Highland Park 12 Review: A Well Rounded Classic

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Located on Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, Highland Park is Scotland’s most northern distillery. It’s a trivial fact, but it’s one you’ll often come across when reading about Highland Park. Founded in 1798 by preacher-moonshiner Magnus Eunson, the distillery is perhaps most famous for harvesting local peat impregnated with a top layer of heather, a Scottish flower that I know only from my experiencing drinking this whisky.

I believe the purple flower is the heather.

I believe the purple flower is the heather.

Highland Park has a fantastic reputation, with whisky critic Michael Jackson calling it “one of Scotland’s most outstanding distilleries.” Another critic, Ian Buxton, holds a special reverence for the place, allotting the distillery four entries in his “101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die.”

Tradition reins at Highland Park, where the distillery retains a malting floor that accounts for 20 percent of its requirements, according to Whisky Advocate, where wet barley is laid out to germinate and turned by hand. Highland Park smokes the barley from its malting floor with local peat to between 35 and 55 parts per million, according to the magazine, and mixes that with 80 percent unpeated barley purchased elsewhere. The whisky is generally aged in oloroso sherry casks.

The distillery is owned by Edrington Group, who also own the prized Macallan, as well as the popular Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark blends.

Tasting Notes

The nose gives of an aroma of sherry and oranges laced with light smoke. It has a sweet mustiness about it, which from my readings appears to be the influence of peat packed with heather. Again, I’ve never smelled this flower, but that’s what many describe as a unique characteristic of Highland Park’s whiskies.

Once you’re sipping it, it’s the orange notes and the gentle smoke on the finish that are easiest to pick out, but at points maybe some honey and that floral quality (heather?) continues to hang around as well. Despite the citrus-honey thing, this isn’t a sweet whisky. It’s elegant, yet solid, holding the floral-orange-smoke thing together in balance.

My Take

It took me a while to totally warm up to the Highland Park 12 year, but it’s now become one of my go-to bottles for an everyday, after dinner drink. It’s not “too” anything — not too smokey, not too sweet, not too malty, not too sherried. Having first gotten into Scotch via the peated whiskies of Islay, then the sherry bombs of Speyside, Highland Park’s balance of several subtle flavors didn’t immediately appeal to me. It felt undefined. But with time, I’ve come to prefer more subtle approaches to whisky and this fits the bill nicely. It’s also a bottle that does well with a little bit of time to oxidize. After the bottle’s been open a while, the orange notes define themselves more clearly.

For price-to-quality ratio and versatility (this works with cold weather or warm), Highland Park 12 year will retain spot in my liquor cabinet for the foreseeable future. Looking forward to trying the 18 year old some time soon. At a little more than $100 a bottle, the 18 year is a good bit pricier than what I normally buy, but almost universally regarded as a classic.

Other Takes

  • Jason Delby calls the Highland 12 year a “single malt whisky that cannot be ignored,” that “exemplifies all that great malts aspire to be.”
  • Whisky Advocate scored it a solid 90 back in 2012, though it bears mentioning that they reviewed a bottling at 40 percent, while in New York stores these days is bottled at 43 percent.
  • Scotch Noob thinks a little less of it. Though he’s a big fan of the 18 year, he’d rather spring for an Islay like Laphroaig or a more toned down Scotch like Auchentoshan than spend time with the 12 year. I don’t necessarily agree, but I understand how Highland Park’s balancing act could easily alienate though looking for a more aggressive malt.

Have a look at Highland Park distillery in the video from Drink Spirits below.

Images by Martin Deutsch @ Flickr and Carron Brown @ Flickr.

Whisky File

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