If I remember correctly, I read about Highland Park 12 in Jason Debly’s blog back in early 2014. I was just starting to expand my horizons into single malts, after a long hiatus brought on by the financial strain of an old house, growing children and various stock market crashes. Those challenges behind me, I felt like spoiling myself a little. Jason’s review of Highland Park caught my eye as I was looking for a scotch with a lot of character, a touch of peat and a reasonable price tag.
Highland Park is one of the older distilleries, founded in 1798, about half a century before the big boom in distillery foundings in Scotland. Probably the folks up in the Orkneys needed a local supplier. Considering the long winter nights, not a bad idea.
The elegant canister boasts of hand-turned barley maltings, so along with Bowmore and The Balvenie, HP is yet another distiller holding on to the old customs. Given a 2.5M liter/year production, I wonder, how much of their malt is local? I inquired of them and received a helpful answer in a few days from Mark Budge, Visits Co-Ordinator at Highland Park:
We are malting 20% of the total malt we use onsite. We then peat this malt before drying. Our makeup of malt is 20% peated (malted and peated on site) and 80% unpeated (bought from commercial maltsters).
I like the fact that the HP folks peat all the malt that needs it, as that gives them control (along with the water used) over the most forward flavor of the spirit. And about that water — being so far north (the Orkneys are off the north coast of Scotland, and Highland Park is the northernmost distillery in Scotland), they’ve got their own terroir, as the French would say. On their site, we learn “The Orkney Islands have an abundance of this sweet, heathery peat, which is around 4000 years old and is carefully selected from Hobbister Moor. The peat we cut is a mixture of textures and aromas ranging from a more floral heather-rich top layer, to a darker, denser material, the mixture giving the resulting smoke a slow burning and complex aroma.”
I’ll agree to the complex aroma. The next consideration for the origin of Highland Park’s flavor would be in the maturation. The canister teases about the use of Oloroso sherry casks though that’s not noted on their site about the 12-year-old, and their are no details. Mr. Budge to the rescue again (and correcting my question about whether the whisky is finished in sherry oak):
We use a variety of cask types for the maturation of the 12 year old but they are all sherry seasoned. We use American and Spanish oak to create the casks but they are all sherry seasoned. And the whisky is wholly matured in these casks, Highland Park has no “Finished” expressions.
Despite being a peated whisky, the nose is very gentle, opening with a sweet floral note (roses to my nose, but I haven’t smelled their heather). Further nosing reveals a whiff of smoke and the earthy side of their peat. It smells good — like healthy, fresh earth. The promises of the nose are fulfilled by the experience of palate and finish. A truly solid, all-around pleasing experience.
Highland Park 12-year old Orkney Isle single malt, 43% ABV
Nose: Floral with a hint of citrus building to gentle smoke and fresh earthy tones.
Palate: Floral (roses) with sweetness (Turkish delight), backed by strawberries and hints of lime, then a bit of black pepper. Very complex, balanced, with no bitterness.
Finish: The pepper lingers with rind of lime on the back of the tongue, while the phenols lift a little smoke into the nose.
Bottom Line: In my local shops, a bottle of Highland Park 12 is $55, up 10% in the last year. Even so, it lives up to the promise of a well-constructed, interesting and rewarding whisky. If you know someone who is looking to break into the island whiskies, but is put off by the billowy smoke of a Laphroaig or the medicinal qualities of a Caol Ila or Talisker, this is a great place to start. This is one of the whiskies I always have around.