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Highland Park: Scotland’s Northernmost Whisky

The Highland Park distillery has historically been considered Scotland’s northernmost distillery. The Orkney Islands, which begin just ten miles off the coast of northern Scotland, host two distilleries: Highland Park is located about one-half mile north of the Scapa distillery, on the main road between Kirkwall (the capital of the Orkney islands) and the small town of Holm. The distillery is built on a hill overlooking the town in an area called High Park, hence its name.

The Highland Park distillery was officially established in 1798, making it one of only a handful of Scottish distilleries founded in the 18th century. Like most Scottish distilleries, it’s likely that illicit distillation was taking place well before the official “founding” date. The excise taxmen didn’t arrive on the islands till the early 19th century. By then, the Orkneys had a well-deserved reputation as a center for illicit whisky distillation and smuggling.

There are several unique features about whisky production at Highland Park. The distillery is one of only seven distilleries that still do their own floor maltings. Highland Park malts 20 percent of its barley needs. The balance comes from Simpson’s malting in the Borders.  The barley variety used is Concerto, some of which is grown locally specifically for Highland Park.

Highland Park

The water used by the distillery comes from Cattie Maggie’s spring. The spring has been the traditional source of water for whisky distillation on the island. Unlike many of the water sources used in whisky production, however, this water is hard. Glenmorangie, Bunnahabhain, Craggenmore, Daftmill, Dalluaine, Glen Moray, Glenlochy, Scapa, and Glenlivet all use hard water in their mashing operation.

The distillery has two kilns and utilizes peat from the Hobbister Moor, just down the road from the distiller. Orkney peat is very different from peat elsewhere in Scotland. Although the Orkneys are on the 59th parallel, roughly the same as Whitehorse, Canada and St. Petersburg, Russia, the warming effects of the Gulf Stream gives it a temperate climate. The persistent winds, however, prevent the establishment of any significant tree cover.

Consequently, Orkney peat is made up primarily of partially decomposed heather. There is less moss in it and no woody remnants, so the resulting peat reek has more dried floral elements and less of the pronounced medicinal and phenolic aromas than those found in Islay or the other western islands. The malt kilned at Highland Park is peated to a level of 20 parts per million phenol. It is then mixed with unpeated malt brought in from Simpson’s. After distillation, this drops to about 4 to 6 PPM

The surface layer of the Hobbister Moor, which is only partly decomposed, is about 500 years old. The older layers, which have a brownie-like consistency, are several thousand years older. The older layers burn hotter, while the younger layers produce more copious amounts of smoke. The kilns themselves are ancient; the youngest is more than a century old.

Kilning typically takes about 48 hours. During the first 18 hours, peat is burned in the kiln at an average temperature of 60C producing the peat reek in the malted barley. Approximately 1.5 tons of peat are consumed in each furnace during kilning. Historically, dried heather was sometimes mixed in with the peat, although this is no longer the case. After 18 hours, the distillery switches to coke at an average temperature of 65C to finish the drying process. Kiln temperatures vary depending on the amount of moisture in the malt. The distillery estimates that at current levels of production, the Hobbister Moor has about a 300-year supply of peat.

Following kilning, once the barley is sufficiently cooled, it is ground in a Porteus mill. At Highland Park, the grind yields a mix of 70 percent grist, 20 percent husk, and 10 percent flour. This is a typical grind for distillers that peat their malt.

The ground barley, 6.4 tons per batch on average, is moved to a 11-ton capacity, semi-lauter mash tun, and eventually the resulting wort, about 29,000 liters, is moved into one of 12 wooden washbacks. The distillery uses about 28 tons of barley a week. A mix of Kerry M and MX dry yeasts are used to start the 55-hour fermentation. The resulting wash comes in at about seven percent alcohol by volume (ABV).

The distillery has four stills: two 18,000-liter wash stills, charged at 14,600 liters; and two, 12,000-liter spirit stills, charged at 9,000 liters. Distillation in the wash still lasts for 5.5 hours and for 7.5 hours in the spirit still. The stills are pear shaped, a style often referred to as Speyside stills, with wide conical necks that gradually narrow. The lyne arm that connects the neck to the condenser is at a 90-degree angle. Each wash still takes about one-half of a washback. .

The wash stills produce a “low wine” with an ABV of around 26 percent. The distillate is then transferred to the spirit stills. The heart cut is run for 2 hours 40 minutes on average. Casks are filled with new make spirit at 69.8% ABV. This is higher than the industry average. In fact, it’s the highest casking ABV allowed by the SWA. Higher casking strength is more efficient, as less barrels are needed. It also tends to extract different flavor compounds from the wood, although this is not always necessarily for the better. The distillery uses a variety of cask sizes: butts, puncheons, and hogsheads, as well as ex-bourbon barrels. Highland Park has an annual capacity of 2.5 million liters of new make spirit, which equates to about four million bottles of Scotch whisky.

Approximately 90 percent of the new make spirit is matured in “sherry seasoned casks.” Highland park uses Oloroso sherry, a dry, dark, fortified wine with pronounced notes of nuts and dried fruit to “season” the casks. The distillery is also experimenting with the use of barrels that have held other sweet wines. The Fire Edition, for example, was matured in barrels that previously held port wines.

Highland park Loki
image via Whisky Kirk

The Highland Park bottlings

The core range of Highland Park consists of a 12 YO, 18 YO, 21 YO, 25 YO, 30 YO, 40 YO, and a 50 YO. In addition, there is a “Dark Origins” bottling that is a 12 YO that uses 40 percent first fill sherry butts. The distillery also offers the Valhalla range, a tribute to the islands’ Norse roots, which consist of a series of “Distillers Editions” named after the gods in Norse mythology (Odin, Thor Loki and Freya), as well as the “Fire” and “Ice” bottlings also inspired by Norse mythology. Highland Park also has a series of vintage bottlings (1964, 1968, 1970, 1971 and 1976) called the Orcadian series.

There are also a variety of special bottlings, many of them exclusive to travel retail, commemorating the Battle of Jutland and Norse explorer Leif Erickson, as well as a Norse Warrior series (Svein, Harald, Ingvar, Einar, Sigurd, Ragnavald, Thorfinn, and a 300-bottle limited edition King Christian I). These bottlings carry no age statement and seem to be differentiated by the more expensive bottlings having a higher proportion of sherry cask finished whisky in their blends. There is also a special Cappella expression that is only available at the distillery’s gift shop. Highland Park whisky is also an important component in the Famous Grouse whisky blend produced at the Glenturret distillery, and in the Cutty Sark blend.

Different expressions in the Highland Park core range have varying ratios of sherry butt to bourbon barrel matured whiskies. The higher the age statement (and price), the greater the proportion of sherry matured whisky, especially the proportion of first fill casks, in the blend. The 12 YO, for example, consists of a blend of sherry butt and bourbon barrel matured whiskies, but only about 20 percent of the blend is first fill sherry casks. The 15 YO, now discontinued, was a blend of 40 percent sherry butt and 60 percent bourbon barrel matured whiskies.

The 18 YO, which has now become the brand’s flagship expression, is around 80 percent sherry butt matured whisky, of which 45 percent are first fill casks, and 20 percent bourbon barrel matured whiskies. The 25 YO expression also consists of an 80-20 sherry and bourbon cask blend, but 50 percent of the mix is first fill sherry butts. The distillery “harmonizes” its casks by allowing the blended whisky to mature for an additional period of up to six months in barrels before being bottled.

Highland Park operates 23 warehouses at the distillery, with a capacity of 45,000 barrels. About 80 percent of the distillery’s production is warehoused on the island, and the balance is stored at various warehouses on the mainland. Nineteen of the warehouses are dunnage type warehouses with dirt floors and casks stacked three high. The other four are racked warehouses where the barrels are stored on pallets.

Highland Park is among Scotland’s most outstanding whiskies, with an aroma and flavor profile that truly makes it unique among Scotland’s varied whisky offerings. Its superb craftsmanship, outstanding quality and storied history make it unarguably one of a kind, a shining star in Scotland’s whisky constellation.

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