Highland Park – Valhalla or bust!

We were invited to taste the Highland Park collection during a private masterclass session a couple of weeks ago. We tasted dram after dram, and discovered Highland Park is not just ‘that brand with the nice bottles’. It is a brand that ranges from delicate, subtle tastes to full-bodied, brooding drams.

written by: Mickaël Van Nieuwenhove edited by: Rolf Schollaert

The Orkneys: Rugged, Fierce, and Unforgiving

Before we dive into the review of the Highland Park collection, we would like to set the scene.
The Highland Park distillery is located in Kirkwall, the biggest town of the Orkney Islands, known for their cool climate and perpetual gusts of wind. The result of this is that these islands are almost completely void of trees. Definitely a place to visit if you have the occasion, as this northernmost area of Scotland is a sight to be seen.

Geographically, the Orkneys are a group of about 200 small islands, though inhabitants might tell you otherwise. Some years, there are about 65, while in other years, possibly 75. The reason for this is that the islanders distinguish proper islands from ‘rocks in the sea’. Their scientifically accurate method to do this is the following: if it contains at least one sheep and it can survive on its own, then that rock can be called an island. If not, you just have a rock in the sea, and one very dead sheep.

Orkney Island N°23, sheep is hiding behind the hill. In fact it is Maes Howe, a huge neolithic burial mound.

Climate-wise, the Orkneys are more related to the climate of Oslo than that of Scotland, and the people who inhabit this area identify themselves as descendants of Vikings rather than Scots. Their roots run far back to the first Viking explorers / invaders, and it comes as no surprise that the Highland Park distillery uses the ancestry of these people as one of the characteristic elements of their brand.

Earlier this month, the residents of Kirkwall celebrated a strange festival, during which they played medieval football: Ba’. In this game, two teams compete against each other to either throw the ball in the sea, or use the ball to touch a specific wall in the centre of the town. Sometimes, the total amount of player can be as many as 350. Just image 350 people in the centre of a town, trying to either take the ball to the sea, or to a certain location at the other side of town. Also, there are no real rules, though kicking someone when (s)he’s down or standing on top of someone is not allowed. The game ends when one of the two goals is reached, so sometimes teams can play for almost the entire day! Luckily for the players, half of the team can go to the pub after 4 or 5 hours. What are physical sports without beer anyways?

A game of Bà. These are not the supporters, they are the actual players.

Highland Park: a Continuation of the Old Ways

As mentioned earlier, the people at the Highland Park distillery take pride in their ancestry.
The Viking code is still very much alive in the way they distil their whiskies. Obviously, we are not talking about raping, plundering, or murdering, but about hard work, honour, and pride.

In that way, the distillery has a couple of specific practices, which are rather uncommon in a time when most distilleries actively invest in automatization and distilling 24/7. For instance, most of the steps in distilling the whiskies of Highland Park involve manual labour: digging out and burning the peat, turning the malt, creating and filling the casks, and obviously selecting and combining the distilled products. At the distillery, they focus on ‘the five keystones of production’: aromatic peat, hand turned floor maltings, sherry oak casks, cool maturation, and cask harmonisation.

The distinct peaty flavour of most of the whiskies in the Highland Park collection is achieved by using 80% non-peated malt and 20% peated malt. Even the peat is unique to the Orkneys, as the absence of trees gives it, when burned, a more floral flavour, reminding you of late-summer or early-autumn heather.

Almost the entire process is done on location, with the exception of creating the casks, which, according to the Highland Park website, are built by using the same method the Vikings used to make their longships watertight.

Most of the whiskies are matured on sherry casks made from European or American oak, though the limited editions might be matured on bourbon casks as well. Similar to The Macallan and The Glenrothes, Highland Park takes pride in using natural ingredients only, and banishing artificial colourants from the production process. What you see is what you get, and what you get has not been tampered with.

The Tasting Session

So we got together with Carl Van Droogenbroeck, brand ambassador of Highland Park, to taste the majority of the Highland Park collection. He seemed to have raided the warehouse, as he treated us to a veritable treasure trove of drams: “Viking Scars”, “Viking Honour”,” Viking Pride”, the “25 Year Old”, “Full Volume”, “Dragon Legend”, “Valkyrie”, “Valknut”, “The Light”, and “The Dark”. We were eager and excited (ed. and a little bit tipsy afterwards).

The 10 Year Old – Viking Scars

The first whisky we tasted was the 10 Year Old, named “Viking Scars”. The “Viking Scars” was matured on sherry casks, and is a very versatile whisky, no-nonsense and very accessible. Our nosing and tasting revealed citrus fruits, light peppery spices, and lovely flowery honey. The 10 Year Old is perfect as a gift for people who are new to Highland Park, and for whisky drinkers who want a good product but have a smaller budget.

The 12 Year Old – Viking Honour

Moving on to our second drop, the “Viking Honour”, we noticed the first signs of peat. The 12 Year Old is the ‘heart and soul’ of the Highland Park collection. Maturation was done on sherry casks made from American and European oak, with the balance tipping more towards European oak. It is more rounded in taste than the 10 Year Old, and introduces a more floral flavour, while still having a delightful honey taste, balanced out with more spices. This is a bottle that we would like to have in our drinks cabinet at all times!

Highland Park 18 Years Old, two times chosen as the best whisky in the world.

