Highland Park, located on the largest of the Orkney islands, is one of the most iconic of all Scottish distilleries, renowned for a range of whiskies with significant sherry cask influence; indeed, I believe, though I hope to be corrected if wrong, that all official distillery bottlings are from ex-sherry casks (there are ex-bourbon cask bottlings available from some independents). Their regular range currently encompasses a 12 year old, a 15 year old (apparently being phased out) and a 18 year old–all at 43%. At the high end they also put out a 25 yo and a 30 yo, and if you are very wealthy, a 40 yo–these are at cask strength.
Of late they have also begun to put out a number of highly silly and overpriced lines of “limited” bottlings playing up the Orkneys’ historical Norse connections (I put “limited” in quotes because the bottle runs of these seem to run into the tens of thousands). The most recent of these, the Thor and the Loki, come in wooden presentation boxes that are designed to look like the prows of Viking longships and are likely produced at a cost higher than that of the regular 12 yo. Yet, I give Highland Park a pass on this folly because a) they are one of my very favourite distilleries and my principles are always countermanded by sentiment and b) their regular line is so dependable and so reasonably priced: it is a cliche to say that the 12 yo is the great all-rounder of the single malt world, but it is true; and the 18 yo remains great value for money even as its price has edged above $100 in most American markets. These days the 15 yo may be my favourite of the three affordable teenagers, but it is getting harder and harder to find.
The bottle I am reviewing today is from a single cask, specially selected by Beltramo’s, an excellent whisky store located in San Francisco. While the label does not specify I would hazard that this was a first-fill Oloroso sherry cask. It was originally released in 2005, a time when a number of high-quality Highland Park casks were released by American stores–Binny’s released three older casks the same year. Despite a very strong review from Serge Valentin, the dean of online whisky reviewers, this Beltramo’s bottling seems to have hung around for a long time. I got my bottle in 2011 (it has since sold out). I consider myself very lucky.
Highland Park 19, 1986 (Cask 2498 for Beltramo’s, 53.8%; from my own bottle, opened 1.5 years ago and now approaching the halfway mark)
Nose: Classic ex-Oloroso nose. Raisins, salt, dried fruit (apricots, plums). Graphite, wood shavings. Salt and spice begin to come to the fore with time, along with the faintest hints of dried apricots and marmalade. A bit of candied ginger, perhaps. Really lovely stuff, and I haven’t added water yet. Gets quite (kalamata olive) briny with time and some mouth-watering gunpowder notes emerge as well. Three tiny drops of water and a little swirl of the glass and the nose becomes brighter almost immediately, even acidic. I could nose this for an hour; it’s really quite lovely and dynamic. Thirty minutes later, we have a perfectly balanced melange of brandied raisins, smoked pork belly and fragrant wood.
Palate: All that stuff from the nose is on the palate and uncoils slowly on it. Some savoury gunpowder (very mild) and a hint of leather armchair and some sort of savoury fruit jam. The mouth-feel is soft and velvety and there is no alcohol burn at all. Still, I’ll add some water to record what happens: as on the nose, a few drops of water make everything brighter; a little more tannic on the palate now, but nothing offensive; a little more minerally. The gunpowder note does expand with water.
Finish: long, but no real development from the palate. The salt lingers, especially with water.
Comments: Exemplary sherried Highland Park and I wish I’d bought more than one bottle before Beltramo’s ran out. It seems unlikely that store-selected special bottlings of Highland Park of this quality will ever be available in the US again (certainly not at this price: I paid just over $100 for this, and it was likely cheaper on initial release).
Rating: 91 points.