Before Highland Park came along, I thought whisky was a harsh spirit that could barely be tolerated if it was drowned in a mixer. That all changed however, at the funeral of a man I never knew. At a traditional Scottish wake it is commonplace to offer guests a dram and, not wanting to seem rude, I accepted on this occasion. The dram in question 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 to order another. That experience set me on the journey that eventually led to 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.
Highland Park 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.
This particular expression however, has been bottled by Gordon & MacPhail 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: 38 / 50.
Around 97% of all scotch is matured in bourbon barrels. The UK simply couldn’t sustain the levels of oak required by the industry and alternative sources had to be found and, despite it’s reputation, scotch whisky is a relatively delicate spirit that can easily be overpowered by fresh new casks. Therefore it made sense to mature the spirit in second hand casks. Bourbon came to the fore when a decline in sherry consumption led to significantly reduced availability of Spanish casks.
This slump in Sherry coincided with the end of prohibition in the USA… a time when Distilleries were springing up everywhere, not least in Kentucky. This in created a boom for the cooperage industry as demand for american white oak casks went through the roof. Seeking to cement their long term security, those coopers sought protection from the US government and achieved it when a law was passed stating that all Bourbon must be matured in virgin oak casks.
This created the perfect situation… On one side of the atlantic was an industry who could only use their casks once, while over on the other side, was an industry desperately seeking a reliable source of second hand casks.
The symbiotic relationship between scotch and bourbon exists to this day and with Sherry’s decline continuing it’s more important than ever. Wine cask finishes are increasingly common, so too are port and even rum casks… That however, is a story for another blog.
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