Last week’s review of Scapa Skiren revealed a whisky that was pretty much exactly as expected, aside from some pretty packaging. Not bad, but not exciting. Until a few years ago, this would also be how I would have described Highland Park, the other distillery on the Orkney archipelago. Although the distillery was releasing older whiskies that garnered significant praise, it was encountered by most only on supermarket shelves in the form of the ubiquitous 12-year-old; decent enough, but doing little to stand out.
However, in 2017 Edrington Group decided to completely reimagine the Highland Park brand, with Orkney’s Viking Heritage taking centre stage. This decision seems quite divisive: while some have found this a much more exciting brand image, others have criticised it as style over substance or being “Viking by numbers”. No matter how attractive or distasteful the packaging, though, the important thing is what it contains. Scapa distillery reveals that even the most aesthetically pleasing design won’t improve the whisky itself.
However, the reimagination of Highland Park does seem to have been more than just the adoption of new labelling, with several changes having been made to their range in the intervening years. Some of these are slightly more superficial: the recent release of the 15-year-old Viking Heart comes in an earthenware container rather than a glass bottle, which is inspired by the history of islands. Others are focussed more on the spirit: the 21-year-old and above age statements now appear to be periodic batch releases. A look at the archive of previous releases on Highland Park’s website also hints at a willingness to try new things within the brand image, from tributes to Viking heroes to a special bottling for submariners.
It’s a much more straightforward bottling that we will focus on today, however. Following last year’s Cask Strength Release No. 1, the second release has become available. Having tried a sample, we at The Water of Life found that the Cask Strength Release No. 2 was as divisive as the distillery’s Viking branding.
Highland Park Cask Strength Release No. 2
Island Single Malt Scotch Whisky produced at Highland Park Distillery by Edrington Group.
63.9% ABV, matured in sherry seasoned European and American oak casks, along with a smaller proportion of ex-bourbon casks.
Chill filtration and colouring were not disclosed.
£60 (Highland Park)
Nose: Figs and dates, banana, heather blossom honey, smoke from a damp wood fire, a touch of peat and damp earth, cigar tobacco, caramelised beef steak with a cayenne pepper rub. Extremely complex. There are delicate aromas, and hard hitters blended together, revealing a little more with every sniff.
Palate: A lot of the flavours are familiar from the nose. The figs and dates remain, although orange makes an appearance. The sweetness from the honey is still there, as are the big earthy notes. The spice notes become more distinct: cayenne pepper is joined by ginger and aniseed. The smoke is still there too: charred tobacco joins the damp fire. A drop of water opens up the spice notes: it becomes a rich mix of peat, coriander, pepper, turmeric, and chilli.
Finish: Sweet, spicy, and lingering: pepper and golden syrup thickly coat the mouth and take their time to leave. Water transforms the gentle pepper burn into cayenne fire.
Opinion: This was a whisky I quite enjoyed. The palate was introduced wonderfully by the nose, the texture was thick, coating the mouth pleasantly, and the finish was long-lasting: all the things that I look for in cask strength. A drop of water seemed to anger the whisky, but in a rather delicious way, bringing out fire and spice in spades. A lot was going on in both the nose and the palate, with the whisky slowly revealing more and more notes as I tried it. This was a lot more than I expected from a £60 cask strength release. For me, this could compete favourably with most core range releases in a similar price bracket.
However, just as the Viking-themed rebrand seems to have been divisive, so too is the spirit. It’s worth noting that while I really enjoyed this, Water of Life co-editor Dave was less impressed. While I revelled in a complex dram that gradually revealed more and more notes, Dave found it more unbalanced. The aniseed on the palate also wasn’t his thing. The result was that, while our two sets of tasting notes identified very similar flavours, our final scores were quite a way apart. This is a reminder that different people enjoy different things in their whiskies and that while these reviews can be helpful, some spirits ought to be tried before they are bought. The Highland Park Cask Strength Release No. 2 may well be one of those.
The Highland Park Cask Strength seems to sum up the distillery’s current place in the industry. They’ve taken some significant steps to distance themselves from their previous ubiquitous but somewhat generic image and establish a new identity, with somewhat divisive results. Unlike the other Orkney distillery, Scapa, they seem to be trying to release a distinct style of spirit to match their now more unique packaging. While this won’t be to everyone’s taste, if it means that their future contains more batch releases, more cask strengths, and more imaginative drams tied to Orkney’s history, then Highland Park has at least got me interested again. It’s better to be divisive than dull.
Disclosure: The samples reviewed for this article were provided to the Water of Life team by Edrington Group free of charge. Edrington Group has not had any other input into this article, nor has the Water of Life team relinquished any editorial control.