The Unique Characteristics of Highland Park Whisky: What Sets It Apart
Whisky is always full of surprises. Consider how local most whisky is. Whiskies are expressions of local barley, local spring water and a very particular microclimate. Yet, that is highly misleading.
It’s misleading because a large part of whisky’s flavour comes from its maturation in seasoned casks. As Gordon Motion, Master Whisky Maker at Highland Park, says: ‘A mediocre whisky in an excellent cask will come out good. An excellent whisky in a poor cask will come out bad.’
These casks may come from America or Europe. They may be seasoned with Bourbon or Sherry.
Truly, whisky is a product of the world. Yet, Highland Park is in a class of its own because it was founded by a Viking.
The Vikings and the Highland Park Whisky Experience
Yes, it’s true. In 1789, Magnus Eunson, a descendant of Vikings founded Highland Park Distillery. The distillery embraces its Viking roots and many of its whiskies have a Viking theme with names like Viking Honour and Viking Pride. This is no mere marketing ploy.
Viking heritage and culture are a significant part of the Orkney Islands’ identity. It can be seen in various aspects of local culture, language, history, and place names.
The Orkney Islands are located off the northeastern coast of the Scottish mainland, making Highland Park distillery the most northern distillery in Scotland. This, unfortunately, made Orkney the first port of call for Viking raiders.
The Vikings began raiding and settling the islands around the late 8th century. They established a Norse Earldom in Orkney, which became a strategic base for Viking expansion and raids into Scotland, Ireland, and further afield.
It was only in In 1468, that the Orkney Islands became part of Scotland as part of a marriage agreement between King James III of Scotland and Princess Margaret of Denmark.
So, we can agree that Highland Park has deep and real Viking roots. Now, the history and branding of a whisky are important, but we want to show that the uniqueness of Highland Park whisky is much deeper than history.
The Magic Peat of Orkney – The Characteristics of Highland Park Whisky
The real characteristics of Highland Park whisky lie in the use of highly distinctive peat and an investment in truly exceptional Sherry casks, but first, let’s talk about wind and whisky flavour.
Orkney, regularly, has winds of 70 to 80 miles an hour. The high winds mean that there are very few trees on the Islands. This means that the peat used in Highland Park whisky is made from a low-growing shrub that hasn’t got any woody material in it. That has an enormous effect on flavour.
When Highland Park Distillery burns its peat, it gets a very floral, smoky character that comes through in the whisky.
The peat’s unique composition sets Highland Park Distillery apart from other distilleries, as most mainland Scottish peat lacks the same heather influence.
The gentle, subtle nature of the peatiness allows for the influence of Sherry casks – unlike deeply peated whiskies – and this is where Highland Park Distillery truly distinguishes itself.
Sherry Casks – Giving Highland Park Whisky its Distinctiveness
While other distilleries may use a mix of Bourbon and Sherry casks, Highland Park has been committed for years to using exclusively Sherry-seasoned casks, and they have done something remarkable.
For some time now, it has been difficult to source Sherry casks in the UK, so Highland Park Distillery has gone into partnership with Sherry bodegas and Sherry cooperages. They make, toast and season casks to Highland Park’s specifications.
As Gordon Motion says, ‘We know exactly how they’ve been made because they’ve been made for us.’ This reveals a real investment and dedication to the distillery’s mission of creating the finest whisky.
They have even gone so far as to import American oak for their partners. This is a company that takes Sherry oak maturation seriously.
We have spoken much about the international nature of Highland Park. Let’s end with something local; something that sets Highland Park whisky apart.
A Unique Microclimate
Despite the intense winds, the Orkney Islands have surprisingly moderate temperatures. The temperature moves just between the narrow band of 0 °C to 17 °C.
Compare that with Speyside where it is more extreme, moving between -28 °C to 28 °C.
This means the whisky is not expanding or contracting as much i.e. not getting pushed into the cask and pulled out of it as much. This means you get a much slower, more even maturation.
Highland Park Distillery – Home of a Balance between Sweet and Spicy
Gordon Motion has made a virtue of avoiding the extremes of peated whisky. His is a whisky of balance and flavour. Extreme peatiness – for him – is like ‘an instrument and band playing too loud.’
All the above means that a Highland Park Whisky is a much more relaxed balance of sweet and spicy and has a lovely floral smoky character.
If you would love a relaxing and intriguing whisky, visit our Highland Park page, where you can find some of Highland Park’s finest and most select whiskies.