H

Highland Park 12 Comparison

It’s been a while since there’s been a review of Highland Park (HP) on Malt. I can understand my co-contributors’ lack of trying, as Edrington has made most (if not all) of their original bottlings dubious for the well-informed drinker. In fact, the five most recent HP reviews have all been from Jason. What a brave soul.

I’m one of those who believe that fancy packaging usually means the producer is trying to make the customer pay more attention to the packaging than to the product itself. The “bigger the car the smaller the penis” comes to mind. A lot of brands, especially liquor brands, often employ this technique, though exceptions exist like Compass Box. A more learned drinker who chooses quality over prestige will see through these charades. Sadly, this tactic works most of the time. A lot of us, regardless of how often we drink, want to have bottles to show off on our shelves or when we are out drinking.

As one who is cynical towards the big boys, one brand I find extremely guilty of this is HP, with their Viking rebranding. I’m quite surprised they haven’t hired Kathryn Winnick and/or Travis Fimmel to help with the marketing.

Michael Jackson once claimed this single malt to be the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky. The previous iteration of the HP 12 was one of my favorite single malts when I was very new to getting serious with whisky. Based on memory, I thought this showed a great balance of peat, sherry and highland-ish flavors. I quite loved the HP 18, too, so I used to agree with MJ’s statement. If he were alive today and saw what Edrington has done with the brand, though, I bet he would take back his praise. Edrington broke and sold HP’s soul.

I’m not going to waste anymore time on this. Viking Honour (VH)? I don’t see the honour in parading the diluted and chopped-up corpse of this formerly quality single malt, so I’m going to compare the previous iteration of Highland Park 12 with the Highland Park 12 Viking Honour. It isn’t a perfect comparison, though, as the previous iteration has a higher ABV.

Highland Park 12 – review

This old style distillery bottling is available from SharedPour for $79.99.

Color: honey.

On the nose: Hot and peppery. I get weak scents of toffee, mocha and chocolate with a very quick appearance of sulfur. Slightly stronger scents of honey, orange peel, orange jelly, vanilla and cinnamon come through next. The bitter scents like cloves and burnt caramel appear at the end.

In the mouth: I get a quick taste of sulfur followed by lingering pepperiness, orange peels, cloves and cinnamon. Amidst the bitter notes are patiently alternating undertones of toffee, butterscotch, mocha and chocolate. Bits of sulfur appear again, followed by undertones of sultanas and burnt caramel.

Score: 6/10

Highland Park 12 Viking Honour – review

Color: honey.

On the nose: I get a weak scent of peat and something leathery, dry and floral. Would this be heather? They’re followed by mild scents of apples, sandpapered wood, starfruit, pears and dried apricots. There are mild scents of sulfur; next, undertones of cloves, toffee, honey and banana syrup. After that, everything suddenly falls off.

In the mouth: Unlike on the nose, I instantly get sulfur. It is mild and lasts the whole time but tones down throughout the tasting. There’s a mix: mild notes of sultanas, banana syrup, apple juice, honey and muscovado syrup. This combination lasts until the end, where it suddenly gets peppery. After those come undertones of cloves, toffee, milk chocolate, butterscotch and mocha.

Score: 5/10

Conclusions

For a spirit with sherry influence in it, I’m happy that the sulfur notes are negligible in both versions, for me at least. Even so, the VH is more sulphury. The VH has also retained some of the all-roundedness from its previous iteration. Still, the flavors, layers and coherence are all more pronounced in the old version, though this difference can be chalked up to the difference in proofs.

I find the peat flavors in the new version stronger, while there are sherry flavors in the HP 12. I guess this is due to the lesser availability of quality sherry casks. As a result, the recipe of the blend has most likely changed. I think the bitter caramel notes in the old version are the remnants of the smoke and peat flavor after years of being open. It could also be that my senses, being more used to higher ABV and more full-bodied spirits, just can’t pick up these weak flavors anymore.

Is it still worth paying for the contemporary HPs? I’m 50/50 on this. On one hand, it’s good for new drinkers to try, as it offers a different style, and it’s not outrageously priced. On the other hand, there are other whiskeys or spirits in the same or with a similar price point to try.

Overall, I think, contemporary HPs would get a better rep if they were all bottled at 46%. Being bottled at 40% mutes the different layers and all-roundedness HP has. I do wish more drinkers would call out Edrington so they’d improve the quality of their new releases.

The new Highland Park 12 VH currently sells for £32.95 on The Whisky Exchange, £29.95 at Master of Malt but I acquired samples of the whisky via sample swap. I bought the HP 12 from HiTime Wines for somewhere between $35 and $40 a few years ago.

