It isn’t every day you get to taste the complete lineup of a serious Scotch producer in one sitting… and have a gourmet dinner to go along with it. While I’m still recovering from gulping down six glasses of Scotch in lieu of wine on Thursday night (pacing yourself when you’re thirsty during a meal is surprisingly hard!), I have to say the gathering that Highland Park was gracious enough to invite me to was decidedly memorable.
Highland Park is an Orkney Islands-based distillery, a smaller Scotch producer that puts out 2 million liters of spirits a year and is found on the set of tiny islands beyond the far northern tip of Scotland. Orkney is so remote that our host, Martin Daraz, said there are less than 30 living trees on the island where Highland Park Distillery is based, the wind and salt spray making short work of the rest of the vegetation. The company’s facility is the northernmost distillery in all of Scotland.
Highland Park’s six different bottlings run from 12 to (now) 40 years of age, and each is a unique expression of malt whisky. Over the evening, Daraz gave us the rundown on Highland’s methodology, which seems to leave absolutely nothing to chance. Barrels are harvested from Spanish and, in a rare move among Scotch-makers, American oak, and all barrels are filled first in Spain with Oloroso Sherry. The company says it spends $20 million a year on wood alone, more than any other Scotch distillery, despite having a fraction of the output of some of the larger brands. The results, I can say with authority, are quite delicious.
As you can tell by the menu, the Scotch expressions were served slightly out of order. I’m reordering them here by age just to make it easier to follow. (I also skipped the Blood & Sand cocktail in favor of a neat glass of the 12-year-old HP, so I could have a basis for comparison through the evening. As you can see by the photos, things can get complicated rather quickly when you have six glasses of Scotch in front of you.)
Without further ado… the Highland Park line:
Highland Park 12 Year Old – A fairly standard, but appealing 86-proof single malt, quite pale and definitely the choice for anyone who’s drinking with soda or using the spirit in a cocktail. Mild smoke, peat, and honey all work well in the HP 12, but it’s not nearly as memorable as some of the other expressions. B+ / $42
Highland Park 15 Year Old – Amazing what a difference three years can make. Considerably darker than the 12, and sweeter too. Lots of oak (due to heavy use of American oak barrels) and the toasty, peaty smoke is palpable. Also 86 proof, it’s hot on the palate but goes down very easy. A- / $63
Highland Park 18 Year Old -Take the 15 and kick it up another notch: You’ve got HP 18. Still 86 proof, but even darker, exhibiting exotic, nutmeg and cinmamon flavors over hefty oak. Hints of pepper play with burnt sugar, making this a sugar & spice & everything nice concoction that I couldn’t stop from going back to time and time again (as is evidenced by the nearly empty glass in the photo!). My favorite of all the Highland Park bottles, and a veritable bargain compared to many other brands. A / $100
Highland Park 25 Year Old – Actually served fifth alongside dessert, this was my least favorite Scotch of the night. This year’s 96.2-proof bottling wasn’t on hand, so we had last year’s version, a 101.4-proof expression. Heavy, heavy on the alcohol, the oak character overpowered the spirit’s sweetness. It was claimed HP 25 was a good fit for desserts, but it didn’t do all that much for me before or during the last course. [Update: Numerous, subsequent encounters with HP25 have been much more engaging.] B / $250
Highland Park 30 Year Old – Served with the main course, working dazzlingly well. Extremely complex, and miles away from the HP 25. Very dark, it has a complexity and a slight, surprising bitterness to it. Deep wood character and some peaty phenol notes play nice with the heavy spice character. It’s not as sweet as many of the other HPs and has a rustic, roughness (at 96.2 proof) that is miles away from the 12-year-old HP. A- / $440
Highland Park 40 Year Old – The reason we came. Highland Park is now launching its first 40-year-old Scotch ever. At $2,000 a bottle, it’s extremely rare (just 150 bottles are allotted for the U.S. this year), but it’s not a limited edition: The 40-year will be bottled regularly going forward, year after year… there just won’t be a whole lot to drink. The dark chocolate brown color has a surprisingly subtle nose; it was the only spirit of the night that didn’t immediately overwhelm the nose with alcoholic heat (though, at 96.6 proof, it’s still plenty boozy). A tinge of bitterness plays with the butterscotch in the glass, but it’s always hard to get a lot of nuance out of spirits this old, as if they’ve begun to fade. Still, very drinkable and, of course, wholly memorable to be drinking from the first bottle of HP 40 ever opened in the United States. A- / $2,000
All in all, a wonderful lineup of Scotch whisky. If Highland Park doesn’t have one whisky which you outright love, might I suggest you instead turn to a can of beer?