The Lore and Lure of Highland Park

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been recently revisiting the whiskies of Highland Park with great relish after a long absence of Orkney blood in my veins. I remember being a young, up and coming whisky buyer back in the day and hearing all these veteran drinkers clammer about how good the island distillery was—its inherent complexity, its potential for greatness, and its status as a top-tier single malt in the greater world of Scotch whisky. For me, however, Highland Park was never one of my favorites. 


I don't know. Maybe I was looking beyond the obvious. Maybe I was contrarian in nature as a more youthful drinker. Maybe I just didn't get it. What matters is: I'm getting it now.

The evolution of the palate is an interesting thing. In most cases, at least from my experience, drinkers tend to move from bold and obvious flavors to more nuanced and discreet complexity over time. That's how I've evolved as a wine drinker, and my development is decisively similar to that of my colleagues as well. When it comes to whisky these days, rarely am I looking for power. Much like I'm turned off by some blowhard who can't shut up (the irony isn't lost on me there), I'm similarly less enthused by whiskies that are all punch and no prowess. It's for that reason that I found myself utterly charmed this week by a whisky I had previously written off: the Highland Park 12 year. The combination of ripe and supple stone fruits, bolstered by creamy vanilla and just a whisper of peat, is just what I've been looking for as of late because it's all so well integrated. As I pondered previously: is the HP 12 really that good, or am I just being bombarded by mediocrity as of late? It's hard to know for sure, but either way I'm happy so who really cares?

When I saw the new Highland Park "Valkyrie" show up this week, I was really curious to see how it compared. Historically, I've not been intrigued by the distillery's viking mythology series. I've spent countless hours in the Heathrow duty free shop looking at the Valhalla bottles, wondering where the Edrington Group was going here, thinking the heritage of a legendary brand was getting caught up in too much legendary heritage. All of this lore regarding the history of Orkney and the vikings that once dwelled there, but little talk of the whisky itself—and for a premium, no less! I tend to tune out that noise and look elsewhere when limited edition bottles like that are released. However, when they're under $75, I'm open to discussion. 

Highland Park's new Valkyrie edition, much like its previous releases, is long on viking mythology and short on specifics, but that doesn't mean it doesn't taste good. I did a side by side comparison with the 12 and 18 year this week and felt that—as a middle ground between the two—the whisky holds up quite well for the $70 price. More importantly, it tastes like the best parts of both. While the 12 year is light and fruity, the classic 18 year is remarkedly more sherried. With the Valkyrie, you get the malty, lightly-peated texture of the 12 with some of the rancio, cakebread, and richness of the 18. From what I understand, about half of the barley used in the Valkyrie was peated, which is higher than what's used in the 12 and 18. That extra kick helps to mask any rawness from the whisky's younger components and was clearly a good move.

On the finish is a wave of dark chocolate and earth from the sherry, bolstered by more smoke. The packaging is nicely revamped and marks the beginning of a complete make-over for the entire portfolio. I'm normally not one to write whisky reviews like this in the classic sense, but given the all-or-nothing reviews I've read thus far online, it seems people either hate this whisky because of its NAS (non age statement) status and consider it pure marketing, or completely love it and think it tastes great. I thought I'd chime in. As someone who in the past has avoided Highland Park for those former criticisms, I have to say I'm with the latter group of drinkers in this particular case. I think the Valkyrie tastes pretty damn good, and I'm much more inclined to appreciate the gorgeous packaging and the mood of the messaging when I'm satisfied with the whisky itself.

I'm not at all opposed to Highland Park's new direction of viking-oriented themes and Orkney lore. In fact, I think it's an interesting approach and a smart move in terms of distinguishing the whisky amongst a younger, Game of Thrones-watching generation. What I appreciate most here is that the Valkyrie delivers its finest work on the nose and the finish, rather than on the mid-palate. These are two elements of whisky appreciation I appreciate more as I get older: how it teases my nostrils and how it comes together as a unit on the back end. There's a robust sherry aroma right out of the bottle, and sweet, concentrated hit of Oloroso richness on the finish that dries out a bit with the smoke, but clearly makes itself known. While Highland Park went heavier on Orkney's viking heritage this time around, they didn't do so at the expense of the whisky.

I'm finally coming around to Highland Park as a longtime whisky drinker. Perhaps a bit too late, but better late than never.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll