About this blog:

This blog will feature tasting notes, reviews, distillery visits and whisky news with focus mainly on Scottish single malts. This will sometimes be accompanied by politically incorrect (whisky) opinions. You have now been warned! :-)
The views expressed here are entirely my own, unless otherwise stated.

Monday, 18 June 2012


It's time to do a Distillery special and why not start with a distillery located in a place historically linked to us Danes - The Orkney Islands just north of Scotland.

You need about an hour on the ferry from Gill's Bay just west of John O'Groats on the north mainland coast to get to St. Margaret's Hope - the 3rd largest town on the islands. There's also a ferry from Scrabster further west going into Stromness on Orkney Mainland. That's the sailing that will take you past the famous 'Old Man of Hoy' rock formation which -in good weather- makes for an fantastic photo opportunity...

However, Highland Park Distillery is the centre of attention for this post, so let's go inside :

Entrance to the distillery - August 2009 © The Malt Desk

Founded in 1798 on the site of High Park Farm where the owner Magnus Eunson used to distill illegally, its location provides for a beautiful entrance into the town of Kirkwall when driving up from St. Margaret's Hope.

With facilities on both sides of the road, Highland Park is a larger facility than I expected when you include the warehouses. Being this remote, up north of Scotland makes this distillery very unique along with the Scapa Distillery. Especially when it comes to evaporation or 'The Angel's Share' as we like to call it. More on that when we come to the cask maturation part.

Barley and Malting

Inside the courtyard, you can head right towards the floor maltings.
Highland Park is one of the few distilleries that still does a part of their maltings themselves.

Highland Park does between 20-25% of their own malting. The rest are bought from commercial maltings like Simpsons or Bairds on the Scottish mainland.

The Malt floor - August 2009 © The Malt Desk

Up until 2012 Highland Park has used barley of the 'Optic'-variety, but to achieve and higher spirit yield, they have now switched to a variety called 'Concerto'. The 'Concerto'-variety is now one of the most widely used barley sorts in Scotland with distillers using 31,7% in their production.

Highland Park have also done experiments with a barley sort grown on the Orkney Islands called 'Tartan'...

Now, as a distiller you're always looking for the highest spirit yield from your malt and for comparison, here are the yield of the sorts listed above:

  • Optic Barley 400-420 liters of spirit per tonne of malt
  • Concerto Barley 415-420 liters of spirit per tonne of malt
  • Tartan Orkney Grown Barley (experimental) app. 375 liters per tonne of malt 
The barley at Highland Park is steeped for 2 days before being spread out on the malt floor to germinate.

Imagine this floor filled with barley all the way down to the end of the room...
Now also imagine turning this barley having to be turned over 4-5 times a day...manually !! with the rake and shovel !! It was back breaking work back in the day using traditional tools!
As mentioned above it 'only' about 1/4 of Highland Park's barley that gets malted on site, and luckily, motorised machinery looking like a large lawn mover, is there to help you do your work...

All this work turning the barley (read: typing) has made me thirsty - time for a dram...and since we're still in the early stages of production lets have some Highland Park New Make Spirit from the stills:

Highland Park New Make Spirit 69,8% (drawn 18/5-2010)

Creamy chocolaty notes, fruity, grains (wash), hint of a flowery note (I often find in soaps) and some citric notes in the background, BBQ notes?

Incredibly sweet, barley sugars, citrus fruits, creamy mouth feel, not at all unpleasant and very drinkable even at full strength.  A big malty finish too...

Not scored!

Let's have another dram while we're at it:

Highland Park 'Leif Eriksson' 40%

This was originally only for Travel Retail but some bottles has made its way to normal retailers as well. Its a dram in the viking-series, which celebrates the great travels the vikings did over 1000 years ago and a dram to honor the Norse ties with the Orkney Isles.

Its a whisky made from 50% American oak and 50% refill American oak sherry casks. 10% of the content is made up of 21yo American oak, though the average age of this one is around 10 years.

Light, vanillas, some sherry sweetness, some malt presence, hints of vinegar?

Spicy, Fruits, molecules of peat smoke, again vanillas and a short malty aftertaste


Highland Park 'Sword' 43%

A 1997 vintage (not stated, though) of a 3500 bottle release for the Taiwanese market.

Sweet, weak, mashy note, vanillas and candy

Feels tame, mashy/grainy notes - the American oak shows its presence.

Though easily drinkable, I'm not that impressed with this one, sadly! something just feels... 'off'


Drying the Malt

Let's get back to work!

Now, as we all know you have to dry your 'green malt' to stop the germination and for that you use hot air. The traditional drying method uses peat for fuel, but at Highland Park they don't want their malt be too heavily peated, so they also use hot air to dry out the last moisture in the malt.

The peat used to dry the green malt at Highland Park is cut on Hobbister Moor, up behind the distillery. They cut around 250-280 tonnes of peat per year on a 2000 acre lot, and this is not your typical island peat like e.g. Islay peat or other peat sources found on the west coast of Scotland.

Islay e.g. is a raised seabed, which means the peat you dig there consists of old seabed contents, usually heavy on seaweed etc. This gives the peat from there a different phenolic content when burned and is said to be what gives Islay whiskies its medicinal qualities.

The Orkney peat is made up of more common surface growths like grass, moss and heather, that have never been a part of the sea and therefore gives off entirely different flavours in its smoke.

Highland Park dries its green malt 16-18 hours over an (Orkney) peat fire.
The process is then finished by drying the malt another 18 hours over a coke fire.

After the malt is is dried its put into storage for a resting period of 21 days before used in production.

The kiln - August 2009 © The Malt Desk

Now where does all this smoke and hot air go? Well, it goes up through the kiln, of course...and because of that you can see smoke coming out of Highland Park's pagodas now and again, unlike many other distilleries in Scotland where the beautiful pagoda roofs are for show, only.

One of the 2 pagodas at the distillery - August 2009 © The Malt Desk

...and the view from up next to the pagodas towards the town of Kirkwall is fantastic...

Notice the large church in the middle/right of the picture - The beautiful St. Magnus Cathedral

View from the roof of the distillery towards Kirkwall - August 2009 © The Malt Desk
St. Magnus Cathedral - August 2009 © The Malt Desk

Speaking of the St. Magnus Cathedral - Lets have some more drams with a bit of history involved.

Orcadians are proud of their Norse heritage - and I can't argue with that :-)

So much that Highland Park has done a 3 part series about a Norse Earl called Magnus - the one they named the cathedral after...

Orkney back in the day when it was under Viking rule saw the days of the pious Earl Magnus and his not so pious cousin, Haakon. Now, Magnus was the very well liked ruler his part of the islands, where as Haakon was the more power hungry man. Basically it all ended up with Haakon luring the good Magnus into an ambush killing him and his men. After that, Magnus was canonised to Saint and the next 3 bottlings will tell the tale of these unfortunate events...

These bottles were all done in an old style, with imperfections and a fancy wooden display box.

Highland Park 'Earl Magnus' 15yo 52,6% (1994/2009) Mainly Refill American oak sherry casks, 5976 bottles

Sweet, spices, flowery, honeyed, a tad of oak

Sweet oak, vanillas and tropical fruits, heather honey, salty, really delicious with a couple of drops of water

A very nice dram, indeed!


Highland Park 'Saint Magnus' 12yo 55% (1998/2010) 25% 1st fill European oak, 75% mix of refill Spanish/American oak sherry casks, 11994 bottles

Medium heavy, quite some struck match, orange liqueur, High end American Bourbon notes

Bitter sweet spicy oak, heavy sherry, super spicy with some coffee notes, liquorice and clear and present struck match, upsetting things somewhat

Not the best of the Magnus series, but still ok though I had expected a little more from this one...


Highland Park 'Earl Haakon' 18yo 54,9% (1993/2011) 100% Spanish Oak, 3300 bottles

Clean cut sherry, honey, creamy oloroso, yet powerful

A slight dunnage warehouse style, maybe? light layer of smoke, Oranges, chocolates, peppery and hint of licorice - Dessert style for sure!

This is a style I really like, clean cut sherry style without a single off-note!
Wish they would do a standard 18yo at CS and bring some of these characteristic over into a bottling like that! Top class, this one!


Milling, Mashing and Brewing

Before being milled the malted barley from the distillery itself is mixed with mainly unpeated barley from the industrial maltings.

This is then milled into what we know as 'grist'.
At Highland Park the mashing is done in a large stainless steel mashtun.
Its a careful process as the starches/sugars in the malt what is really used for alcohol production... and to prevent that the water used to make to sugary solution is added at 3 different temperatures

  • 1st water goes in at 63,5°
  • 2nd water goes in at 79,0°
  • 3rd water goes in at 88,0°
The 1st and 2nd water is enough to separate the enough sugars to go into the washbacks as what we know as 'wort'.

The 3rd water is pumped over to the sparge tank and is then cooled and used as a part of the next 1st water.

The stainless steel mashtun - picture by Highland Park

Each washback at Highland Park can hold 29200 liters of wort, and to get fermentation going about 100kgs of yeast is added. It's a cultured yeast consisting of 2 strains, 1 fast working, usually to get the fermentation going and another to maintain it for a longer period of time.

A standard fermentation at Highland Park is about 60 hours, though over the weekend, you have fermentations as long as 72 hours. This process has now created a beer at about 8% alcohol that needs to be distilled 2 times.
The washbacks, each vessel holding 29200 liters - picture by Highland Park

The Distillation Process

The stillhouse at Highland Park is to the left when you enter the courtyard. Outside you can see the spirit condensers.

The Still House - August 2009 © The Malt Desk

Inside the stillhouse you find 4 stills - 2 x Wash Stills and 2 x Spirit Stills.

The 8% beer is pumped from the wash room to the still house across the yard where the wash stills are charged with 14600 liters of wash. The wash distillation gives off a low wine at app. 22% abv which is collected and pumped into the spirit stills at a charge of 9000 liters.

The Wash stills - August 2009 © The Malt Desk
The distillation now runs and the first part of it, the foreshots contains all the unpleasantries and lead off to a holding tank.

Next comes what a distiller aims for - the heart of the run or the middle cut - which at Highland Park starts at 70% abv and runs until it hits 64,5% abv.

Then the runs is considered to be feints and is again lead off to the holding tank to go into the next distillation run.

One of the Spirit stills - August 2009 © The Malt Desk
The final strength of the middle cut will be 69,8% and will go into casks at that strength too.
Although the new make spirit is very nice and drinkable its in the casks the magic really happens... up to 60-70% of it comes from the cask.

Cask Maturation

Highland Park cask filling station - August 2009 © The Malt Desk

Now, the casks at Highland Park are a chapter of its own. The Edrington Group who owns Highland Park along with Glenturret, Glenrothes and Macallan has a very strict wood policy - some say the the strictest in the industry.

Last year and this year the Edrington Group spends app. £12 million annually on casks.
They get their European oak sherry casks from 3 different regions in Spain and and their American oak from 2 different areas in the USA.

When a tree is cut down it takes 6-7 years for it to reach the production line and filled with new make spirit at Highland Park. Why this long? First the wood has to dry out for up to 36-48 months. Then the wood goes to the cooperage and after that it goes away to get seasoned with sherry for a minimum of 24 months.

Highland Park has 23 warehouses on site. 19 of them are traditional dunnage style warehouse with earthen floors and the casks there are stacked max. 3 high. The last 4 warehouses are rack warehouses where casks are stacked usually at least 6 high and at any one time you will find more than 40.000+ casks of Highland Park maturing in Scotland.

Being located this far north means that the outside temperature never goes much above 12-14° celcius in the summer and 2-5° celcius in the winter. This gives the spirit at Highland Park a much slower maturation rate that e.g. the distilleries on the Scottish mainland. Because of this, cask evaporation at Highland Park is only about 0,5-1% annually as opposed to around 2-3% on the mainland.

