Skara Brae 10, Orkney Single Malt Whisky


As I am known for my highly timely reviews, I am pleased to present this review of a whisky whose existence I did not even know of until a few hours ago (as of this writing)—at which point I purchased a 50 ml sample immediately. It also turns out to be a whisky about which the world—or the part of it represented in Google search results and on Whiskybase—knows nothing. There are five whiskies with the name Skara Brae associated with them on Whiskybase but this is none of them. No, I purchased this at Skara Brae, the amazing neolithic archeological site on mainland Orkney—which you should really visit if you’re ever on Orkney (and take a detour from there to the Yesnaby cliffs on your way to wherever you’re going next). As you may know, almost every major tourist site in Scotland seems to have a branded whisky on offer (see here for last year’s disastrous mini purchase from Blair Castle), and this one, fittingly is described as an “Orkney Single Malt Whisky”. As neither possibility—Highland Park or Scapa—inspires fear and loathing, I decided to take a chance with £6. Let’s see if I would have been better of saving that money to buy a couple of pints of beer on the ferry back to Scrabster in a couple of days.  Continue reading

Highland Park 1998


Way back in 2010, when the whisky world was a less complicated place, Highland Park released three vintage bottles to duty-free. There was a 1990, a 1994, and this 1998. All were bottled at 40%—which is the kind of thing we grumbled about then, not knowing that a day would come when Highland Park would replace ages and vintages on their bottles with names of Vikings. I purchased my bottle of the 1998 from World of Whiskies in Heathrow in 2010. It cost $55, which I guess was pretty steep even then for an 11 yo at 40%, considering the regular 12 yo was then available for $32 in the Twin Cities and the 15 yo for a bit less than $55. I cannot remember how much the 1990 and 1994 cost. I finished my bottle a long time ago but saved a large reference sample. I then forgot all about it, and only found it while rummaging around for a Highland Park sample that I might review to mark my visit to the distillery today. I also found a sample of the 1994 that I’d received in a swap a long time ago, but, alas, that sample seemed to have deteriorated a bit in the bottle (perhaps because of the low strength). I’ve consigned the remains of that sample to one of my home vattings and have instead a review of the 1998, which has held up fine. Continue reading

Highland Park 25, 1995 Release


I’ve reviewed a number of very good whiskies this month but let’s close with something really special. This Highland Park 25 was released sometime in the mid-90s—most people say 1995 but I’m not sure if that’s confirmed (and no, I haven’t squinted at my bottle for an undecipherable code). I like to believe that it was released in 1995 because that would mean that there was distillate from 1970 in there and that’s the year I was born. (I know, this means a lot to you as well.) I opened the bottle on my 48th birthday this year—my new policy, now that I’m closer to death than birth, is to open a very special bottle on my birthday each year. This is Highland Park from well before they began to care about packaging (which started in the late 2000s and led to today’s series of embarrassments). High quality sherried whisky, not sold in a longboat or in a black bottle. It’s also from a time when you didn’t need to choose between paying your mortgage or purchasing Highland Park 25 for a special occasion. Anyway, as I’m in danger of veering into the territory of the negative—an area which, as you know, makes me very uncomfortable—I’m going to now turn to the review itself.  Continue reading

Highland Park 17, 1999, “Full Volume”


Less than a week ago, I complained in my review of an ex-bourbon cask Highland Park bottled by A.D. Rattray that the distillery itself doesn’t see fit to give us ex-bourbon Highland Park, one of the true secret pleasures of the single malt whisky world. It was very soon pointed out to me by EricH in the comments that one of the distillery’s most recent releass, Full Volume, is in fact all ex-bourbon whisky. I had actually been aware of the existence of this whisky but, as I noted, its stupid name had led me to believe that it was one more in Highland Park’s unending series of NAS whiskies, and so I’d ignored it. Lo and behold, it turns out to not only have a vintage statement but an age statement as well. It’s a 17 yo put together this year from casks distilled in 1999. And it’s at a respectable 47.2% abv. Of course, it’s also clad in extremely ridiculous packaging (a black bottle, in a box that is meant to resemble a Marshall amp) but having complained incorrectly about the lack of an official ex-bourbon Highland Park, I felt it was only right that I should check out the one that had just been released. And my decision to do that was made easier by the discovery that it’s actually priced quite reasonably—as low as $89 in Minnesota. Not cheap in the abstract, but these days an official 17 yo at a strength above 43% for less than $120 seems like a steal.  Continue reading

Highland Park 19, 1991 (Signatory)


On Wednesday I posted a review of a bourbon cask Highland Park bottled by A.D. Rattray and noted in passing that Highland Park used to be one of my favourite distilleries. I said I’d elaborate soon on why I’m more ambivalent about them now, and here I am, just two days later.

