Highland Park

Highland Park is, at least until the new micro Scotch distillery opens in John O’Groats in 2021, Scotland’s northernmost whisky distillery on the storm-swept Orkney Islands. Its pleasant heather and honey flavors make Highland Park, together with the delicate peat smoke, a perfect all-rounder. The Highland Park 12 years should not be missing in any whisky bar!

Highland Park Whisky

Highland Park is located in Kirkwall on the the largest of the Orkney Islands to the north of Scotland. It is currently the northernmost Scottish whisky distillery. Though not Scotland’s northernmost distillery, an honour that instead goes to the Blackwood gin distillery on the Shetland Islands.

Highland Park is a Highland distillery, despite sometimes being listed as belonging to the Islands whisky region, however the Islands are not currently a legally defined or recognised area. The Highland Park Distillery is one of the six distilleries in Scotland that only use home-grown grain and one of only a handful to continue their own, on site maltings. The distillery takes it’s name from the area called ‘High Park’ which the distillery was founded on.

House Style

What does Highland Park whisky taste like? Highland Park Whisky has a special heather character and delicate peat smoke somewhat different to mainland peated whiskies with an oily maritime note. This complements the floral notes, the fine honey sweetness, and softness normally associated with the Speyside region. Highland Park often works with sherry barrels, which gives many single malts orange notes and aromas of spicy nutmeg.

Highland Park is famous for its best-selling the 12 and 18 year old malt whisky but the distillery also releases a number of limited varieties.

Production

How is Highland Park whisky produced?As one of the few whisky distilleries, Highland Park still has its own onsite malting with traditional floor maltings. The barley is malted here and the kilns are fired with to produce a a phenol content of around 20 ppm. The peat required for this comes from the Hobbister Moor, which extends a few kilometers southwest of Mainland.

The water comes from the underground Cattie Maggie spring. The peated barley produced onsite is mixed with unpeated barley from the Scottish Highlands. The distillery has one Mash tun (11.4 t) made of stainless steel, twelve wooden washbacks (fermentation tanks) with a capacity of 29,200 litres each, two wash stills (14,600 litres each) and two spirit stills (8,500 litres each) all are heated by steam. Annual production is around 2.5 million liters, making Highland Park one of the larger distilleries in Scotland.

Highland Park was called “the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky” by the late, great, whisky evangelist Michael Jackson. In 1984, he was the only whisky ever to get a rating of 100 points from the buttons of the largest Scottish daily newspaper “The Scotsman”!

Highland Park is a very highly valued whisky due to the distillery character. In addition to blended Scotch whiskies such as Cutty Sark and The Famous Grouse, Highland Park is also used in blends such as Chivas Regal and Dimple. As a single malt whisky, Highland Park has an excellent aging potential, which is why very unusual vintage whiskies always come onto the market.

Highland Park sees five key factors that determine the quality of their whisky:

Malt turned by hand

Highland Park is one of the few distilleries in Scotland that still rely on traditional floor maltings within the distillery. Every single batch is turned into elaborate manual work. To malt the barley, the grain is first soaked in mineral water from the Crantit source before it is spread on the malting floors for germination. When the barley has reached the correct germination stage, it is placed in the high kiln where the aromatic process of peating (peat smoke) begins.

Aromatic peat smoke

One of the fundamental flavors of the Highland Park Single Malt is the delicate, sweet and aromatic peat smoke in the whisky. This has given the products their unchanged and unmistakable character since 1798. The Orkney Islands have an abundance of sweet and heather-like peat in the soil. These surface layers are approximately 4000 years old and are very carefully extracted from the Hobbister Moor. The pitted and dried peat is a mixture of textures that emphasize floral and rich heather aromas. This very dark and dense peat is added to the coal in the oven and is therefore a slow-burning material with complex aromas.

Cold Maturation

With a share of around 70% of all flavors in a single malt whisky, the types of barrels and the maturation are the most important parts of the development. The Orkney Islands have an excellent temperature curve throughout the year, which shows no real cold or too hot temperatures. Simply absolutely perfect for a long and cold maturation of the whisky for a soft character and a persistent and delicate smoky note.

Sherry oak barrels

The majority of the Scotch whisky industry relies on the cheaper and almost exclusively available ex-bourbon barrels during their maturation phases. At Highland Park it is not the rule to use these barrels. Spanish oak barrels such as butts, puncheons or hogsheads are used, in which previously dry Oloroso Sherry penetrated deep into the wood and left its aroma structure.

