Tasting Report: Highland Park Scotch Expressions

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 200x300 Tasting Report: Highland Park Scotch ExpressionsHighland 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. 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?

highlandpark.co.uk

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12 Responses to Tasting Report: Highland Park Scotch Expressions

  1. Wow C, great review.

    My stepdad and brother in law are both Scotch drinkers while I’m the serious bourbon drinker in the fam. I just can’t seem to get my hands around the heavy Acorch flavors. But, since I agree with you on your other spirits reviews, and you did a great writeup on the 18, I may have to try it. I don’t know this, but what makes Scotch taste so different from bourbon?

    Ry.

    Drinking a Hendrick’s dry martini and smoking an Illusione cg:4.

  2. Ry – Lots of reasons why Scotch and Bourbon are so different… that could make up a whole series of posts. In a nutshell, Scotch is made from malted barley and the barley is often dried using peat smoke, which is why so much Scotch has that smoky, earthy taste to it. Bourbon is made from a variety of grains but must be at least 51% corn (and most are 70%+ corn). Both spirits are aged in oak — but the type, origin, and previous use of the oak is wholly variable (though bourbon must be aged in new oak barrels, not used ones, which is the norm with Scotch). The combination of grain(s), oak, malting, and length of aging all combine to make for a dazzling array of types of whiskey — and that’s why you can often find a Scotch and a Bourbon that taste more alike than two different Scotches or two different Bourbons. And that, my friend, is why this job is so much fun.

  3. We just returned from Scotland and while there went on the “Scotch Whiskey Experience” tour in Edinburgh. One of the scotch’s we got to taste was the Highland Park 12 year old. It was good! I’d always been a bourbon drinker to this point and had never had a “good” scotch. This was enough to make me explore more. At the airport duty free shop you could also taste the 15 year old Highland Park, which I did and it was even better! I was considering picking up a bottle of the 18 yo on our way back through Heathrow at the end of our trip, but unfortunately due to flight delays wasn’t able to get back to the duty free. SO if you wouldn’t mind . . . do you know somewhere in the States where I can pick up Highland Park? It’s not sold in our Washington State Liquor stores as far as I can tell and Highland Park is unable to ship to the USA. So if you know of an on-line retailer you’d recommend, I’d highly appreciate it. I’m sure you’ll have access to my e-mail address and I’d appreciate a reply if you have time. Thanks for the great review!

  4. John,

    I just bought some of the Highland Park 12 and saw they also had 15 and 18 yr old at this store in San Francisco: The Whisky Shop (Malt Whisky Specialists). Their website is whiskyshopusa.com.

    Cheers,
    Emily

  5. John,

    I have purchased Highland Park 12 year at the Kirkland liquor store on 70th in washington State. I also just received a gift of Highland Park 25 year which was also purchased there. This may be the only store in the state that stocks this great scotch. May be worth the drive, even if you live on the Eastside of the state.

  6. You hit a home run. The HP18 is fantastic. It is good over rocks and even better with a slight drip of water. Very smooth and a joy to share with someone who likes very good Scotch. I also like Taskeds but for just kicking back and restingvwith a very good drink the HP18 is great. Not too sure about this but I believe most good beverage stores can snag a bottle of this for you if asked and if not find another store.

    Sometimes old is not best. The 25 is so so, have not tried the30 and have never seen the 40 but at 18 years the HP18 earns my loyalty so what’s the need to look any further. Each glass of the 18 is an adventure in itself.

    Great review. BB, California

  7. The Highland Park 25 is a wonderful dram, but I think it benefits best from the addition of a bit of water. Maybe two teaspoons to a shot. The high alcohol content needs to be softened with water. I would suggest giving it another chance if you ever have the opportunity again.

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