A couple of years back, before I decided that what the internet really needed was another whisky blogger throwing their tuppenceworth into the digital ether, I would have had a very quick answer to “what’s your favourite distillery?” Highland Park.
When I first got into whisky, or at least was finally able to legally buy it, Highland Park, along with Aberlour A’Bunadh, was the pour that took me from “gosh, whisky lights you up nice and quickly” to “gosh, there’s really something special here.” Something about it was different to any other malt that crossed my palate; a floral, heathery note; a softer style of peat; a unique marriage and balance of elements and flavours.
I remember first picking up the 12 year old two weeks into my Fresher’s year at University. I remember my first taste of the 18 – less than £50 a throw in those days – as a friend opened his bottle and three of us polished off half of it as we thrashed out plans for an Edinburgh Fringe show. I believed back then that, given the right vatting, Highland Park could bottle the best whisky in the world. For what it’s worth – and this is entirely subjective of course – I still do.
However, there is a caveat. And it is a big one.
Highland Park is owned by the Edrington Group, whose other properties include The Macallan. And of all the big companies owning multiple distilleries these days, Edrington are the most enthusiastic when it comes to bottling a No-Age-Statement whisky with an exciting name and an ambitious price tag. And whilst I don’t have an inherent problem with NAS, I do have a problem when they are priced more highly than the age-dated expression they replace whilst offering no justification for the hike.
What’s more, age statements from Highland Park (and Macallan for that matter) have become ever more ‘aspirational’. (That’s the diplomatic word for it.) Whilst the 12 year old Highland Park remains one of single malt’s smartest buys, the 18 now tips the scales at effectively £100 a pop. The much-loved 15 re-appeared last year, and the Whisky Exchange has it at a cool £80.
And then there’s the war band of menacing sounding Nordic bottles, who embrace Orkney’s Viking heritage by turning up uninvited, pillaging your bank account and leaving you rather confused, scared and battle-weary. Take ‘Thorfinn’ for example. There’s probably a great deal of long-aged malt involved, and it’s probably delicious, but you’ll pay £1300 to find out. I haven’t read Orkneyingasaga in a while, but I can’t help wondering whether Thorfinn’s full name was Thorfinn Wellifdalmoreareallowedtodoitsson…
All of which is a rather long preamble to Dark Origins.
Dark Origins replaced the 15 year old a few years back. It was designed to celebrate founder Magnus Eunson, who moonlighted as a smuggler (but it’s ok because he was one of the nice ones and he probably didn’t murder anyone and the establishment were all meanies anyway…) The emphasis here is on ‘Dark’; a matte black bottle conceals liquid which has been housed in ‘twice as many first fill casks as the regular Highland Park.’
The darkness concept is further embraced by concealing the age (we are assured it is in its teens, but if that’s the case why not say so?) as well as whether or not it has been chill-filtered or coloured. Back in the day Highland Park steered clear of both practices. These days I’d be a smidge more reassured if the label was a little more talkative.
In any case, the primary sticking point where most drinkers were concerned is the price. At £65 it’s twice the cost of the 12 year old, and I’m not sure I’m that desperate to celebrate Magnus Eunson. I tasted it once or twice in the middle of festivals, and stood myself a glass at a bar in Bristol once, but I hadn’t made any notes, and wasn’t in a desperate hurry to.
And then last weekend I came across it on a clearance deal at £46.
I still wasn’t sure. After pinging a photo online, a few people whose palates I trust completely were quick to be somewhat sniffy about it. I hadn’t budgeted for another bottle this month, and I was only in the supermarket because I had half an hour to kill whilst I waited for a friend, and had nothing better to do.
But most of the negativity I encountered was to do with principle, rather than taste. And I still love Highland Park, and it’s so rare to find bottles under £50. So one thing led to another, and that evening there was a sample in my glass and a new name in my notebook.
Highland Park Dark Origins – That’s quite some sherry. Dark chocolate and raisins on the one hand; slightly funky rubber, meat and struck match on the other. Possibly too heavy-handed on the sherry actually, as the distillery character feels a little squashed. There’s a trace of heather and pine in the background squealing ‘I’m still Highland Park, honest,’ but it is doing so through a mouthful of chunky Oloroso. Overall a medium aroma intensity.
More initial chocolate on the palate. Dried sherry fruit (raisins, dates, splash of orange) then bellows through with a touch of floral honey clinging to its coat-tails. After which a rather dry, ashy peat with more than a whiff of sulphur takes over, though smears of sticky raisin cling stubbornly to the inside of your cheeks. 46.8% ABV
Highland Park Dark Origins isn’t a bad whisky. Drinking it won’t kill you; there are plenty of nice flavours, and if you’re a sherry-head it’ll appeal especially. (Though watch out for that sulphur.) I had a second glass later that evening anyway, so I’m hardly going to come out with ‘avoid at all costs’.
The thing is, the extra first-fill sherry casks really have sat on the distillery’s character. These days I find myself more and more in agreement with the excellent Angus MacRaild, who bemoans fixation on wood, and advocates refill casks that showcase more of what the spirit has to say. Highland Park has one of the most unique and distinctive characters in the business, and here it felt muted.
At £46 I don’t feel mugged. I do feel that I’d have a large number of better options elsewhere for the same price though – and at £65 I wouldn’t give it a second look.
I’ll enjoy the rest of my bottle. My friends and family will enjoy it, should I deign to give them a taste. But I can’t help but think that I’ll look at it with wistful recollections of my first encounter with the 12 year old – still baggable for £25 from the right places. I can’t help but think that I’ll look back to that bottle of 18 year old, that my friend spent about the same money on as I dropped last weekend for the Dark Origins. And I know it’ll make me wish – as I have wished so many times – that I’d picked up a bottle of 18 year old myself (not that I could afford it back then, even at £50.)
So Highland Park Dark Origins makes me a little sad. Because I don’t really like looking back and focussing on the negatives, but when it comes to Highland Park, I struggle. Because once upon a time this really was my favourite distillery in the world. And because I really do believe that their best single malt whisky is as stunning as anything bottled anywhere. But the times they have a-changed at Highland Park. And, where the average consumer is concerned, not for the better.
(Somewhat mutedly:) Cheers!