: prime marketing bollocks as neither exists and therefore no one knows what it feels like.
A more tangible piece of information surely would have been to confirm the details of the liquid within? We don’t know the age, whether this is naturally coloured, or if it has been chill-filtered to within an inch of its life. Instead, I’m meant to talk about the ancient stones that the Danish designer used as inspiration. While these actually exist, they are of no consequence to the liquid itself and act as classic brand misdirection. Let us serve up this liquid and see who approves.
Highland Park Valfather – review
Color: light sand.
On the nose: Brine and a gentle peat upfront that gives way to more of a smoky nature midway. A clean-cut spirit but one that lacks soul. Dull vanilla, apples, marzipan, almonds and a chalky mineral vibe. There’s sea salt and water unlocks a sweet cigar smoke and butter popcorn.
In the mouth: Burnt wood, more brine and salt with a dryness and then peat embers. Bitter as well. Chocolate and a fleeting appearance of ethanol suggesting a flawed cut towards the finish. A fatty/oil nature with green apples. Adding water brought out more of the bitterness and less definition.
On paper does Highland Park need more peat? It’s a different peat to that seen on Islay. More floral and restrained, it underpins and seasons the show rather than becoming the headliner. Thrusting it out to the forefront might be an interesting trick, but when its backed up with some rather inept casks, the whole thing feels flawed.
Then I have questions. The sorts of questions that aren’t answered on the official website or amongst the Norse storytelling packaging. Such as is this 100% floor malted, or did they ask the maltsters to peat the barley? If so, is this 100% maltster as opposed to having an element of the floor malting involved? What is the peat level? If there is a mix, then tell us more about this.
Except it is as mysterious as Valhalla itself. The peat isn’t even the star here as it becomes smoky and surprisingly bitter with time and water. If feels unquestionably young. A noticeable lack of depth is apparent, but those folks on Islay have been using peat to cover up their shortcomings for years now, so we cannot blame a distillery elsewhere for jumping on the bandwagon.
I was just expecting more tenacity and body, from a heavily peated Highland Park. This feels timid and somewhat flawed.
There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement. Photograph kindly provided by the Whisky Exchange.