Well, it’s not for any earth-shatteringly surprising reason. Highland Park and I have both changed but they’ve changed more than I have: I’m losing hair but they’ve lost their minds. When I first started drinking single malt whisky, Highland Park put out a limited line of very good whisky at good prices in ugly bottles. In the last 15 years the bottles have got updated but in the process prices have gone up drastically (especially for their 18 yo). Their lineup has gotten more bloated than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and they increasingly seem to be designing/marketing their whisky with children in mind: an endless series of Viking-themed whiskies (too many to list), black bottles (ditto), boxes shaped like amplifiers (the new Full Volume), this abomination, the list goes on…I know we’re only supposed to care about the whisky in the bottle but it’s got to the point where it’s embarrassing to be seen buying a bottle of Highland Park. I mean, they make mid-late 2000s Bruichladdich’s output seem restrained and thoughtful.  Continue reading

Highland Park 16, 1995 (A.D. Rattray)


Okay, one last ex-bourbon review to make November an all ex-bourbon cask whisky month. Here is what else I have reviewed as part of this unintended, extended series this month: Tomatin 12, 2005, Fettercairn 23, 1993, Glencadam 15, Clynelish 12, 1997, Glen Scotia 1992-2005, Arran 1996-2013, Bowmore 10, 2003, Bladnoch 18, 1992, Aberlour 20, 1990 and Aberlour 17, 1990. That tour has taken me across most of the Scottish mainland and a couple of southern and western islands. For the last stop let’s go north, all the way to Orkney, to what used to be one of my very favourite dstilleries: Highland Park. I’ll go over why I’m far more ambivalent about Highland Park now in a separate post soon. For now, I’ll say only that one of the great pleasures of their whisky is one that the distillery does not give us; and that is the pleasure of bourbon cask Highland Park. It is here that you’ll usually most clearly encounter Highland Park’s peaty character as well as a mineral, oily note, all of which get covered up—for the most part—in the sherry profile of most of the distillery’s official releases. It’s a quality I particularly prize and which I see putting them on a continuum with Clynelish and Springbank/Longrow. I’ve reviewed a few such single casks before and I’m glad to be able to do it again.  Continue reading

Highland Park 19, 1995 (SMWSA)


Allow me to continue my geographically-inexact series of whisky reviews. Last week I posted a review of a Speyside whisky (a Balmenach) on the day I left for Glasgow, and a review of an Old Pulteney when up in the Highlands (okay, so that one wasn’t so far off the map). Today is our last day in Skye and as I don’t have any Talisker at hand I am posting this review of a Highland Park (which is at least also located on an island).

This was bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America and they saw fit to give it the name “Nordic Nosh”. It’s from a bourbon cask. The distillery doesn’t put out anything (?) that’s exclusively bourbon cask—even though ex-bourbon Highland Park can be excellent—but the indies pick up the slack. I quite liked the last ex-bourbon Highland Park from the SMWSA that I reviewed, so I’m hopeful.  Continue reading

Highland Park 10

Highland Park 10
I don’t really follow distillery press releases and marketing so please forgive me if I’m wrong about the following: my understanding is that Highland Park 10 is only available in a couple of countries in Europe (the Netherlands among them) and only available in 350 ml bottles. Why either of these things should be so, I don’t know. And I suppose it is possible that neither is still true—this is not a new whisky. At any rate, I guess we should just be happy that Highland Park are putting out an age stated whisky even younger than their mainstay 12 yo. (This seems to be a bit of a happy trend these days, by the way, what with Lagavulin’s new 8 yo-–though that may not continue past this year—and Bowmore just releasing a new 9 yo.) Maybe there’s a faction at the distillery who’re embarrassed about Highland Park’s endless parade of whiskies with silly names and stories and this is a sop to them. Anyway, let’s see what it’s like.  Continue reading

Highland Park 12, Cask 2820 (for Twin Liquors)

Highland Park 12 for Twin Liquors
It has been more than six months since I’ve reviewed a Highland Park. Considering it was once one of my very favourite distilleries that seems like a long gap. I say “was once” not “is” because it’s been hard to get excited about Highland Park of late. They seem to have gone irrevocably down the path of premiumization at one end of their range and NAS’ization at the other, and silly names and stories and gimmicks like Dark Origins and Ice taking the place of the no-nonsense quality that was once their calling card. Of their old range the 15 yo has been phased out, the 18 yo‘s price has long gone out of the “good value” range and the 25 yo and 30 yo are now only for the very wealthy. The 12 yo remains their one saving grace, though I haven’t had a recent bottling: who knows if, with all the NAS stuff they’re putting out, enough quality casks remain for what was once the cornerstone of their range.  Continue reading

