Whisky Review: Highland Park The Light

My procedure for reviewing Highland Park is a little bit different than other whiskies. Ordinarily, I begin by pouring myself a dram and nosing, tasting, and experiencing it nearly blind. Then, I do a little reading about whatever’s special about it before another round of more informed tasting. For Highland Park, I begin by pulling up the Wikipedia page about Norse cosmology and clambering upwards to whatever distant branch of Yggdrasil has influenced the latest over-the-top opus.

Don’t get me wrong. Highland Park is wonderful whisky, a grand cru of single malts. But unlike Chambertin or Lafite-Rothschild, this most distinguished of Highland distilleries seems to be having a crisis of confidence, feeling it cannot rely on the strength of its good name to sell its bottles. Instead, everything it releases, even its revamped core range, has become themed around a high-concept theoretical architecture drawing on mythology, ancient Vikings, gods, warriors, battles, fantastical creatures, and, recently, amplifiers. I worry that Highland Park is in danger of becoming the rock opera of single malts.

And while many brands seem to be reacting to an expanding, internationalized customer base by moving towards names that tell you a little something about what the whisky might taste like—Wymess Malts’ Spice King, Bowmore’s Golden and Elegant, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s A Drizzle of Syrup on Salted Ribs—Highland Park appears to be tracking in the opposite direction. What does Viking Honor taste like? Will I like it? Is it good? These are the questions Highland Park needlessly generates because the whisky is generally very good and most people like it very much.

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The latest installment in the Highland Park fantasy saga is The Light, released as a companion to (you guessed it) The Dark, which debuted back in December. The Dark was aged in sherry casks for a deep color and heavy flavor, while The Light was aged entirely in used bourbon barrels for a lighter appearance and tone.

While this conceptual architecture certainly hints at the flavor and character of the whisky in the bottle, official word from the distillery is that the dyad was designed to “share the story of the noble Viking warriors who are our ancestors, of our contrasting island seasons and of the intense balance of our whisky.” “Intense balance” is a phrase that leaves me scratching my head the same way “aggressively mellow” might, but I’m probably primed to split hairs after trying to spell Yggdrasil earlier in this review. You’re great at making whisky, Highland Park. Just put it in the bottle, OK?

Highland Park The Light

Highland Park The Light (image via Highland Park)

Tasting Notes: Highland Park The Light

Vital Stats: Single malt, 17 years old, aged entirely in ex-bourbon barrels, bottled at 52.9%.

Appearance: Pale gold

Nose: Zesty and bright, with sweet apricot, white peach, and melon enlivened by vanilla, lemon peel, and tropical fruits. A muscular vein of high, pure peat emerges alongside a bit of grilled meat and deeply integrated oak. There’s a laser-like focus here, clear and distinct. With water, there’s more smoke, earth, and salinity.

Palate: Smoky at first, with plenty of char and smolder, before a tart wave in the mid-palate ushers in an unfolding of Riesling-like fruits: apricot, melon, grapefruit, papaya, citrus. There’s a touch of toffee in the long finish, with the smoke and fruit matching each other, step by step, right up to the end. A bit of water enhances the body, making it fuller and sweeter and bringing out a slight funk of blue cheese and durian that I occasionally notice in Highland Park. Despite the relative lightness of this whisky’s flavors, the mouth feel is coating and oily.

The Takeaway

With all my carping, The Light is a great name for this whiskey – it’s bright, lively, and intense, like a laser beam cutting through the fog. I can’t imagine the flavors are truly evocative of spring in Orkney—not many papayas at the 59th parallel!—but this is a very delicious whisky nonetheless.

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User Rating 4.33 (3 votes)