Lead image kindly provided by Oak Liquors. Viking Honour picture provided by Aids Tecson (the person I swapped the sample with). There are commission links in this article – these help keep Malt looking sweet and moving swiftly if you decide to use one.

CategoriesSingle Malt
    1. John says:

      Hi Ed, my bad. I meant lesser availability of quality sherry casks.

      Modern sherry casks are more like casks seasoned with sherry (usually Oloroso or PX) so they can be filled with spirits. The real and old sherry casks were casks that repeatedly held sherry in them for years. Decades even. Wine casks are usually held in Puncheons or Butts. But if you look at some single casks you’ll see hogsheads now.

      One of the reasons why wine casks are expensive is the wineries don’t like to let go of their casks. French oak and European oak are expensive as well. They hold on to them for a long time as they using casks only a few times would be expensive and the cask would still impart flavors of the wood. So what you’re getting with today’s seasoned still have a lot of wood flavor in them. Plus, there are a lot more seasoned casks now that use American oak vs the old days that used European oak. Different oak give off different flavors.

      There’s the issue of sulfur candles being used to preserve casks as well. That’s another can of worms.

          1. Ed says:

            Thanks John, I’m genuinely curious about the history and processes and I’m still ignorant of many aspects. I enjoy your exotic spirit reviews.

        1. John says:

          History and alcohol are very much tied together. Appreciating what’s in your glass as well as what has transpired is a blessing and enlightening. It shows why things are way they are now. It beats dancing to the tune of brand propaganda.

      1. Craig says:

        Whiskynotes has an excellent article about it.

        The thing people often don’t realise is sherry is made through a solera system so those casks are very rarely sold on. The article’s view is that until the early 80’s, sherry was transported in barrels to the UK, these are what we called sherry casks and were used in whisky. When that practice stopped, people started buying barrels and seasoning with sherry instead to try and get the same flavour.
        The fact is, that practice has been happening for 40ish years now so I’m always surprised when people say that sherry casks now are worse than the ones from the 1990s. Maybe there are other factors at play? Maybe the duration of “seasoning” is shorter? As John said, there is a move to using hogsheads and American oak which naturally gives different flavour profiles as well.

        There are references around the internet of some distilleries getting Spanish cooperages to make sherry butts for them, then they are seasoned and proudly proclaimed as authentic sherry casks despite the fact no sherry from inside them was ever sold commercially.

        Or maybe the above website I quoted is just plain wrong!

        1. John says:

          Thanks for commenting, Craig. We also have to factor in when paxarite was used a lot by the Scotch industry. It surely affected the demand for ex-sherry casks.

          With more demand today for sherry casks, I’ve heard Diageo only seasons the casks for 1 to 3 months? Others maybe up to 6 months. With less demand before, it the sherry would have surely spent more time in the barrels.

          I’ve also been hearing about wet casks for mostly the 1st fill sherry casks. Where some sherry are still left in the cask then are filled with spirit.

  1. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    about sherry seasoning…. written 2015 but still true I guess.

    https://www.thedrinksreport.com/news/2015/16202-special-report-sherry-casks.html

    “Once cooled, the newly formed casks will be filled with Oloroso sherry – made on-site in those large fermentation tanks – and left to season for five months. The Oloroso can be used up to four times before it is transferred to the company’s vinegar factory.”

    Greetings
    kallaskander

        1. John says:

          Hi Maggie,

          Sample swap is basically trading samples with someone. You’d need sample bottles like Boston Amber bottles. It’s an efficient way to try whisky you can’t get or don’t want to spend on.

    1. Greg says:

      This touches on something that I really think is the heart of the issue: the quality of the sherry used for these already short seasoning periods is vastly inferior to actual high quality drinking sherry.

      The liquid used now is either dumped after seasoning or, as has been mentioned here, used for vinegar. While the slow death of the sherry industry impedes the ability to get good quality sherry in the amounts that a distillery would require, I would bet that the grade of sherry makes up a significant portion of the lost ground.

      1. John says:

        Hi Greg,

        I can’t blame the sherry producers. Sherry casks are in more demand than drinking sherry. They’re doing what they can to survive the way I see it.

      2. Smiffy says:

        Maybe Malt should be dipping it’s toes into Sherry and Madeira reviews to do their part in boasting those industries and therefore the number of quality casks available for aging whisky in.

        1. John says:

          Hi Smiffy, I’ve been told that the GI for Sherry is about to get “fixed”. It could put an end to the seasoned cask issues.

          As for reviews… I’ve been thinking of doing a Madeira review. Tasty stuff.

          1. Smiffy says:

            I look forward to it John! I know nothing about these fortified wines that have such an influence on whisky.

