Slàinte mhath, Dad!
In honor of this upcoming Father’s Day in general and my father in particular, here’s a review of perhaps his favorite whisky. I don’t remember exactly when my dad started to drink Highland Park, but it was a while ago. I think the bottles and labels have gone through at least four or five major changes in the span since he first poured me a glass. For all intents and purposes, Highland Park 12 Year Old feels like our family’s house whisky, no matter whose house we’re in. And my dad, ever the good steward of tradition, tends to make sure there’s a bottle on hand no matter whose house we’re in. Though, I’m sure he’d happily admit that’s for his sake as much as anyone else’s. So, yeah, this one is a perennial favorite, it pre-dates my more arch and absurd interest in whisky, and still brings a smile to my face each and every time I splash a bit around a glass.
That said, we don’t often stray from the 12 Year Old. Back when they were more affordable, the 18 year old and 15 year old got some play, but today, the 15 year old is no more, and the 18 year old is reserved for much more special occasions thanks to its hefty leap up in price. Oh sure, there’ve been dabblings in things like Dark Origins and Magnus, but typically, we tend to just stay put with the 12 year old. Highland Park themselves have been a bit more, shall we say, adventurous and prolific. Over the years, the Edrington-owned brand has moved from a wide, yet somewhat stoic age range that ranged from 10 years to 40 years, to a hard-to-keep-up-with rebrand and expansion that includes age-stated bottles, no-age-stated bottles, special vintage bottles, limited release bottles, anniversary bottles, and travel retail bottles.
Thanks to the distillery’s home on Orkney Island, Highland Park has always embraced its Norse heritage. Orkney spent a fair amount of time under Norwegian rule, from 875 AD to 1472 to be exact, and many of the Islands’ place names still have a bit of Nordic flair. The founder of the distillery, or at least, the guy that was distilling illegal spirit in roughly the same place the distillery sits now, was named Magnus Eunson and was also reportedly of Scandinavian descent. I mean Viking descent. In the early 2010’s the company released the Valhalla series which stepped up the Norse influence further, and that aesthetic grew from there. The latest re-design and re-brand came in 2017, and for this one Highland Park just went full fucking Viking. With names like “Viking Pride,” “Valkyrie,” and “Sigurd,” most of the brand’s titled releases have a Norse-themed name and a rather busy bottle design.
To be honest, trying to keep up with multitudinous releases Highland Park has trotted out in recent years has felt like being a nervously swimming Pict trying to keep up with a Viking longboat. Thankfully, they’ve not abandoned their age statement bottles. Even more thankfully, the flagship of the line, this Highland Park 12 Year Old Viking Honour has, other than that Viking honour bit, reportedly remained more or less the same. Or at least it’s tried to remain as consistent as a whisky can in these days of dwindling old stocks and age consolidation. Highland Park still malts approximately 20% of its barley requirement in-house. More importantly, all the in-house maltings are still peated with that distinct Orcadian peat. To hear the experts tell it, peat on Orkney has more decomposed heather than, say, Islay peat which consists of more decomposed wood. But the difference is apparent even to non-experts like myself. Islay peat gives a whisky that distinct medicinal, petrol-y, tarry edge, whereas Orkney peat is more floral and earthy. If you’re into numbers, it might interest you to know that Highland Park’s malt is peated at approximately 20 parts per million (PPM). Though after being blended with the non-peated malt, that number drops to between 4 and 6 ppm. Compare that with an Islay whisky like Laphroaig or Ardbeg (around 45ppm and 55ppm, respectively) and you get an idea of the role peat plays in this particular whisky. As far as I know, Highland Park still uses ex-sherry casks for the majority of its maturation. Usually, these will be American oak casks which have been “seasoned” with Oloroso sherry for just a few months.
The Nose: Gentle and at first glance, understated…and so, so comforting and familiar. There’s very floral honey and hard, underripe Bartlett pears, along with a bit of pithy orange, and just a hint of Sweetarts candy. Behind that, there’s sticky, spiced holiday fruitcake with a faint whiff of yeasty, crusty bread. At this point, the peat and smoke are just a subtle, earthy, greenish note tucked in the background. The oak is quite subdued, worn, polished boards with some allspice, baker’s chocolate, candied ginger, and fine ground black pepper.
The Palate: The palate has a thinly oily mouthfeel and is a bit more robust than the nose lets on. More floral honey and tart citrus (a bit more lemon, maybe lemon curd now). That spiced fruitcake is there as well, and it’s joined by slightly bolder, earthier peat and smoke notes. There’s dried hay and greenish woodsmoke, gunpowder tea, dried vanilla bean, and a hint of cocoa nibs. The oak looms larger, too, with grippy, tannic, polished boards and much more spice; Vietnamese cinnamon, clove, candied ginger, and that dusting of black pepper
The Finish: Medium-long. Tart citrus and cinnamon and sugar fade early leaving that tannic oak, baking spice and earthy, heathery peat and wispy smoke to linger.
Thoughts: All the Viking business and busy branding aside, this remains an essential Scotch single malt, and I’m not just saying that because, to me, HP12 just smells and tastes like home in all its various guises. I last reviewed this nearly 10 years ago, though gallons have been drunk in the meantime. I’ve learned a bit more since that first write-up, perhaps have become more cynical, and my palate has become more strict. I still think this is a fairly great all-around single malt Scotch. There’s complexity, balance, and a nice progression from start to finish. Highland Park is one of the few Scotches where their “terroir” really does stand out with that earthy, heathery, well-integrated peat. Still one of my favorites, and at around $45-$55, still a very good value. Required reading, as it were, and definitely recommended.
- “12 Year Old.” Highland Park, http://www.highlandparkwhisky.com/product/12-year-old/.
- Broom, Dave. “Peat Terroir and Its Impact on Whisky | Scotch Whisky.” Scotchwhisky.com, 18 May 2016, scotchwhisky.com/magazine/features/9292/peat-terroir-and-its-impact-on-whisky/.
- Micallef, Joe. “Highland Park: Scotland’s Northernmost Whisky.” The Whiskey Wash, 13 Feb. 2017, thewhiskeywash.com/whiskey-styles/scotch-whiskey/highland-park-scotlands-northernmost-whisky/.
- “Our Whisky.” Highland Park, http://www.highlandparkwhisky.com/our-whisky/.
- Ronde, Ingvar. Malt Whisky Yearbook 2016: the Facts, the People, the News, the Stories. MagDig Media, 2015.
- “Viking Roots.” Highland Park, http://www.highlandparkwhisky.com/viking-roots/.