I toured Highland Park this June and it turned out to be one of the better tours I’ve been on. But when planning the trip I’d not planned to tour it at all. This because I’d read numerous reports from whisky geeks about the experience at the distillery being soulless and so on. As all of this seemed of a piece with the relentless premiumization the owners have been engaged in for the last half-decade or more, I tended to believe it. However, when I had a drink in Edinburgh with James he recommended it highly. I still didn’t make a reservation but decided I’d give it a go if the chance presented itself once actually on Orkney. And it did.
That failure to make a reservation almost proved to be fatal, by the way. We’d started the morning at the Standing Stones of Stenness (in a field liberally covered with sheep shit) and then spent a very nice couple of hours driving to and visiting the Italian Chapel. We drove up to Kirkwall from the Italian Chapel and after visiting the cathedral and nearby historic ruins we repaired for lunch in town. We had an appointment for a tour at the neolithic site of Maeshowe later in the afternoon but there were two hours free in between. We’d thought to visit the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall together after lunch but the missus was happy to take the kids there by herself if I wanted to go to the distillery that afternoon instead of the next morning. I tried calling them to see if there was a spot available on a tour but no one picked up. I decided to drive over anyway.
The distillery is at the south end of Kirkwall, literally right next to the road heading out of town. There’s a large parking lot across the road from it. When I got out of the car there was a gale force wind blowing. It almost blew my cellphone out of my hands when I tried to take a selfie in front of the distillery gates! It kept up all afternoon. At Maeshowe I asked our excellent guide if this was a particularly bad afternoon of wind and he said that it wasn’t unremarkable but also nowhere close to the windiest of days they get. Well, I’m glad it wasn’t any windier! The wind saved me from tour disappointment too. Unlike a couple of people who were ahead of me entering the distillery grounds, I went straight to the Visitor Centre to escape the wind and managed to snag one of two remaining spots on the next tour (which was also the only tour remaining that afternoon with open spots). This meant disappointment for the pair who eventually came in behind me but I was not moved to offer my spot.
While waiting for the tour I wandered the Visitor Centre/shop and while it’s very snazzy indeed, I did not find it to be the soulless space I’d heard about. It’s far less antiseptic certainly than at Talisker or even Glen Grant or Glenfiddich, if not quite as characterful as at Lagavulin. They do sell a lot of clothes and non-whisky things but there are some old bottles and the like to gawk at as well. There’s also a circular tasting bar at one end where tours conclude with the tasting portion. Beyond this area is a little auditorium which is the scene of the only part of the tour that is not very good. Yes, the tour begins with a repetitive marketing film (much of the content of which is then further repeated by the tour guide). I should also mention that in a bit of ridiculous meanness the distillery makes those who are driving buy a 4-pack of cheap plastic bottles for carrying one small tasting sample away. Yes, it only costs £1 and did not break my wallet but, on the other hand, I’m not sure why they can’t swallow that £1 either, especially considering they’re making you buy more crappy bottles than needed. On the plus side, the tour (I took the basic one at £10) comes with a Highland Park tasting glass.
Anyway, once the tour proper began, things improved sharply. Highland Park is one of the few distilleries that still has operational malting floors and the tour begins there. Two staff members were actually at work laying out and spreading the barley and it was nice to see the work in progress. From there you go through the production process in the exact same order that you do at all distilleries: you see the kilns, the mash tun and washbacks and then the stills. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Highland Park allow photography everywhere on tours except inside the still house—but you are welcome to photograph the stills from just outside the doors. From there we were taken to Warehouse No. 3, which is a dunnage warehouse (they have racked warehouses as well). There’s some talk here about different types of casks etc. which was very interesting for non-whisky obsessed members of our tour group; no new information for those of us who’ve wasted our lives, however.
At the very end you return to the Visitor Centre and normally the tour concludes with a small tasting around the large circular bar there. In our case, things had gone a little differently. Before the pointless film had started at the very beginning, staff had come in with little nips of whisky which they’d said was to thank us for coming out on such a blustery day. At the end, however, we discovered that that had taken the place of the post-tour tasting! Anyway, it was no skin off my nose as I had the privilege anyway of carting that little sample away in the bespoke plastic sample bottle that I’d purchased. Still, it seemed like another bit of unnecessary meanness.
Here now is an excessive gallery of photographs of the distillery and the tour. Take a look and then scroll down for my thoughts on the experience as a whole and to see what’s coming next.
As I said, the marketing film that begins the tour is entirely pointless. They should dispense with that and either shrink the tour by 10 minutes or let us spend more time in the warehouses or on the malting floors or maybe add a visit to wherever the casks are filled. That aside, the tour was very good. The guide was sharp and there was no dubious content. I do wish as well that it were possible to get a taste of the wort and/or the new make—those elements were highlights of the Pulteney and Aberlour tours.
There was no fill-your-own on offer that I could see. There is a separate Tasting Room but I think that’s reserved for people doing the high-end tours, which end with “the opportunity to purchase an exclusive single cask bottling for only £120.00”. At any rate, we were not told anything about this at the shop or on the tour. I had to rush back to meet the family anyway. It turned out that like the Maritime Museum in Wick, the Orkney Museum is much smaller than you might expect it to be from reading TripAdvisor reviews which say that you can spend hours and hours in there. I picked them up and we repaired to Maeshowe, which was a very engrossing experience (despite a long walk in the unabated wind).
By the way, speaking of Orkney’s history—also on full display at the sites we visited in Kirkwall—you don’t have to spend very much time on the islands to realize how steeped in Viking/Norwegian history they are. Seeing all of that up close made me see Highland Park’s recent Viking-onslaught a little differently. In sum, I’d recommend a visit to Orkney to anyone going to the north of Scotland, and I’d certainly recommend a tour of Highland Park as well. (Thanks, James!)
Okay, two more distillery reports to go: Tomatin and then the Dornoch Distillery. After that I’ll finally post food reports from the trip and looks at a few more Edinburgh whisky shops.