These gives the whisky color, spice and a lot of dried fruit character in contrast to American oak barrels which give the whisky lighter, sweeter vanilla and butterscotch aromas. The disadvantage of European sherry oak barrels is that they are significantly more expensive, but they are still used deliberately in the distillery’s foresight to preserve the well-known rich character and natural color for the maturing spirits.

Harmonization

To ensure that every single Highland Park bottle is perfect before bottling, the barrels are harmonized in advance. Each individual batch is created from a series of individually matured barrels by allowing them to combine in a large vat for a necessary time. This process can take up to six months in individual cases. The process gives the whisky complexity and an expanded balance while enjoying the noble product.

Recommendation

The standard of the distillery is the Highland Park 12 years. Its sweet and slightly smoky bouquet is refined by heather. It is underpinned by a subtle hint of vanilla and an intense maltiness, which also dominate this whisky on the palate. It is considered one of the best “standard whiskies” and should not be missing in any collection!

The Highland Park Leif Eriksson Release is also of a very special quality. honoring the true discoverer of America, the Viking Leif Eriksson. He left the Orkneys west almost 500 years before Columbus and was the first European to reach America. This whisky combines aromas of freshly cut grass with fruity elements of pears and plums and a hint of sea salt. On the palate, it seduces with a perfect blend of woody and peppery notes with vanilla and a fine sherry sweetness. The finish is followed by the fine smoky elements typical of Highland Park.

History

The origins of Scotland’s distilleries are often obscured by the myths, marketing and half-truth, nowhere is this more true than with Highland Park. According to legend, the butcher and sometime church officer Magnus Euson started to illegally produce whisky on the site of today’s distillery in 1798. In order to avoid the raids of the hated tax officials and tax collectors, who worked as priests, Euson even hid his whisky in coffins and under the altar. He was finally arrested after several successful years as a illicit distiller and, although never tried and sentenced after his arrest he disappeared from the scene. Some tellings then see the sometimes smuggler, tax officer John Robertson buy the site on which Euson previously worked in 1813. Another telling sees the distillery founded by a farmer David Robertson.

The Highland Park distillery as we know it today was not built by Robert Borwick until over a quarter of a century later in 1825 and received its official license a year later. This makes Highland Park one of the oldest legal distilleries as it was licenced only three years after the 1823 Excise Act which legalised, and taxed, distillation. The distillery passed to Borwick’s son George in 1840, and then to his brother James in 1869. James promptly sold the distillery to Miltonduff owner William Stuart who began to market their whisky internationally. From 1885 William Stuart managed Highland Park with his business partner James Grant (previously the manager of The Glenlivet) who took full control in 1895. Grant expanded the distillery adding two more stills in 1898.

The distillery was closed from 1918 to 1937 and was then taken over by the Highland Distillers Group. A visitor centre was added in 1986 and in 1999, the Highland Distillers Group was taken over by the Edrington Group who own the distiller to this day. Scapa distillery located only half a mile south, used to use the Highland Park warehouses up until the end of 2004.

Distillery Factsheet

Name Pronounced AKA Region Country of Origin
Highland Park Highlands Scotland
Status Active Whisky Type Website Tours Available
Active 1798 - Present Malt Highland Park Tour Link
Manager Distiller Blender Owned by Parent Group
Gordon Motion The Edrington Group

Highland Park Timeline:

1798: Highland Park Distillery is founded by either Magnus Eunson, David Robertson

1816: Excise officer John Robertson assumes control of production

1826: The distillery becomes one of the first to obtain a license to distill Robert Borwick takes over

1840: Borwick's eldest son George succeeded him

1869: George's brother, James, takes over and sells the distillery

1876: Exports to Norway and India begin under Stuart & Mackay

1895: Glenlivet's James Grant purchases Highland Park

1898: Grant expands the distillery to four stills

1918: Highland Park is mothballed until 1937

1937: Highland Distillers acquires Highland Park and reopens

1986: Highland Park visitors' centre opens

1999: Edrington and William Grant & Sons purchase Highland Distillers

2000: Visit Scotland awards Highland Park 'Five Star Visitor Attraction'

2013: The Warriors range is introduced to duty free