Whisky Review: Highland Park 40-Year-Old

By Whisky Kirk / September 22, 2016

Highland Park 40-Year-OldIt’s hard to believe that forty years are two generations, technically speaking. The men who distilled Highland Park 40-Year-Old were long retired by the time ye olde casks were combined to make the batch currently under discussion.

As a matter of fact, Highland Park distillery is fairly unique to even offer a 40-Year-Old whisky in its core line-up. Those Orcadian workers forty years ago definitely kept themselves busy! Likewise, the distillery has managed its warehouses quite well in order to bring such a venerable old whisky to market these days, as a “standard” offering.

But don’t kid yourself. It’s not being sold for the price of a song–unless you happen to be Billy Joel or Bono. These days, Glenfarclas 40 Year Old sells for seventy-five percent less money. So why is the Highland Park 40-Year-Old so darned expensive?

Well . . . check out my tasting notes below, and then take a look at my review of the Forty Year-old Glenfarclas. That should provide some useful clues.

Tasting Notes: Highland Park 40-Year-Old

Vital Stats: 48.3% ABV (96.6 proof) in a 70cl bottle, 100% malted barley.

Appearance: Deep molten bronze with gold highlights. When the glass is leaned at a forty degree angle, and turned, the most exquisite lines emerge. Tiny beads form a tracery of diadems. This technique helps to reveal the viscosity of the whisky, which should lend itself to an oily, velvety-smooth mouth feel.

Nose: All of the quintessential Highland Park notes from the 25-Year-Old and the 30-Year-Old are present. One can detect familiar “honeycomb heather,” for example, and gentle peaty notes, along with a kiss of the sea. However, these characteristics have been refined by another long stretch of time in the casks, as the angels took their share, leaving behind a veritable treasure.

A signature honeycomb-heather scent expands to reveal a meadow in summer time, with circulating heath grasses, pollens, and the gentle gurgle of a brook with light brown peat water. Indeed, smoked peat in the glass reminds me of farmers burning their fields in autumn. I just love that distant smokiness, which hovers delicately, almost like an afterthought.

Pine boughs and oak leaves on a forest floor at the edge of the meadow, waft up from the glass. Dry sand, and ocean breezes help to remind one of the Orcadian warehouses in which the casks were aged. Rich, fleshy fruits beckon the nose farther down into the rim of the glass, where an alcohol burn is delightfully absent. This lack of “alcohol tingle” is all the more surprising because of the relatively high 48.3% ABV.

Inside the glass, one encounters guava, mango, Canary melon, along with a potpourri of dried citrus peels. Time accentuates more of a honey profile, while diminishing the hint of smokey peat. After about twenty minutes, the heather-honey transforms itself from a familiar Highland Park heathery signature note to something more exotic, which might be compared to creamed honey, along with some cashew presence, as well.

Palate: A wonderful mixture of leather, oak, and old books greet the tongue. It’s like stepping into a private library filled with ancient leather-bound tomes, along with leather-backed chairs, and oak paneling everywhere. Remarkable. This impression illustrates how one’s sense of taste and smell can work in tandem to paint such a vivid picture. In your glass, you can taste what an old library smells like. A very strong impression of place. And then there comes a wave of peat and smoke, which does not overpower, but rather enhances one’s first impression of leather, wood, and books.

The mouth feel is not quite as oily as expected. This comes as something of a disappointment. If one looks on the bright side, however, less viscosity helps to bring out the peat smoke in a way that embraces this whisky’s “fleshy” fruit center. As in the nose, these fruits hang back, and wait to enchant. The “strawberry” side of the guava presence comes to the fore, mingling with heather-honey. There’s also a hint of brandy-soaked melon, along with the natural vanilla goodness of manila mango, which I find to be the “queen” of all fruit.

Finish: I haven’t whetted my tongue for a couple of minutes, and yet I’m still getting a bit of honey and smoke, along with papaya. After another sip, to refresh my palate, it becomes obvious that this finish just keeps going and going and going.

Almond paste lingers now, along with a hint of wood from sherry casks. No, Highland Park 40 Year Old is not over-oaked in the least, but a nice gentle oak presence does last throughout the finish. In my estimation, this influence hovers in the Goldilocks zone of “just right.”

After a long long finish, a little peat smoke comes back onto the tongue, along with a hint of buttery Scottish shortbread. Yummy! The dried citrus peel potpourri, which is present in the nose, does not translate into one’s mouth, however, and that’s fine.

Instead, this bitterness is more oaky. In fact, it’s just the right amount to offset sweeter, fruity notes, as well as augmenting the smoky peat. Without it, HP’s Forty Year-Old would lack balance, complexity, and depth. Yessir, yessum . . . I really do appreciate how long it takes this posh ride of a potion to reach completion (at the death).

Final Thoughts

As is the case these days with Highland Park limited releases, this whisky is packaged extraordinarily well. A silver amulet, which matches the “h” on the accompanying hand-made wooden box, adorns the bottle. Yes, the packaging has an ancient Norse style to it, which would make it a classy gift, especially considering the fact that History Channel’s program called “Vikings” is so popular these days.

How far Highland Park has come from the days of its old “dumpy” bottles and humble labels . . . at least in terms of packaging. Ah, but the whisky inside many of those goofy-looking bottles of yesteryear was nothing to trifle over. I tasted a dumpy Highland Park 18 last year, and the rather dark whisky inside was magnificent. Just beautiful.

Seems like just yesterday when I drank down my old bottle of Highland Park 25 Year Old, with the higher ABV, which came in a simple “black box.” It was cantankerous and mischievous, but that was part of the fun. Just when you’d thought you had figured it out, wham!, something totally different hit you up’side the head like a billy club. As The Jam, a 70’s British punk bank, sings: “That’s enter-tain-ment.” One minute the whisky tasted one way, and the next it seemed like an entirely different animal to tame (or perhaps one that tamed its drinker).

In some ways, I liked my Black Box 25 Year Old more than this newer Highland Park 40-Year-Old. Then again, I could definitely envision myself feeling in the mood for the relaxed effortlessness of a three thousand dollar “ticket to ride”  . . . that is, if I happened to win the lottery. Yes, it’s mercurial. Yes, it changes in the glass, as well as on the palate. However, those changes are pretty much all civilized.

Speaking of which, I have one more swallow left in my glass: here’s to posterity, serendipity, and twenty-twenty hindsight.