Tasting on the wings of the eagle...

Posted by John Shearlock on

The Highland Park Vertical

It was a tasting that took us to the very heart of the Orkneys. Here the Scottish highlands cascade into the sea to rise again as a small archipelago where the relentless battering of the North Sea spray has prevented trees from ever establishing. It’s Scotland alright, but the Norse culture tells a slightly different tale to Scotland’s usual and somehow these factors are reflected in the whisky - or so it is said. The treeless peat is certainly different from your typical common or garden peat, formed mainly from scrub and heather which gives the whiskies a gentle fragrance that combines with the slow ferment driven malt to create a lift which is underpinned by citrus. The wood regime at HP is also strict - no ex bourbon since 2004 only ex sherry from European and American air dried casks, creating a consistency of house style that begs to be tested in a vertical tasting. And of course this is what we did…

The lineup…

  • Highland Park Einar Single Malt 40%
  • Signatory Unnamed Orkney 2005 Ucf 10 Yo 46%
  • Highland Park Voyage of the Raven 41.3%
  • Highland Park 16yo Wings of the Eagle 44.5% 
  • Highland Park 12yo 40%
  • Mystery whisky - Ardbeg 19yo Traig Bhan 46.2%
  • Highland Park Dark Origins 46.8%

As we worked through the lineup - the house style quickly became apparent. The nosing across seven blind whiskies was impressive, with depth and complexity and a sense of class - notes of dusty fruit, heather and citrus popping up frequently. The whiskies smelt clean, well made, restrained - and spoke of the quality new make for which HP is famous.

The opening pair were Einar and Signatory’s Unnamed Orkney - which is believed to be from HP (as opposed to Scapa) and on the night, seemed to fit right into the lineup. These two set us on a fruity footing with lashings of green apples that were balanced by vanilla and cut grass and, surprisingly, had most of us thinking bourbon. The fragrant peat was there too - underpinning the malt cleverly and offering effortless complexity and balance.

Then, the voyage of the Raven took us on a journey through plumes of smoke before we landed in fields of figs and rye and took off our leather riding gloves. Again, the package felt very complete, delivered with an ethereal elan - a style that many blends aspire to but seldom meet. 

The gloves were quickly back on as The Wings of the Eagle delivered us our first glimpse at real aged elegance. This whisky was a cracker, with dusty spices and vanilla giving us a glimpse of quality oak but unencumbered by any sense of heavy sherry or bourbon. This was all about the clean malt once again and deft touches of aged receded peat - something we would be hoping for later from the night’s mystery whisky, but which failed to materialise. 

But before we hit the mystery, there was time for a brief interlude with one of the all time classic whiskies, courtesy of the Highland Park 12 year old. Dubbed the best all round whisky by some critics, it was somewhat overshadowed on the night - especially sitting next to the 16 year old - however its soft and ever so gentle feel had many picking it as a high age statement whisky, proof that it punched above its weight in many ways. This may not be the world’s best whisky, but is a great introduction to single malt whisky. Its clean malt and hints of peat show a multitude of regional styles, all seemingly wrapped up in one clever whisky.

And this brings us to our mystery which finally revealed itself as the latest addition to the Ardbeg core range - Traig Bhan 19 year old. This whisky stood out like a sore thumb - a sore thumb to which iodine has been applied before being wrapped in a plaster. Its 19 years of age had done little to soften the meaty Islay peat, and had taken the whisky in a new direction - one of savoury olives, tapenade and taramasalata. It divided the room (there’s always one) and scored poorly on the first night, to then redeem itself on the second, ultimately finishing third. Love it or hate it - it got chins wagging and its slot on the board was quickly full of outlandish descriptors. Say what you will about peat, it certainly gives something to latch onto - a bit like decent sherry for that matter?

And which offers a clever segue to the final whisky - the grande finale in this case. Dark origins lived up to its name - the darkest of the whiskies in the glass, it immediately spoke of sherry casks following on with aromas and flavours of marmalade and meat broth, chocolate and treacle. Once again, the clever lick of peat lifted it, removing any sense of heavy-handed cloying sweetness and making it really rather smart. There’s something about peat and sherry when done properly and minimally. One thinks of Hazelburn 13yo (now 14) from Springbank’s unpeated division, but which oozes peat once you’ve spotted it, and many an un-peated Bunnahabhain where just a suggestion of peat and a glimmer of the coast through the clouds from the sea still remains. 

That’s the thing about whisky, once you’ve tasted a few - it’s the hidden subtleties, those that need to be coaxed out which really make a whisky sing. Big peat, big sherry - both great in time and place - but if you really want to sit down and drink a whisky - subtlety, sophistication and mystery will often win the day, and these Highland Park whiskies certainly had this.

The scores…

  • Highland Park Dark Origins 46.8% - 1st - 8.79
  • Highland Park 16yo Wings of the Eagle 44.5% - 2nd - 7.97
  • Mystery whiksy - Ardbeg 19yo Traig Bhan 46.2% - 3rd - 7.66 
  • Highland Park Einar Single Malt 40% - 4th - 7.44
  • Highland Park Voyage of the Raven 41.3% - 5th - 7.29
  • Highland Park 12yo 40% - 6th - 7.23
  • Signatory Unnamed Orkney 2005 Ucf 10 Yo 46% - 7th - 6.85


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