Anyone who’s bring drinking whisky for a few years now will no doubt have noticed “change”. Brands have changed their packaging and labels. Distilleries have changed their core-range or introduced new expressions into their line-up. Prices have changed. Distillery Managers and Brand Ambassadors have changed. According to some, whisky itself has changed!
Another key area that has changed (and will continually evolve and change) is whisky’s marketing. In particular, each whisky brand’s image can change. And few brands can match the change in persona that has overcome Highland Park.
As recently as 10 years ago, Highland Park was still riding on the coat tails of some impressive sound bites and vox pops from well-known authors: “The greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky” declared Michael Jackson. “Best spirit in the world” claimed F. Paul Pacult. To whisky drinkers in-the-know, Highland Park was part of the Edrington Group and – almost by default – it shared and benefited from some of the glow emanating from its high profile stablemate in Macallan.
However, times move on and distilleries need to stand on their own two feet. Edrington is to be commended for forging Highland Park in new directions and endowing it with a very unique identity. With the category booming and becoming increasingly crowded in more recent years, each brand now has to fight and shout for its place on the shelf. Any little point of difference is worth clinging to or making a virtue of, and so Highland Park has latched on to one aspect that no other distillery (well, perhaps one) can claim: A Viking connection.
For those who haven’t joined the dots, Highland Park is Scotland’s most northerly distillery and is on Orkney – an island (or, more accurately, an archipelago) that makes no apology for claiming Viking allegiances. Orkney was invaded and annexed by Norway in 875, and subsequently settled by the Norse. It was returned to Scotland in 1472 but, even now, much of the island group is said to identify more with Scandinavian culture than Scotland’s. (Another way to consider this is that, looking back across the last eleven centuries, Orkney has been Nordic longer than it has been Scottish!). Indeed, even Orkney’s flag bears the Scandinavian cross and very closely resembles the flag of Norway.
Over the last few years, Highland Park’s bottled expressions have developed a decidedly Viking theme. Whilst the names of some other brands are relying increasingly on Gaelic names, phrases, and imagery, recent Highland Park offerings bear such names as Magnus, Valkyrie, Svein, Einar, Harald, Sigurd, Ragnvald, Thorfinn, and the likes of Leif Eriksson.
Even Highland Park’s Senior Brand Ambassador is billed as Martin “The Viking” Markvardsen! And, whilst that might sound a bit twee or gimmicky on the surface, it seems a perfect fit once you meet the man. And meet the man we did, with Martin recently in Australia to spruik the Highland Park gospel. Martin is – surprise, surprise – Danish by birth and breeding, and yet his accent has clearly been tainted by the lilting tongue of Orcadian conversation.
The good folks at Spirits Platform in Australia brought Martin out to Australia to showcase the Highland Park range, and a fantastic night of whisky, tales, and food was convened at Mjolner. Mjolner is a viking-themed whisky bar in Sydney, and the setting and cuisine was the perfect environment to explore a selection of Highland Park’s offerings. Whisky and Wisdom has travelled to Orkney five times over the years and visited the distillery each time, and it was incredible how simply nosing the humble 10yo instantly transports you back to the distillery.
The line up for the evening consisted of the following:
- 10yo (Matured in American oak sherry casks)
- 12yo (Matured in European oak sherry casks, 20% of which are 1st-Fill)
- 18yo (Matured in European oak sherry casks, 45-50% of which are 1st-Fill)
- Valkyrie (NAS, 45.9% ABV, featuring four different cask types and an increased peating level of 45ppm)
- Fire (15yo, 45.2% ABV, matured in Port wine casks)
- Ice (17yo, 53.9% ABV, matured in 100% 1st-Fill American oak ex-bourbon casks)
There are a few points worth noting about Highland Park that would go unnoticed if not mentioned here: Firstly, Highland Park proudly proclaims that no caramel (E150) is used in their bottlings, so the colour is all natural. Secondly, cask is king….the Edrington Group spent £35M on wood last year alone. And, on possibly a more trivial note, Orkney’s climate results in a lower average angel’s share, typically at just 0.5-1.0% per annum. One conclusion from this is that whisky takes longer to mature on Orkney; another is simply that there’s more whisky left in the cask for the rest of us to enjoy!
The beauty of a vertical tasting is that you gain tremendous perspective on the distillery’s DNA, and how the spirit’s character is shaped and influenced in different ways by both age and cask type. The 10yo was seemingly a complete and perfect whisky in its own right. And, yet, the 12yo showcased how European oak injects more spice and a richer mouthfeel. To be fair, the 12yo has been a little inconsistent over the last 10 years, but the current release is back on song again – it is a tremendous dram. Raising the stakes, the 18yo strikes that perfect balance of richness and luxury, without being overly expensive or too dominated by oak. The mouthfeel is silky and the flavours fuse all of Highland Park’s famed characteristics of smoke, honey, heather, and spice.
Valkyrie was an eye-opener and presents Highland Park in a new light that few will have experienced. The first instalment in a new trilogy of limited editions known as the Viking Legend series, Valkyrie features a more heavily peated malt, peated to 45ppm. Bottled at a higher strength of 45.9%, it is concocted from four different cask types: Refill casks, American oak ex-bourbon casks, American oak ex-sherry casks, and European oak ex-sherry casks. The peat manifests itself in a more floral smoke which is significantly more evident on the palate than it is on the nose. The sweetness and spice are also incredibly alluring, throwing up contrasting yet simultaneous notes of white chocolate and white pepper. It’s sweet, peaty, offers some jam & fruit notes, and is all wrapped up in a wonderful velvety mouthfeel. The finish is exceptionally complex and satisfying – this was easily the most interesting, and arguably the most enjoyable whisky of the night. Valkyrie is a limited edition and will be available in Australia next year.
Fire is the first Highland Park to be matured 100% in port wine casks (it’s not a finish) and – after fifteen years in the wood – it’s a wonderfully balanced, rounded and integrated whisky. Less of a whisky for analysing and pulling part, this dram lends itself to enjoyable and satisfying quaffing.
Ice is instantly a step up on the palate, helped obviously by the increased ABV of 53.9%. Not surprisingly, the cask regime of 100% 1st-Fill American oak ex-bourbon casks results in a sweet flavour profile that showcases vanilla, coconut, and pineapple. And, with 17 years under its belt, the oak influence results in a slightly drier experience. It’s a wonderful expression of Highland Park, and gives great insight into the distillery’s character when sherry and European oak are removed.
This was a wonderful tasting, and Martin is an informative and entertaining presenter. More critically, the event was a very welcome return to the whisky tastings and promotional efforts that brands and distributors regularly practiced 10-15 years ago: Devoid of multimedia or digital wizardry, we simply sat and listened attentively to an expert who led the room through a vertical tasting and shared some insights into the distillery and its production methods – all concluding with a delicious dinner and joyful vibe of Scottish/Viking hospitality. Simple, effective, and enjoyable. Full marks and sincere thanks to Spirits Platform, Stellar Concepts PR, Daniel Hutchins-Read, and Martin Markvardsen.
It’s been a long time since Michael Jackson first declared Highland Park as being the greatest all-rounder. On tonight’s evidence, his words still ring true – the distillery offers a little bit of everything for the whisky enthusiast: Malt, spice, peat, smoke, sweetness and oak. No wonder the Vikings want Orkney back.