September Scotch: The Orkney Island’s Highland Park

From a new 50-year-old spirit to refreshed design language, a whisky brand like no other

If you’re a whisky drinker, chances are you’ve tried Highland Park 12—or you’ve seen it. Despite its origins on the remote Orkney Islands, off the northeastern coast of Scotland, the whisky has made its way around the world and back again. It’s also picked up quite a dedicated following along the way. All of this can be attributed several things, but most important on the list happens to be a flavor profile that incorporates a distinct peatiness, specific sherry cask aging and the influence of the very island climate and sea-whipped conditions from which it originates. In 2017, the range got a radical bottle redesign. And since, several new releases have bolstered an already deep portfolio. For a third year, we will shine a light on select whisky brands distilling around Scotland—and Highland Park makes for our first in the 2018 September Scotch series.

It’s safe to say that if a Scotch whisky brand cannot figure out their 12 year, it doesn’t make sense to try anything else they’re offering. What Highland Park did correctly—with their core range—is balance smokiness and spice, with salt and citrus. The 12, now with the secondary name Viking Honour, is a superb single malt. The color here is all natural, and the rich flavor is distinct enough that one cannot really place it against peers. The same can be said for the 18 Year Old, now also known as Viking Proud. As Orcadian peat bogs have more heather, floral notes grace both liquids. The latter, however, clocks in at a higher proof. Rather than overpower the spirit, it underscores the creaminess.

Highland Park certainly has a winner with the limited edition 50 Year Old. And one could argue that based on its story alone. It’s composed of two hogshead casks of Scotch that were distilled back in 1964, but went missing in the brand’s Warehouse Number Seven, and were only rediscovered in 2008. These whiskies were then married and bolstered by a splash of Highland Park’s last 50-year-old release, from 2010. Ultimately, 274 bottles now exist across the globe at $15,000 per. They will only gain further value—and a legendary status—if they reach the secondary market. Naturally, the spirit itself lives up to the story, with the sherry’s parenting most evident in fig and other warm fruit flavors.

The 50 aside, Highland Park brought both The Light and The Dark to the market in the last year. Both are 17-year-old, limited edition products. The former arrived this June; the latter, during the winter solstice in 2017. Both strike a whopping 53% ABV, and both explode with flavor. There’s a brightness to The Light (perhaps as expected), while The Dark carries more gravity. It’s whiskies like these, and the Fire Edition and Ice Edition of recent years, that demonstrate the breadth of Highland Park’s resources—and how they plan to use them. They’re tasty. And they’re intense.

The bottle redesign and the myriad new product names all reference Viking heritage. It’s in the glass and the wood and, perhaps, even in the liquid most of all. Orkney became part of Scotland in 1468, and the Viking population of the island became Scottish. The heritage acts as inspiration. Centuries of humans—and centuries of barrels—have taken in the salty air and been better for it. And even amidst all the changes, the spirit tastes of the passion behind it.

The Highland Park Distillery is open to visitors year ’round.

Images courtesy of Highland Park