Using both Spanish and American oak for maturation of its spirit gives Highland Park a wide range of possibilities in putting together expressions - a practise probably adopted from the Glenrothes distillery (also owned by The Edrington Group), who has been doing this for many years. I reviewed a couple of these variations at the start of this special writeup. A couple of  Highland Park bottlings that uses a large proportion of American oak sherry casks, are the Vintage 97' & 98' for Global Travel Retail.

Casks, casks, casks.... © The Malt Desk
As the very aware reader probably already knows, Highland Park has several standard expressions, ranging from 12yo to 50yo.

Lets have a look at the percent of 1st fill sherry that goes into the standard bottlings, then afterwards, I'll review some older stuff, incl. a couple of the 70's vintages.

A nice overview of how much % first fill sherry cask that goes into the different bottlings - August 2009 © The Malt Desk

Highland Park 25yo (b. 2004) 50,7%

Medium oloroso, hint of smoke, dark fruits, heather character is very much alive in this one, coffee too

Heather honey, smoky orange notes, sweet dark fruits, dates, more coffee and a dark creamy chocolates

A nice one for sure!


Highland Park 25yo (b. 2000) 51,5% (58% 1st fill oloroso casks)

Medium heavy oloroso nose, again a heather/honey theme, smoky butter caramels, malt and citric notes (the fabled HP oranges?)

An oaky fruits arrival, drying and sweet dessert style, Aniseed? Long finish on nuts, oil and an undisclosed organic note. Everything ends with a thin veil of smoke. Delicious!


Highland Park 1977 (1998) Bicentennary 40%

Old school clean sherry, peat and chocolate, spicy and orangy.

Much of the nose carries over. Arrives in the back of the mouth which is a surprise, lingers... very chewy. What an old musty dunnage warehouse smells like, this has hints of in the taste (in a good way!).

Slightly bitter oak creeps in with more spice, mint and liquorice. A good one too, but no all the way up there IMO.
Maybe the low abv% has something to say here?


The 2 vintages below were re-tasted for the purpose of this Highland Park special... and this humble taster must admit that the first time around he had them scored the other way around.

Highland Park Vintage 1978 (2011) 47,8% for Global Travel Retail

Citrus and honey, hints of mint, lightweight sherry notes without a blemish, an oaky nip too.

Honey, oak, spices, nuts, peppery, vanilla toffee, again hints of mint, liquorice and Kangotcho Kenyan Estate Coffee.

I like this, but did expect a little more, considering the 3 bottlings reviews above are from somewhat the same distilling regime. The price has also crept up where it begins to to hurt for most people.


Highland Park Vintage 1973 (2010) 50,6% for Global Travel Retail

Very light in style, flowery, hardwood section at the building market, also the HP classics of honey and citrus notes are present.

Cake icing, tropical fruits - mango, peach, melons. More citrus notes, honey again on a spicy oaky layer. Smoky edge and a hint of warm apple pie? Remarkably fresh for a 37yo whisky

Good stuff!! but again very pricey!


I hope you enjoyed reading this Highland Park Special.
I must admit that I've always held this distillery in high regard and its certainly one I like to recommend to people when they as me what to get as an all-rounder. The HP-style seems to agree with many peoples palates and the consistency of the spirit is very high.

I can also wholeheartedly recommend that if you want an experience out of the ordinary, do take the long trip to the Orkney Islands. It's breathtakingly beautiful up there, with lots of scenery, history, wildlife and of course - whisky! :-)

Happy Dramming out there!

1 comment:

  1. dear sir.
    How do you reach the conclusion that Islay, but not Orkney were below the sea surface during the ice ages(ie seaweed in the peat). Peat forms at ca. 1mm per year. the last iceage was ca 10000 years ago, ie the peatlevels from that age would be ca 10 meter down. No peat is dug that deep!
    Old Bridge