Highland Park is where it all began for me. In my early twenties I would have told you that whisky wasn’t worth your time. In my opinion it was a harsh spirit that could ‘maybe’ be tolerated if it was drowned in cola or lemonade (in my defence, my opinion was based on very limited experience of poor quality, cheap blends). This all changed at the funeral of a man I never met. It’s a bit of a tradition in Scotland to offer guests at a funeral a dram and on this occasion I took it, mainly because I didn’t want to seem rude. The dram was a 12 year old Highland Park and as I tentatively sipped on it I had a bit of an epiphany. It was beautiful and like nothing I’d ever tasted before. When I finished it, I went straight to the bar and ordered another. That experience started me out on the journey that has led to my writing this blog. The funeral was that of a family friend of my wife. I never knew the man, but I’m eternally grateful to him for his good taste in whisky.
The Highland Park distillery sits just above Kirkwall, Orkney in a ‘high park’ (hence the name) where a bothy once stood; the home of Magnus Eunson. Eunson was a preacher and a smuggler and is often credited with the foundation of the distillery as he was illegally producing spirit on the location as far back as 1798. The current distillery however dates to around 1825 and was built by Robert Borwick who later sold it to one John Robertson: the exciseman who jailed Magnus Eunson for illicit distilling.
The whisky produced here is one of the giants quite frankly and as I discovered myself, their 12 year old is a great entry level whisky with hints of all that a scotch single malt can be.
The expression I’m reviewing is not a distillery release however, it’s independently bottled by Gordon & MacPhail (whom you may remember from my review of Ledaig 1996) as part of their cask strength collection. It was distilled in 2006 and matured for 9 years in a first fill bourbon barrel. It’s bottled at 57.9%, at natural colour, with no chill filtration. The nose is Floral, with Honey and Creamy Vanilla. There’s Lemon and gentle, underlying Peat Smoke. On the palate there’s a generous helping of Black Pepper with Honey, Vanilla, subtle Orange Zest and Peat Smoke.
The Scores: About the scoring system
Smell: 16 / 20. Pleasant if understated nose, especially with the addition of water to tone down the hit of alcohol (well it is 57.9%).
Taste: 15 / 20. If I’m honest, I’m a little disappointed in this. I was perhaps expecting something a little ‘bigger’ from a cask strength Highland Park. Subtlety can be a good thing of course but I’m finding the pepper notes are overpowering whatever else is going on. Water improves it but in attempt to get beyond the pepper I ended up drowning the whisky and losing what character it had. I dont dislike it, it’s a non-taxing, warming, spicy dram but it’s not a classic and Highland Park can be so much better.
Value: 7 / 10. Priced at around £55 which is perfectly acceptable for cask strength whisky but for want of a better word, it’s just a little bland to represent really great value for money.
Total: 39 / 50.
As I said before, this Highland Park was matured in a bourbon barrel and so is about 97% of all scotch. So whats this all about? Why bourbon? And why so many? Well firstly, the UK simply couldn’t sustain the level of oak required by the whisky industry so alternative sources had to be found. On top of this, scotch producers found that second hand casks worked much better for their needs. Despite it’s reputation, whisky is a relatively delicate spirit that can easily be swamped by the strong character of virgin oak. For decades distillers had matured their whisky in Sherry and Madeira casks obtained from the continent, but a decline in sherry consumption in the first half of the 20th century hindered the availability of these casks.
At the same time, prohibition was ending in the USA… Distilleries were springing up everywhere, not least in Kentucky. This in turn led to a boom in the cooperage industry as demand for american white oak casks went through the roof. Seeking to cement their business long term, those wiley coopers sought protection from the US government and achieved it in the form of a law stating all Bourbon must be matured in fresh casks. So there, on one side of the atlantic was an industry restricted to using casks only once, while on the other side, was an industry desperately seeking a reliable source of second hand casks. The rest, as they say, is history.
The symbiotic relationship between scotch and bourbon exists to this day and with Sherry’s decline continuing it’s more important now than ever. Although you may notice that wine cask finishes are increasingly common. As is the use of port casks and even rum casks… That however, is a story for another blog.