Monday, February 15, 2010

Highland Park 12 year old

Highland Park 12 year old
Bottled by: Distillery
ABV: 43%
Region: Islands (Orkney)
Price: $35
Availability: Readily available in specialty shops

Highland Park has long been a favorite whisky. Ever since reading about it in the late Michael Jackson's definitive Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, I've had somewhat of a fascination with the malt. Its place on top of the pillar was firmly established in my first real blind scotch tasting (many, many moons ago) when both my friend Rob and I picked HP 12 as the undisputed victor among many other respectable malts. Since that time, I've regularly purchased bottles of the 12 and 18 year old versions and never cease to be amazed by the richness and bottomless depth of flavors they possess.

Highland Park distillery is located on the island of Orkney and is the most northerly in Scotland. Aside from their selection of dry Oloroso sherry casks for aging the whisky, the distillery makes much about the malting of the barley and the peat used. According to their website:

Highland Park is one of only a handful of distilleries where the expensive and physically demanding custom of turning malt by hand still takes place. Highland Park malt costs two and a half times as much as industrially processed malt. Some 20% of the malt used to make Highland Park comes from Orkney.

The remainder is either malted at one of its sister distilleries, Tamdhu (to Highland Park specifications), or comes from Simpsons, a high quality malt producer located in the Scottish Borders. The Orcadian malt is 40 phenol parts per million whereas that from Tamdhu and Simpsons is only 1-2ppm. Together they create the balance for which Highland Park is renowned.

Highland Park is one of only five distilleries that continue the tradition of hand-tuning malt on site. This process is very expensive and labour intensive – which is why most distillers have long since abandoned the practice.

Regarding the peat:

Samples of Orkney peat have relatively more carbohydrate derivatives whereas those from Islay have lignin derivatives more prevalent. Overall the conclusion is that there is a different chemical fingerprint in the peat which will probably make a difference to the overall flavour of the whisky.

It is no exaggeration to say that peat is the terroir of (island) whiskies. The smokey notes of Highland Park come from this degenerating plant material that is prevalent on the islands of Scotland. The peats of Orkney are some 9,000 years old (younger than those of Islay) and the deepest bogs are at most four metres deep. Highland Park takes its peat from selected banks on Hobbister Moor, combining cuttings taken from three distinct levels to create the required character. Fogg; the top layer, approximately 1,800 years old is taken from just below the surface is rich in heather and rootlets. Yarphie; the darker, more compacted second layer generates less smoke and more heat. Moss; the deepest and, therefore, oldest layer (approx 9,000 years) is lumpen and almost coal-like.

Following are my tasting notes taken during from a recently purchased bottle of the newer "flask" shaped variety pictured above. I can't speak to specific variations in flavors/quality over time other than to say that every bottle of HP that I've had at any age has the unmistakable richness and complexity that I've come to treasure from this distillery.

Tasting Notes
Medium amber
Delicate peat, apricot, oak, sherry. Staggering depth and complexity.
Medium-to full-bodied. Incredible roundness and balance of flavors. Begins sweet and honey-accented, then waves of rich smoke, flamed bitter orange peel and sherry follow.
Long, rich, round.

Overall impression and notes: Michael Jackson famously described Highland Park as being the "greatest all-rounder" in the world of malt whisky. There is no question about that. This malt fires on all cylinders - it is all at once characterful, balanced, sweet, smoky, and sherry-accented with some delicious fruit flavors. None of these elements dominate, but rather they're all there in equal measure as part of the overall symphony of flavors.

It's a masterpiece - deep in complexity and worthy of being a permanent fixture in any respectable Scotch collection. This is absolutely the single best under-$40 spirit in the world.

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