The Highland Park distillery, Scotland’s most northerly whisky distillery, clings to the rugged Orkneys (making it our first non-Islay islander, for the attentive among you). At some point in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century – the distillery claims 1798, but it received a permit in 1826 – it happily occurred to some islanders to produce whisky, and we can be glad that they did.
Creeping out of the copita before I can even get into it are tendrils of a very subtle, almost sweet, smoke, like that given off by very damp wood as it’s first thrown on the fire, steaming as it cracks and pops. This rather idiosyncratic greeting beckons you in, at which point you’re grabbed by a delicately complex assortment of aromas. Prominently, there’s quite a dry honey scent, together with a moderate maltiness that’s combined with walnut. Then, rather than a particular smell there’s a general impression: if you close your eyes, you’ve just wandered into a small old chapel, perhaps in a Highland castle, perhaps an Oxbridge college. It’s probably little-used, and the antique brass, old wood and dust combine to create a smell at once rich and gentle, acrid and tart. Open your eyes, and your back, as a dairy creaminess emerges from the background. Throughout, the Orcadian peat has a whimsical presence, less overpowering than Islay peat and with a definite playful side. The sherry-lover’s peat.
The dram arrives on the tongue with the same honey, tantalisingly sweeter. Its offset by spice, but then returns to the sweetness with maple, together with solid oak. Wait a second, and the sweetness becomes juicier, but with a raisin-like piquancy to it. There’s a fresh wave of wood polish, too, the counterpart of the mustier aspects of the nose. It’s a very elegant taste profile, as was the nose; it fits together like a jigsaw, with every nuance simultaneously comprising the bigger picture, rather than sequentially in the manner of some whiskies.
The finish begins with the dry smoke with which the whisky announced its arrival. Its counterpoint is a gentle ginger, before a surprisingly clear sensation of newly planed wood. The musty air of the forgotten chapel returns, before lingering peat. Add water, and the nose will echo the antiquity found elsewhere, with the slowly decaying paper note characteristic of old books (a particular favourite of mine, I must say!), and the taste becomes slightly more maritime. It hardly felt like a dram crying out for dilution, though.
Aficionados sing the praises of twelve-year-old Highland Parks of yore. A Highland Park was the only whisky ever to have received a perfect score from The Scotsman, and the packaging prominently features a quote from the whisky writer Michael Jackson calling it ‘the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky’. If it was previously, it seems hard to apply that description to today’s incarnation. But it’s still really good stuff, and sufficiently distinctive that it ought to be a part of every whisky fan’s experience.
Nose 22 Taste 19 Finish 20 Balance 23