Learning about the process of whisky-making is one reason to take a distillery tour, but we all know that the real name of the game is the post-tour tasting. Any day spent sampling a range of whiskies is a special one in our books. Throw in the chance to try 25-, 30- and 40-year-old expressions, and you’ve got a once in a lifetime drinking experience.
Our recent visit to the Highland Park distillery in the Scottish Archipelago of Orkney concluded with a special tasting session of the famed Single Malt maker’s entire line of core expressions, lead by brand heritage manager Patricia Retson. It’s worth noting that each member of the lineup deserves to be savored over the course of an evening, preferably next to a roaring fire with some Wynton Marsalis on the Hifi. Trying them in one sitting, back to back, is the equivalent of dining on a buffet of Kobe. Here, you’ll find some brief notes on the seven different bottles sampled, hastily scrawled between drams.
Highland Park 12 Year Old
The entry level offering in Highland Park’s core lineup is a solid weekend whisky. It’s fairly floral by Single Malt standards, with a satisfying peppery finish and a freshness that those who prefer younger whiskies will enjoy. For the best flavor, let it air out for at least 10 minutes before drinking.
Highland Park 15 Year Old
The middleman in the youthful side of the core expression lineup stands apart from it’s brothers in that it’s made from whisky aged predominantly in American oak sherry casks vs. the Spanish oak sherry casks found in the 12- & 18-year-old expressions. At only 43% ABV, it deserves to be tried neat. Like the 12, it has a sweetness, but its oily body is more pronounced, as are stronger wood flavors.
Highland Park 18 Year Old
This is a favorite special occasion dram for many single malt fans. Like the 12, its character stems from Spanish oak. Some say paying the extra $10 to step up from the 15 to the 18 will always be an easy decision, but that really depends on your preference for wood. It’s very well balanced, with a salty and smoky element that’s accentuated by the few extra years; hints of grass and apples also stand out. Add a dash of water to bring out additional sweeter tastes like vanilla and honey.
Highland Park 21 Year Old
Highland Park 21 originally started life as duty-free only selection, but exploded in popularity after it was named the Best Single Malt of the Year at the World Whisky Awards in 2009. It was such a surprise success that the ABV was lowered to 40% to keep up with demand. In 2012, the expression returned to its original strength as a new member of HP’s core line up. It’s a sophisticated, smoky dram that layers toffee and chocolate on top of the apple profile noted in the 18. Expect plenty of spice at the finish. Sadly, it’s not available stateside.
Highland Park 25 Year Old
The 25 holds two claims to fame: not only was it recently called the best spirit in the world by F. Paul Pacult, but, in the spring of 2013, it was the first ever bottle to be awarded a 100 point score in the respected Ultimate Beverage Challenge. Needless to say, there’s no shortage of hype surrounding this expression. Since the 25 is made with a very high proportion of first-fill sherry casks, it’s as rich and deep as single malts come, with tastes of floral peat, leather and spice, as well as a bit of caramel and nuts. A bit of water pulls out the fruitier hints.
Highland Park 30 Year Old
Bottles of this retail for around $500 stateside, putting the spirit out of reach for most drinkers. Many tasters are surprised to discover that it’s one of, if not the sweetest whisky in the core line. In the mouth, one gets hints of light smoke and sweet, grassy heather, as well as strong showings of vanilla, marshmallow, fudge and oranges. Three decades of aging also lends incredible balance. As indicated by its score of 97 from the Beverage Tasting Institute, it’s a special whisky, preferred by many over its even older brother.
Highland Park 40 Year Old
Few distillers in the world have the longevity and stores to create a 40-year-old whisky, let alone add it as a core member of their lineup. The eldest expression in Highland Park’s permanent collection was first introduced in 2008. The extra decade comes at steep premium compared to the 30, sitting somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,500 – $2,000. That’s about right for the few other 40 year old offerings in the world. It’s darker complexion is one clear sign of its extended age, as is its noticeably heavier texture. Dark fruit coats the mouth with a sip. There’s also wood, but not as much as we expected. In many ways, it seemed as if the extra time has muted the stronger flavors of oak found in the younger expressions. The 40 year old expression is an excellent whiskey anyone should feel fortunate taste, but considering the price, it’s hard to recommend it over multiple bottles of the 30 or a half dozen of the 25. Then again, having such a bottle in your collection is about more than just taste.
Next Up: A Tour of the Highland Park Distillery
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Further Reading: Photo Essay of the Orkney Islands
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