Whisky and Words Number 30: Highland Park Magnus

Reminds me of 2001, a Space Odyssey.

Another in the NAS series! Again I’ll weigh the stratagem of the distiller, and we’ll see if the malt master and his minions have created value for both distiller and imbiber. In this case, the Magnus is presented to us as a hearkening back to old ways:

A whisky crafted in the old way by a new generation of Vikings, MAGNUS bears the soul of our Viking ancestors and the name of just one – our founder, Magnus Eunson.

Magnus, a chap who set up a still on the Highland Park site in the 1700s, was a descendant of Vikings. I’m reading Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, and pretty much everyone in the UK and northern Europe in general is a descendant of Vikings. They got around, those Vikings. Anyway, that’s the theme set by the marketing wags. The presentation is heavy on atmosphere, with the opaque black bottle (right) and a distinctive new cap, which is a combo cork/screw-in with a lot of detail embossed (detail below). The screw-in feature is handy if you are too tipsy to push the cork in without letting slip the bottle. Drink responsibly.

New cap, more Viking vibe.

What can we expect from the whisky? They explain they have brought forward Magnus’s “bold and uncompromising approach to whisky making… a single malt whisky, matured in Sherry seasoned American oak casks, that delivers notes of sweet vanilla, overlaid with our distinctive aromatic smokiness.”

‘Bold and uncompromising’ is standard fare for setting up a powerful flavor profile, whether it be whisky or barbecue sauce. Now, about “sherry seasoned.” I thought that an odd phrase and wrote the distiller for an explanation. The very helpful — and Viking-sounding — Martin Markvardsen (Senior Brand Ambassador) replied, explaining in detail that before the 1980s, sherry was casked only long enough to get the product to the UK for bottling. Spain then legislated bottling must occur in Spain, hence no more ‘transportation’ casks. The result is that Scottish distillers now buy casks that are then provided to the sherry makers to season their sherry. I knew Macallan did this, apparently it is a broad practice. The raw material in this case is fresh American oak or European oak.

This still begs the question why, on our tours this summer, several of the distillery guides urged us to buy sherry so there would be more sherry casks available. Time to go buy some Martini and Rossi. Meanwhile, I have more details on how Highland Park ages their whisky, courtesy of Mr Markvardsen. They use solely the following materials and techniques:

  • First fill ex-bourbon casks
  • First fill sherry seasoned (American oak)
  • First fill sherry seasoned (European oak)
  • Scotch industry refill casks

There is no ‘finishing’ in a different cask. Martin states, “We believe in full maturation in the same cask and then mix different types of cask together to get balance and complexity.” Fair enough.

Let’s get down to what is delivered. We are promised “notes of sweet vanilla, overlaid with our distinctive aromatic smokiness.” Tasting notes on their web sit get more esoteric. Pineapple and violets. I think a lot of that is up to the individual palate. Let’s see what my old Sriracha-scarred palate can discern. Bold and uncompromising? Or shy and reticent?

Highland Park Magnus (NAS), Orkney single malt, 40% ABV

Nose: Quite a nose! Violets indeed — a lively floral note, juicy and sweet. I get more lemon zest than vanilla. The nose is reminiscent of the Bruichladdich Classic Laddie. Highland Park’s characteristic gentle peat and hints of seaside wrack make up the background.
Palate: Not as sweet as I expected from the nose. Chewy, unctuous mouthfeel. The flavor is reminiscent of ‘blondies’ (golden brownie) but not as sweet. More like a hermit. Not complex, but fulfilling.
Finish: Light and quick. The floral and seaside aromas, and the peat, are gone quickly. Some tannin and honey linger on the side of the tongue, as does a bit of heat, a touch harsh, on the back of the throat.

Bottom Line: As on the Classic Laddie review I’m going to go on a (short) limb here and suggest that we’re seeing younger whiskies than the standard HP 12 in this bottle. That’s the point of NAS whiskies of course, when the distiller finds a cask that has good character, he wants to use it in the release when that cask is ready, not at an arbitrary date. That’s fine, but I think we’re seeing that younger whiskies have more character on the nose and are less gentle on the palate. The result is different, but done right, it is not bad by any means. As for value, the Magnus is about $20 less per bottle than the 12-year-old. That puts this single malt in the ‘everyday choice’ range, bringing more character on the nose than any blend in that range. Like the Classic Laddie, the Magnus would be great splashed over ice at a backyard summer party. A good choice for casual imbibing when you’d like a hint of smoke, and pairs with lemon cake.

Note: I cleared the palate and had some of the Highland Park 12 to compare. The 12 has a deeper nose, more caramel, vanilla and smoke. The palate is more complex, rewarding the drinker with thick treacle and polished tannins — it is supremely balanced. The finish is longer, with oak, peat and caramel lingering. It’s also more expensive. The Magnus, however, brings the HP magic into more occasions, and that’s a positive. NAS done right!

Magnus: moody or magnificent? It’s its own thing.

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About H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.
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