Howdy and hope all is well on this August Bank Holiday Monday. After our recent office relocation to the park, we decided we very much enjoyed losing ourselves in the reverie of the great outdoors. Well, as much as one can obtain in Crystal Palace. Continuing our vaguely outdoor, (or park theme) we've just returned from a little jaunt over to the Orkney Isles, where we imbibed as much spiritual influence as possible. That and a few decent drams of Highland Park...
Nothing quite prepares you for just how different the Orkney Isles 'feel'. Having visited Islay many times before, you expect to be over-awed by the elements and the remoteness of island life. But Orkney feels positively sculpted by the wind, the ocean and perhaps, more than anything, influenced by mysticism and legend. If we're totally honest, it doesn't feel like a part of Scotland at all.
A visit to the Neolithic stone circle, The Ring of Brodgar gives you a snapshot of how spiritual the islands used to be - rather like Stonehenge, the huge rocks seem transported and set in place with remarkable precision, tirelessly dragged for miles until their final resting place. Just looking at them and realising that they are actually twice as big as they appear (with as much stone set into the ground as is on show) has a funny effect on the mind and body; the trapped nerve in my back began to throb yet feel miraculously cured at the same time. A placebo effect? I suspect unknown forces are at work - either that, or the anticipation of the flight of Highland Park drams waiting for us at the distillery.
After a short tour around the floor maltings, kiln, stillroom and warehousing with the fountain of all HP knowledge, Boot-camp Commandant (and champion devourer of Orkney's famous Porkie Horne) Gerry Tosh, we settled down to try a selection of lesser-known expressions of Highland Park. What's remarkable about the distillery is the genuine sense of interaction between the actual spirit, wood type, peating level and maturation in the whiskies. From trying a sample of the new-make, to a very old example of the whisky, the same classic blackcurrant notes are present, highlighting the distillery's distinct character.
First up, a dram of two halves...
Highland Park - Capella - around 4,500 bottles 40%
Capella was produced in 2005 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the island's famous Italian Chapel, painstakingly built by the Italian prisoners of war based on the main island. If you visit Orkney, the Chapel is an absolute MUST SEE- prepare to be amazed when you open the heavy oak doors at the front. We won't spoil the surprise here!
Nose: Fresh raspberries, coconuts, melon and citrus oranges- into marmalade notes. Such a huge range of fruit, tempered by an underlying light floral smoke. Unmistakably HP, but with the fruit salad levels pushed up to 11. Notes of sandalwood and spice bring up the rear.
Palate: Spritely, but following with huge complexity; lingering sweet fruits, fruit gums, hints of spicy fruit compote, then into smoke and oak. Is this a mix of old and young? Similarities to the 12yo, but with something darker and older at its core...
Finish: Juicy fruit and oak notes linger on the palate.
Overall: An exercise in balancing all the best fruity bits HP has to offer, with that classic, non-smoky floral smokiness!
Next up: A dram, which we have wanted to try for a very long time indeed. Re-patriated back from the Japanese market a couple of years ago the 1977 Vintage was bottled to mark the 200th anniversary of the distillery. Around 694 bottles were re-packaged, available only at the distillery shop.
Highland Park - 1977 - Bicentenary Edition - 40%
Nose: Earthy, peppery, with a wonderful mix of fresh & dried fruits, classic blackcurrant leaf notes, barley sugar, a light dry smoke and a waft of strawberries & cream. Superb.
Palate: Wonderfully oily and waxy, with humbugs, sweet, rich Manuka honey, cherry drops, white pepper and creamy oak.
Finish: Light smoke, with waxy, honey throat lozenges.
Overall: Absolutely sensational in every way. This is Gerry's favourite dram of Highland Park and it is easy to see why. A shame it isn't bottled at a higher ABV, but even at 40%, this is sterling stuff.
Our final dram is another distillery-only treat. Except that it isn't just a distillery-only bottling, but is also available should you fancy traveling the 6000+ miles to Taiwan, where a small number of bottles are available.
Highland Park - Sword - Especially bottled for the Taiwanese market - Distilled 1997 - Bottled 2010 - c.2000 bottles - 43%
Palate: Again, very fruity with more of the sherrywood influence, developing into peppery notes, with classic blackcurrant leaf and vanilla.
Finish: Dry and spicy, with lingering oak and aromatic herbs on the death.
Overall: Solid, flavoursome and exciting- a huge departure to the Capella bottling, but more in keeping with the recent Magus Saga bottlings. The smoke and sherry influence is much more prevalent, making this a powerful beast indeed.