Whisky and Words Number 85: Highland Park 18

The HP-18 gets its amazing color from 18 years in all sherry-treated casks.

Highland Park first came to my attention early on when I was reading many other blogs about Scotch. The HP 12-year was mentioned as a solid, well-made scotch at a reasonable price by a couple reviewers, but it was Jason Debly’s blog post here that sold me. In my own review of the 12-year, I covered some details of Highland Park’s creation: barrel selection and treatment, and where they get their barley:

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).

So I encourage you to give that review a look if you’re interested in some of the Highland Park production details. The snippet above gives you a hint to their whisky’s flavor profile: HP is mildly peated, with only 20% of the malt having been treated with peat smoke. It won’t clear out a room when you open it, sending peat neophytes grabbing for their masks (as an Octomore would). But it does have enough smokiness to help you imagine being near a cheery bonfire at the beach. Just not downwind.

The box has some Viking jive and their 5 precepts for making whisky.

I received the 18-year as a gift. Good thing, at $154 here in Oregon, it’s nearly three times the cost of the 12-year. I doubt I’ll think it is three times as good but I hope for some of the magic you don’t see in younger whiskies. The promise is laid out on the back of the carton (photo right): HP’s five keystones of production. Peat, hand turned floor maltings (the 20% they do onsite), sherry seasoned oak casks, cool maturation (being above the 58th parallel, only 3 degrees south of Anchorage, AK) and harmonizing up to 120 single casks (marrying). As you can also see from the box and bottle, they’ve gone all-in on the Viking theme. I’m not sure the Vikings were good at making whisky, but it’s all about inspiration I suppose.

So, what do ya get? The uncorking test is a corker. Fills my little room with vanilla, apple, pear, and sherry. Wow, there is some sherry in there after 18 years. That’s impressive as I’m sitting 2 feet away and getting catching a lot of aroma. Closer in, with nose a little above the glass, it is heady; the peat starts to assert itself and the sherry brings floral and savory spice along for the ride, reminding me of sagebrush in the high country where I used to live. That would be the heather HP is famous for. This has a big nose. Nose in glass, I get all the above and some of the stoniness of the water itself, that mineral tone that most Scotches have. Time to taste. (I’ve been gardening all day and hungry, this should go well. Let’s see if I can still type at the end of the review.)

The HP whiskies use a cork with an extra screw-in feature…and cool embossing.

On the palate, whoosh and here comes caramel and Lyle’s Golden syrup flavored with aforementioned fruit, followed by both savory pepper and cinnamon spices, then the smoke comes out and spreads across the mid-tongue. Tannins are just enough to start drying the sweet until well into the finish, which is smoky, mildly astringent but never bitter. Altogether smooth but incredibly interesting. HP relies more on the spiciness of the flavor profile than bitter tannins to offset the sweetness. A bit of old leather rides underneath it all, so the old-scotch magic is indeed there. What is surprising is all that spice, and how it gives structure to the sweet elements. In contrast to the Balvenie Caribbean Cask just reviewed last week, which was practically a dessert aperitif, the Highland Park 18, while delivering a hefty amount of sweetness, brings along savory as well as sweet spice to create a well harmonized whole, with the smokiness providing a ‘fine cigar along with fruitcake’ vibe. Did I mention I liked it?

Okay, it seems unfair but I have to compare to the 12. The 12-year does not fill the room so much with fruit, does not bloom with as much smoke and has more mineral and spice on the nose, less sweetness and fruit. The 12-year has more vanilla, less cinnamon, hence not as much complexity as the 18, though is still a well-constructed dram. Also like the 18, the tannins are well under control. Back to the original surmise: that I would not possibly like the Highland Park 18 three times more than their 12. Perhaps not quite. But twice as much, yes. There is easily twice as much flavor in the 18-year.

Highland Park 18, Orkney Isle single malt, 43% ABV

Nose: Vanilla, apple, pear, and sherry all together. Aromatic piney spice like high country brush in summer, gentle smoke, minerals.
Palate: At first, caramel and Lyle’s syrup with the fruit from the nose, followed by cinnamon and savory peppery spice. A bloom of smoke, not overwhelming and no tar or band-aid smells. Nicely complex, like a really well done fruitcake taken with a good cigar.
Finish: Lightly smoky; a touch of medicinal astringency balancing a persistently pleasant vanilla sweetness.

Bottom Line: The Highland Park 18 delivers on the promise of an exceptional whisky. I have to believe that they don’t just take old casks, but really exceptional old casks down for the marry on this spirit. It is expensive, but a real treat. You should feel like you got a really good experience out of a ‘special occasion’ whisky and the HP 18 delivers. If you like vanilla and fear the Balvenie Caribbean might be too much of a good thing, consider picking out the Highland Park 18. Be ready for a little smoke. Even for someone new to it, it is well done.

The Highland Park 18 (r) has a deep ruby-amber color which comes from all those years in sherry casks. The 12-year is on the left. American and Spanish oak is used for their casks.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

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

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