H

Highland Park Valfather

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.

Conclusions

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.

Score: 4/10

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.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    I wonder why HP has not yet released expressions named Richard Widmark Kirk Douglas Tony Curtis or Robert Wagner.
    All of them great vikings and as authentic as anything that HP has done in this line of storytelling until today.
    I still wait for the discovery of any vking burrial site where a cask of whisky was laid next to the sword of the hero to smooth his way to valhalla.

    What do you mean, whisky was unknown to the vikings? That is not what HP tries to sell us.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Kallaskander

      You should work for Edrington with that fertile imagination. I did watch a couple of episodes of Vikings and expected the warriors to be drinking HP, or some form of product placement. Sadly, these were missing, which begs me to question the historical accuracy of the TV show.

      Upwards and onwards!

    2. Avatar
      Ian Hutchison says:

      So HP to become the next Macallan? Looks to me like Edrington want to move to the luxury (read collectors with more money than sense!) end, excluding Joe Public. If so fine, HP to move off my shopping list.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Thanks, Ed

      Yeah, indie Highland Parks are the way to go if you remember what HP used to be like. Not even 20, 30 years old either. They are releasing youngsters with plenty of character (like Chorlton) that make the official range seem like they are from an alternate dimension.

      I feel sorry for the ambassadors who know much of this gear is inferior and yet have to peddle it. I remain optimistic that Edrington and the Viking gods will see fit to give us a worthwhile and affordable HP, one day.

      Cheers, Jason.

      1. Avatar
        Smiffy says:

        Jason,
        If HP are “protecting” their brand by preventing indie bottlers from putting Highland Park on the bottle what are they calling it and how the hell are punters like myself going to know? I know Douglas Laing had similar problems with distillery name trademarks for Glenfarclas (hearing Fred Laing tell the tale which involved changing the labels on all the bottles multiple times was quite amusing). Perhaps Indie bottlers need to get together and agree new names for these protective distilleries.

        1. Jason
          Jason says:

          Hi Smiffy

          I believe it is a trend we’re going to see more of in the coming years. Many distilleries are watching what HP are doing regarding this branding aspect.

          Already, we’ve seen distilleries such as Caol Ila refusing permission on a cask – such a huge name worldwide isn’t it? I mean, come on! Glenrothes is another that’s started doing it. Lagavulin is a noticeable one. I’m just waiting for the day Clynelish refuses as Diageo seems to be going down this route. The naming possibilities will be fun.

          Maybe I’m out of touch, but I thought the best way to protect your brand was to release good juice that no one could match or compete with?

          Cheers, Jason.

          1. Jason
            Jason says:

            Hi Tom

            Unlikely to be Stromness sadly, and maybe 1 day Scapa will release some of its wares to bottlers other than Chivas. So that leaves??

            I doubt many are too bothered by the name limitation, rather the vast difference in quality and price compared to the indies.

            Cheers, Jason.

          2. Avatar
            Smiffy says:

            Maybe the way to go is to introduce a coding system like the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s and just put a silly name on the label with a code number which includes the distillery, age of the spirit and barrel number and type. Maybe the Indies can get together and standardise the coding too to combat distiller silliness.

  2. Avatar
    Greg says:

    My thoughts on what Edrington group has done to Highland Park are as follows (to paraphrase Willem Dafoe in “The Lighthouse”):

    Let Odin Strike ye dead, Edrington! HAAAAAARRRRRK! Hark, Odin, hark! Bellow bid our father, the Norse king, descend from Asgard, full-fouled in his fury, black waves teeming with salt foam, to smother these marketing mouths with pungent slime. To choke ye, engorging their organs ’till ye turn blue and bloated with bilge and brine and can advertise no more. Only when he, crowned in raven wings, with eight-legged galloping steed and steaming beard, take up his fell armoured arm. His corral-tine Gungnir screeches, banshee-like in the tempest, and PLUNGES RIGHT THROUGH THEIR GULLETS! BURSTING YE, bulging wallets no more, but a blasted bloody film now and nothing for the coopers and souls of dead distillers to pick, and claw, and feed upon, only to be lapped up and swallowed by the infinite waters of the dread Jormungandr hi’self. Forgotten to any whisky-drinker. To any distillery. Forgotten to any Aesir or Jotunn. Forgotten even to Valhalla. For any stuff or part of Edrington, even any scantling of their souls, is Edrington Group no more, but is now itself a Norse myth!”

  3. Avatar
    Welsh Toro says:

    It’s almost too easy to have a pop at Highland Park these days. It’s an open goal. The disappointing and overpriced age statements; the crap travel retail; the preposterous Viking bling. I still set some stall by the independents but I can’t say I’ve ever had anything that justified the reputation. I have in my stash a Cadenhead 24 year old cask strength distilled in 1979. I’m telling you that the reputation of Highland Park rests on that bottle because I’m buggered if I’m paying the almost immoral prices for the ancient bottles or big age statements. I want Highland Park to rock, I really do, but it ain’t happening. Talking Orkney, I have had great Scapa (single cask Chivas from years back) but they are even more disappointing considering what they are capable of. A fair review my friend. We don’t rubbish HP for fun. We wan’t them to be better or at the very least justify their prices. WT

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Aye WT,

      Highland Park is an easy target. Like Boris Johnson. It’s more the filth that lies underneath I suppose, a bit like Michael Gove. There’s something sinister at play. I know, HP can make an excellent whisky, but like Laphroaig, Bowmore and a few others, there’s something fundamentally wrong with what’s appearing on the shelves. And it isn’t a problem in the distillate, as the indie bottlings will confirm. These by design products are very forced and maximise margins. I feel sorry for the master blenders who have to work within such limited confines and produce something arguably, deep down, they know is flawed.

      The damage to the brand long term in the eyes of many of us is significant, but we are being sacrificed for the new generation who don’t know the limitations of what’s being churned out today. If you don’t want that Cadens HP, I know a good home.

      Cheers, Jason.

      1. Avatar
        MaxHill says:

        + they don’t know yet/don’t care in India and China. The crap for us tastes waaay good to them (I suppose), anyway those are the markets that big companies care for/target. Common punter/core or longterm fans are on second rail whether they like it or not. Sad, sad times are coming, no whisky loch in sight either cause multi billion people Asia will gobble this and future muck in no time and demand more and more. Hail, and praise MALT for that matter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *