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Orkney’s Viking Roots
Highland Park distillery stands on a hill overlooking the town of Kirkwall, largest settlement and administrative centre of Orkney, an archipelago in the Northern Islands of Scotland.
The distillery traces its origins to Magnus Eunson, a Church officer by day and distiller and smuggler by night. Eunson based his operation out of a bothy in an area known as the High Park of Rosebank and hid his goods under the pulpit in the local church. When he was finally arrested in 1813, John Robertson, the excise-man who had so fervently pursued him bought the land upon which his bothy stood. Then, in 1826 Robertson sold the land on to his son-in-law Robert Borwick, who built the distillery as we know it today. Originally named Kirkwall, it would later become known as Highland Park.
Orkney and much of the north of Scotland was colonised by Norway in 875 AD and the Norse influence can still be widely seen on the island today, a connection the distillery likes to celebrate in much of its branding and marketing.
Sigurd and the Dragon
First released in 2017 “Dragon Legend” is a smokier version of the Highland Park single malt, partially matured in ex-sherry casks and named after the legend of Sigurd, who slew Fafnir the serpent in service of the Gods. The tale tells of Odin and Loki as they travelled in disguise across Midgard. Stopping to rest at a small dwelling, the Gods were robbed of their gold by Fafnir and his brothers. A crime that was to have dire consequences for those involved.
Fafnir refused to share the loot and, consumed by greed, killed his siblings. Cursed by his actions, his form began to corrupt and change in terrible ways until he had transformed into a gigantic bloated worm that slept all day atop its hoard of gold.
Sent to kill the beast, Sigurd the warrior was met by Odin, who gave him the means with which to complete his mission. Once a day, the vile serpent left its gold to crawl along a trail and drink from the river. As advised by Odin, Sigurd dug a concealed ditch and lay in wait. When Fafnir passed above him, he rose and plunged his sword into the heart of the beast and watched as it died, writing in agony. A fitting end for one so bold as to wrong the Gods.
Bottled at 43.1%, “Dragon Legend” usually retails at £40 a bottle, but I picked it up on sale at my local supermarket for £30.
Smell: Straight away the peat seems more intense than other Highland Park expressions. Not quite Islay peat, but more than you’d expect. There’s sherry too, with raisins and sultanas. Toffee and heather honey. Apple. Lemon. Straw. Sea salt and pepper. Charcoal.
Taste: Big arrival of sumptuous sherry and tangy peat. Black pepper. Stewed fruits. Raisins. Figs. Malt. Barley extract and dry oak. Satisfying oily texture.
Thoughts: Though I prefer whisky to be bottled without chill filtration, I don’t mind buying others so long as the price is reasonable and Dragon Legend sneaks in under what I would consider the upper limits for such stuff (if I’m being asked to spend £45 / £50 on a bottle of whisky, I want the liquid left intact). There are also different degrees of chill filtering and the weight of this dram suggests to me that Highland Park may have been relatively sensitive in their approach. It even misted up a little with the addition of water. In any case, the pricing is reasonable, especially at discount. Decent at £40, pretty damn good at £30.
Highland Park’s standard 12 year old was the dram that launched my passion for whisky and I will always have a soft spot for it as a result. Having said that, I sometimes find their excessive reliance on the Viking stuff a bit of a turn-off. A wee story to go along with my dram is always welcome but it sometimes feels like the heavy-handed marketing obscures the quality of the liquid. For that reason it is a brand I have wandered away from over the years but recent tastes of Full Volume and Valfather showed me that I could still enjoy the spirit of Highland Park.
Dragon Legend, despite sounding like it was named by an adolescent boy, is a rather satisfying dram that I have been enjoying more than I expected to. It’s more in-your-face than the core range but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing and there remains enough of a recognisable trace of the distillery character to please loyalists.
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Visit Highland Park’s Website here.