    2. Martin says:

      When the new bottle style HP-VH 12 y appeared the word on the street was the liquid was the same, only the bottle was different (probably from marketing). Being a skeptic, I did blind side-by-side comparisons of the old vs “new” HP 12 on several occasions, which consistently demonstrated that they were NOT the same. Both were 43% so ABV would not explain it. The older version clearly had more sherry influence. So yeah, I’d knock a point off the VH also. Times are a changing. Cheers.

      1. John says:

        Hi Martin, even without rebranding it could be argued that the liquid in each different batches are not the same. You can’t control nature no matter how precise you are. Casks will never behave precisely how you want them to. Which is why blending is so hard.

        Nice to see you agree with my conclusion. Cheers

    3. bifter says:

      I always wondered if they made vinegar from the by-product (I couldn’t believe it was tipped away) so this answers a long-pondered question for me, thanks!

  2. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    the demand for sherry casks in the whisky industry has long since outstripped the supply the bodegas could naturally deliver.
    We all should have bougth a bottle of Oloroso sherry with each bottle of whisky… every time or at least should start to do so.

    Seasoned casks on the other hand and that means not only sherry casks is a cheap way to procure the covetted kind of casks.
    But as you can not hurry nature cheaply produced seasoned casks will give you a cheap quality sherried whisky.
    Add the totally optimised whisky production methods of today and you know that Macallan or others just could not hold up the dark bottlings they were famous for.
    In no way, they could neither keep the quality nor deliver the quantity – they could have spared us the marketing spin, though.

    On the other hand we see dark sherry bottlings of 10 or less years by independent bottlers like the Edradour 10s in The Un-Chillfilterden Collection.
    They make you wonder as well.

    Some say Pedro Ximenez sherry and its casks are the new Paxarette… but the colour of these young whiskies – finihings some of them – gives me doubts about some of the naturalness of the colour.
    Greetings
    kallaskander

  3. bifter says:

    “Would this be heather?” Can I assume, John, you’ve not had the pleasure of tramping through Scottish hillsides? (If you ever do, don’t forget your DEET!) HP make great play of the lignin-free peat of Hobbister Moor, which they claim sets their product apart from other peated whiskies. To be fair, there is something in it and it’s influence could even be described as a form of that very on-trend term, terroir.

    I did have the pleasure of drinking HP 12, 18 and 30 before prices went berserk and they screwed the pooch. What a marvellous brand they had and how they have trashed it! The 12 has however maintained a certain level of quality but I agree, it should be strengthened a little. Hopefully someone on Malt can do a review of the new Cask Strength edition soon.

    1. John says:

      Hi Bifter, I’ve never been to Europe! I had plans this year but we all know what happened. What is a DEET?

      I hope you’re not counting on me to do the HP CS. I don’t like paying for Edrington stuff these days.

      1. bifter says:

        DEET is a compound used in insect repellents, keeps away the midges, bane of many a tourist. Hope you can make the pilgrimage to Scotchland one day.

  4. Tom F says:

    Thanks for the link to Ruben Luyten’s article on sherry casks in Whiskynotes.be. What a wonderfully clear & insightful piece of writing, it takes a sherry ethusiast to reveal what decades of whisky writers have failed to understand, the parts of the jigsaw all fall into place!
    After one myth is debunked I’ll debunk another, which is that Orkney peat is different from other peat because due to frequent gales trees never established on the island, wrong! When pollen grains from plants land in a peat bog they are preserved by the acid environment for thousands of years and can be identified. The “pollen record” in Orkney peat shows a wooded landscape, it was destroyed by early humans & their grazing animals, much in the same way that the mainland Scottish mountains are bare of trees when they should be covered in woodland up to about 3000 ft.This link gives more information. http://www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/woodland/index.asp?pageid=595130

    1. bifter says:

      The notion that peat from Hobbister Moor is differentiated in its composition from other peat bogs has actually been studied:
      https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/j.2050-0416.2006.tb00739.x

      “It has been noted … that heather tends to be relatively more abundant in peat deposits in the North of Scotland compared with the southwest. An increased prominence of a particular plant species such as this may have an effect on the chemical composition of the peat.”

      The article doesn’t draw any firm conclusions but I wouldn’t be confident enough to dismiss the notion of peat terroir as a myth.

  5. Alex says:

    Great article, thanks! I am quite fond of Highland Park, though more the IBs. What puzzles me is how mediocre the HP12 OB is compared to the recent stellar HP10 OB, where the distillate is so expressive at only ABV 40%. If this is the same distillate, then the sherry casks (whatever they may be) for the 12 YO are compromising it.

    1. John says:

      Hi Alex, thanks for the comment.

      I had no idea there’s a HP 10. Just proves I haven’t been paying much attention to Edrington in whisky in general. I think the distillate is more expressive in the 10 due to a mix of less oak influence via shorter aging and the cask type.

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