Scapa 20, 1993, Cask Strength Edition

Scapa 20, 1993
I have had very little Scapa and reviewed even less (only this old, long discontinued 12 yo). There doesn’t seem to be very much indie Scapa around these days—Whiskybase lists only two independent releases from 2015 and only another two from 2014. It’s not the case that there was once an ocean of indie Scapa sloshing around but the releases seem to have slowed to a trickle a few years ago. As the owners show little interest in official releases this means it’s mostly being reserved for blends (which is, of course, the case for many distilleries). The only steady official releases have been in the excellent Cask Strength Edition series from Chivas Bros.—500 ml bottles, small batch rather than single cask, I believe, and originally available only at the distilleries. This sample is from one of those, released in 2013 (many an excellent Glenburgie and Longmorn have also been released in this series). Let’s see what it it’s like.  Continue reading

Highland Park 22, 1991 (SMWSA 4.191)

Highland Park 22, 1991, SMWSA
Highland Park, as I have noted on many occasions, is one of my very favourite distilleries. And as I have doubtless also noted on many occasions, bourbon cask Highland Parks—which are rarely available from the distillery—always catch my eye. They’re obviously very different from the distillery’s usual fare: as Highland Park matures its spirit predominantly in sherry casks, bourbon casks are rare from even the independents. Unsurprisingly, they’re also quite different from the standard profile. While I don’t myself believe that it it’s in bourbon cask matured malt that a distillery’s true profile/character is revealed (this is because I don’t believe in “distillery character” as something separate from maturation*), it is true that it is from bourbon casks that you can most clearly get a sense of the nature of Highland Park’s peat, in particular. And the continuities between bourbon cask Highland Park and malt from distilleries like Clynelish and Springbank that I also like very much indeed are interesting as well.  Continue reading

Highland Park 19, 1990 (Signatory)

HIghland Park 19, 1990, Signatory
I purchased this cask strength Highland Park 19, 1990 from Signatory a long while ago with the express purpose of comparing it with this marvelous OB 19 distilled four years previous. I finally opened it last year but I still haven’t gotten around to the head to head comparison. This is because I only just remembered that that was why I’d purchased it. Isn’t getting older so much fun?

That’s all I have by way of introduction, I’m afraid.

Highland Park 19, 1990 (56.5%; Signatory; sherry butt 15696; from my own bottle)

Nose: It’s a bit tight but with my nose deep in the glass there are dark sherry notes to be found: raisins, orange peel, toffee edging into fudge territory. Some leathery oak as well. Something farmy/leafy too (and is that a whiff of peat?). Water should open it up nicely. With more time the sweeter notes mix with savoury and there’s a mild inkiness too. The apricot that emerges late on the palate shows up on the nose too along with some maple syrup. With a few drops of water the sweeter fruit are emphasized and there’s a light dusting of cocoa powder. Continue reading

Scapa 12

Scapa 12
Last week I referred to Glen Scotia as the other Campbeltown distillery. Here now is a malt from the other Orkney distillery, Scapa, who labour in the shadow of Highland Park. It is operated by Chivas Brothers, themselves part of Pernod-Ricard’s portfolio (you can find out more about the distillery at Malt Madness). I’ve not had very much of Scapa’s output in the past and so it’s appropriate that my first review of Scapa’s whisky should be of a general release distillery bottling (they don’t show up much from the indies anyway); and an entry-level bottling at that. However, this is not the current entry-level Scapa: that is a 16 yo, which replaced a 14 yo in 2008; that in turn had replaced this 12 yo in 2004 (they may have upped the age with each iteration but they’ve all stayed at 40%). So, if you’re one of those people who grumble that I don’t review enough entry-level whisky you can now grumble that I don’t review enough current entry-level whisky.  Continue reading

Highland Park “Dark Origins”

Highland Park, Dark Origins
After the recent mini-run of bourbon cask matured Highland Park from indie bottlers (1 and 2) here’s an OB sherried version. This NAS Highland Park was released last year and is said to contain twice as much first-fill sherry cask matured malt than the regular Highland Park 12. Of course, for all we know the Highland Park 12 has been matured twice as long. Highland Park, one of my favourite distilleries, have really upped the ante on NAS releases and general tomfoolery in recent years but as long as they continue to give us the core age stated range at reasonable prices I’m not going to complain. Oh wait, the prices of the 25 yo and 30 yo have reportedly skyrocketed recently and even the 18 yo seems to be going up. And with all these younger and/or travel retail releases will they have enough stock to keep the 12 yo a viable concern or is that the next endangered creature? That sound you hear is my complaint engine beginning to rev up. Continue reading