The 18 Year Old – Viking Pride

The third whisky is a continuation of the “Viking Scars” and “Viking Honour”. “Viking Pride” is an 18 year old whisky, beautifully balanced, and the perfect combination of smoke and the sweetness of heather honey. With additional flavours of dark chocolate, marzipan, and even cherries, it comes as no surprise that this expression has already been voted ‘Best Spirit in the World’ on two occasions. Its full potential appears with a drop of water, and from the first sip, your palate is treated to an explosion of alternating flavours. The slow burn and subsequent subtle aftertaste left us impressed and amazed.

The 25 Year Old

If you thought that Highland Park had played all their cards with the “Viking Pride”, you underestimated their vigour for perfection. Matured on 100% American oak sherry casks, the 25 Year Old is a continuation and improvement of the 18 Year Old. The same notes of dark chocolate and heather honey are found, and sweets such as toffee and fudge are more present in this dram. It is dark, it is brooding, and it is best enjoyed by having a first sip, and then waiting for a while before having another (ed. not that we drown other whiskies in one go, of course). With every nip, the balance in this whisky shifts ever so slightly, revealing another dominant flavour. Delve deep into this dram, and be impressed by its richness and complexity. Picture an armchair, a good book, and a small side table with a Glencairn glass and this exquisite bottle. Did you picture it? Good! Now make it so! (ed. you forgot the hearth and the hunting dog)

Nice box.

Full Volume

The “Full Volume” is a whisky specifically distilled for the American market, which tends to prefer lighter and sweeter whiskies in general. The box design resembles an amplifier and equaliser, and there’s certainly a ‘rock attitude’ there. The whisky itself was matured on 100% first-fill bourbon casks, distilled in 1999, and bottled in 2017. We distinguished peppery vanilla, hints of sugared citrus fruits, and a delicate whiff of smokiness. The stuff is complex enough to entertain the more experienced whisky drinker, and is perfect for people who want to have a lighter, but still full-bodied dram. Something to drink after the show?

Dragon Legend

The ‘Legend of the Dragon’ is an excellent name for this whisky expression. Matured on 100% sherry casks, this dram is the perfect introduction to smoky flavours for people who have never tasted a peated whisky before. From the first sip to the final taste, the smokiness lingers, as if you are aware that there is a campfire nearby. As this dram is so gentle on the palate, you could definitely have a couple of servings without overloading it. Just remember that boozing on this is never a good idea. Take this bottle to a campfire, and tell stories of the Old Days. Choose “Beowulf” or “The Hobbit”, or invent a story of your own!

Valkyrie

Another legendary expression of Highland Park is the “Valkyrie”, named after the immortal avenging angels who transported the brave warriors from the battlefield to Odin’s halls in Valhalla after their heroic demise. The design of this bottle was done by Jim Lyngvild, the famous, and notorious, designer and fashion expert, who even lives in his own wooden Viking fortress. The whisky itself offers a lovely balance between ripe fruits and warm smoke, with hints of vanilla and ginger sprinkled around the palate. The first in a series of special Viking Legend releases, this stuff takes you straight to heaven. Something to drink after the battle (or a game of Bà).

Valknut

The second in the series of special Viking Legend releases, the “Valknut” continues the link between the Viking legends and the Highland Park distillery. The ‘Valknut’ was, supposedly, the symbol the brave warriors received after having died in battle. With this symbol, they were granted access to the afterlife. Tasting this dram will automatically make you draw comparisons with the “Valkyrie”, though this whisky is sweeter than the former, having aged on 100% American oak sherry casks. Flavours include a more dominant vanilla, black pepper, and obviously a rich, warm smokiness. If this is the level of their special Viking Legend releases, we can’t deny the fact that we are eager to taste that third release, and expect to be thoroughly impressed.

The Light

Highland Park does not solely focus on their Viking ancestry; the master distillers also have an intense respect for the Orkneys themselves. This is expressed in “The Light”, the distilled embodiment of spring and summer on the islands. This 17 year old whisky was matured on American oak sherry casks, and is perfectly in balance with its ‘darker sister’. Delicate on the nose and palate, this dram surprises with oaky flavours, balanced nicely with vanilla, pear, and nutmeg. Obviously, there is a light smoke present, as it would not be Highland Park without it. The aftertaste left us wanting for more. This is an elegant whisky, only to be enjoyed while standing bare-foot in wet grass. Or on the patio, or on a bench in the garden, or just as long as there is a link to spring or summer.

The Dark

‘Winter solstice in a bottle’, that should suffice to describe this expression. If not, there are plenty of other things to say about this whisky. It is the counterpart to the “The Light”, for example. As the aforementioned is a celebration of spring and summer on the Orkneys, this is obviously a veneration of autumn and winter. This 17 year old whisky was matured on sherry casks only, made entirely from European oak. The flavours of this beautiful dram are distinctly seasonal and ‘end-of-the-year’: cedar wood, nuts, a light smoke, and at the centre, late-summer / early-autumn honey. Also to be distinguished: fruit cake and toasted almonds. The aftertaste is robust and full-bodied. This is a dram that we wish we could drink every weekend. Astonishing in its complexity, and ever so rewarding if you are willing to let it ‘breathe’. Wow.

Conclusion

Highland Park is a very prolific brand. It seems as if they have been releasing a new expression every three months. From very accessible whisky to a dram so complex you have to sit down and overthink everything you have ever tasted before, Highland Park has the means to please even the most demanding customer. Our suggestion is to sample a couple of their whiskies before buying, and then gradually to start adding your favourites to your collection. Also, get your hands on “The Light” or “The Dark”. Taste them, be amazed. While you’re working on it, sample the 25 Year Old. Oh, have we already mentioned that the designer bottles look nice on a shelf? Collect them all!

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