A bit of an elusive one for me, I must profess to knowing very little about Highland Park before this trip, especially the Highland Park distillery, but I was gratefully inducted into one of the most interesting distillery heritage stories I have heard.
BA’s weather notification said it would be ‘just’ 1 degree centigrade on Orkney but would feel like -6 degrees centigrade when I boarded my twin engined flight to visit the Highland Park distillery.
That was fine though as I turned up in the appropriate Barbour jacket, warming trainers and silver pen that periodically froze my writing hand as I frantically took notes during my trip. No bother.
Once signed in and in the distillery, I was given an introduction to Highland Park, the island and the day ahead.
Orkney itself was once part of Norway, hence the Scandinavian references in both design and naming of their various whiskies leading to the industry’s favourite whisky satirist The Whisky Sponge to state that most Nordic mythology is in fact based on the Highland Park range. And why not.
Interestingly enough it turns out that Orkadians consider themselves more Danish than Scottish in mindset and Orkney is home to the most northerly cathedral in the UK along with Highland Park being the most northerly distillery in the UK… By just a few metres.
“If you scratch the surface of Orkney, it bleeds archaeology.”
Amongst the local stories were tales of Black Pat who was not a nice chap by all accounts, tales of Viking heritage and anecdotes about how the island, city and distillery has evolved over the years, decades and centuries.
Myths, legends and tales of tradition… And virtually zero trees on the entire island due to the winds.
What struck me most, and it’s something that sets Highland Park out from many in the industry, which is probably why the brand has seen a meteoric rise in popularity and prominence in the last decade or so, is how many immersive stories there are about the distillery and the surrounding location.
And it is these stories that influence the Highland Park releases, their names clearly bit also their flavour profile.
Take Thor for example, the liquid does exactly as you would expect from the name; it conveys power and packed a punch without being overstated about it all.
Together for a higher cause.
There is a real and genuine pride about the distillery staff, and a buzz around each release internally.
This is not a distillery that churns out for the sake of it, unlike others, they release very special products at just the right time and the people behind it are not only excited about the fruit of their labour making it to market but they agonise over how it will be received by us bloggers, us consumers, us collectors, us whisky lovers and the wider spectrum of Highland Park considerers.
Towards even more provenance
The grain they use is from the mainland, called Concerto, but the past four years they have been cultivating a strain of grain called Tartan that will be grown on the island and go into the Highland Park bottlings of the future.
I love a distillery with malting floors, and it is getting rarer to see such a sight, but Highland Park has three that are worked hard and smell amazing… And are curiously Y shaped.
Orkney peat is unique from honey heather moorland, hence that sweet yet slightly smoky taste profile unseen anywhere else.
For peat’s sake (I know, obvious and probably long overused but I enjoyed it)
The peat actually forms in three layers:
1. Top layers have the roots from the heather which give us the sweet notes
2. Second layer gives the aromatic notes
3. The final layers are pretty solid, very few roots and add the hint of smokiness
The heather moorland owned by Highland Park spans 1,000 acres, when I asked how long it would take to run out of peat, I was firmly told “we have been distilling since 1798 and are not even half way through the first 250 acres, so we will be ok for a while”. Wow.
Final fact – Highland Park is the only whisky to have ever gotten 100 points in the Spirits Competition with their 25 Year Old.
3 malting floors
23 warehouses holding stockpiles of magic
42,000 casks maturing
20 hour peat smoking
10,000,000 Got wood? The casks used for maturation are taken very seriously with the Edrington Group spending £10million per year ‘just’ on wood