One of the most awarded whiskies of all time. A classic dram. Highland Park 18 Year Old is in our Glencairn glass this week. Lucky us. 

Highland Park distillery has been producing whisky since 1798 when Magnus Eunson first set up his illicit still in a location that lies closer to Oslo than London. Orkney is very much a Scandi-Scot island and is littered with reminders of Viking occupation, from the Orphir Round Kirk to the St. Magnus Cathedral. A survey even found that one in three Ocardians have ‘Viking DNA’. I’m presuming that’s people who can trace lineage to present-day Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Although I now can’t stop picturing DNA strands wielding axes on a great longboat. 

Highland Park Distillery visitor centre at night

We’re at the Highland Park distillery, on land where Vikings once roamed

What’s the connection between Vikings and Highland Park?

The Vikings did come to Orkney in longboats, with the northerly isles being ruled by a succession of earls from around 800 to 1468 until it was annexed by Scotland. The legacy is one that Highland Park is obviously enamoured by because in 2017 the distillery began a big rebrand. Highland Park 12 Year Old became Viking Honour. The 18 Year Old, Viking Pride. Various new ranges of limited-edition whiskies have been inspired by the lore. The bottle design is an almost Viking sleeve tattoo of engraved carvings modelled after the wooden ones found at Urnes Stave Church in Norway. 

It was a mighty makeover and one that’s understandable. While the Vikings certainly have a darker side to their complex history, the simple matter is that much like pirates, the Romans, or the T-Rex, they’re cool. Norse ain’t niche no more, not in a world where the fantasy genre continues to take a lead from Tolkien’s love of the mythology, Marvel characters based on Thor and Loki rule the box office, and historical dramas like Vikings, The Lost Kingdom, and How To Train Your Dragon (that was all real, right?) bring in big audiences. 

But therein lies the rub. Vikings are a saturated market and playing into it can also come across as gimmicky. Not everyone jumped for joy when they saw Highland Park’s new look and you don’t have to look too hard for sceptics who fear marketing trumps the whisky making in importance. But it’s also easy to be a cynic. The whisky is still made at the same distillery. Is it inconceivable that it’s just dressed differently? All this is on my mind because I have some Highland Park 18 Year Old in my glass. So this is an opportunity to cast any scepticism and just judge the spirit alone. Because I’m suspicious there’s a little more cover than book in some reviews. 

Peat bogs on Orkney

The peat on Orkeny has a unique composition which affects the profile of the whisky

Why is Highland Park peat unique?

For all the focus today on Highland’s Park presentation, production is what really matters. The distillery defines its whisky-making process by five ‘keystones’. These are the use of floor maltings, Orkney peat, and quality sherry casks, as well as its unique maturation climate, and a process of ‘cask harmonisation’. Utilising the skill of a good master maker, basically. The ‘keystone’ thing does sound like something a marketing executive came up with. But dig deeper into each step and the validity of highlighting them becomes clear.

Maintaining traditional floor maltings, for example, is not done for aesthetics alone. It’s a costly, labour-intensive process that was phased out elsewhere for a reason. But romantic whisky nerds love them and being one of a handful of Scotch whisky makers to still turn its malt by hand gets you brownie points in most whisky circles. At Highland Park, the malt is turned every eight hours, seven days a week, in order to maintain the right balance of moisture and airflow that will allow the barley to absorb the ‘reek’, the aromatic smoke made by the peat that burns in the distillery’s two pagoda-topped kilns (the youngest of which is over a century old).

That peat is very important to Highland Park. Pretty much every whisky it makes is peated, using a softer, more fragrant variety than you’ll find in Islay whisky. There’s essentially no trees on Orkney, so the peat that has formed over the last few thousand years tends to come from decomposed moss and heather. Highland Park gets its supply straight from Hobbister Moor, just seven miles from the distillery, and has done for over two centuries. So far, we’ve had two keystones, and they’re both genuinely important and helping to set Highland Park apart from the crowd.

Highland Park 18 Year Old - Viking Pride

We’re tasting Highland Park 18 Year Old – Viking Pride this week

How does Highland Park make whisky?

The third keystone is Highland Park’s cask supply. There’s very few bourbon casks in the 23 warehouses (numbered 1-25, a quirky island mystery) at the distillery, it’s pretty much all sherry. The distillery has a partnership with managed forests to source European and American oak trees and Edrington, owners of Highland Park as well as The Macallan and others, has its own cooperage. The wood is cut to form staves at precisely 45°, which is common in woodworking and construction as it means you create 90-degree joints which fit square and rectangular shapes neatly. For casks, this means a tighter fit which makes it hard for the spirit to escape and it’s how the Vikings made their longships watertight. 

We’re veering into the marketing world again but bear with me. The next stage is shipping the staves to Jerez in southern Spain where they’re made into casks and filled with sherry. After being left to mature for two years, they’re shipped back and filled with Highland Park’s peaty new make. That’s an exhaustive, expensive way of doing things. But it also gives the distillery great control over the quality of its wood. 

This wood then matures in the unique microclimate of Orkney. The North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean here, where sea winds can reach 100mph, and winter is terribly long and dark. The gulf stream provides relief, however, meaning things never get arctic on Orkney, seldom going below 2°c. It’s a great whisky maturation climate. Keystone Five also takes place in the warehouse, where master whisky maker Gordon Motion creates each batch of Highland Park by selecting and marrying up to 150 casks. The blend is always left to rest for at least a month before bottling. Arguably the least individual keystone, to be honest, as other distilleries will have a similar process, but not often with that range of casks to blend from or that formal and regulated an approach. Motion is also an experienced and respected whisky maker so it is worth giving his input recognition. 

A tasting of Highland Park 18 Year Old – Viking Pride

All of the above leads to the creation of whisky like Highland Park 18 Year Old – Viking Pride. First introduced to the Highland Park portfolio in 1997, the whisky is matured in a high proportion of first-fill sherry seasoned European and American oak casks and aged for at least 18 years before being married together and bottled at 43% ABV with no additional colouring. Compared to other 18-year-old whiskies in the market, it’s also decent value for money. At £125, there’s certainly much more expensive comparisons and many of its peers are increasing in price all the time. 

So, the big question is: does this whisky still live up to the Highland Park name? Going purely off what’s in the glass, I can say personally I loved it. To me it seems a pretty simple equation: if you take quality spirit that has a definable, individual style, then fill it into excellent casks and let it age for a healthy amount of time, then you’re going to make a good dram. It’s not complicated, but it’s a very effective way of making whisky. Whether Highland Park 18 Year Old is called Viking Pride or not doesn’t mean that much to me. I like what I taste. And you can hear me say as much in this neat little video.

Highland Park 18 Year Old tasting note:

Nose: Waves of that trademark heathery peat wash over the nose with floral honey, dried fruit, pear drops, posh marmalade, and a little cherry/raspberry. So inviting and sophisticated, like Rupert Everett’s voice.

Palate: A mouth-coating palate delivers dried apricot, honeycomb, gingersnaps, toffee, creamy hazelnut coffee, candied orange peel, and sherried winter spices.

Finish: Orkney’s salty seaspray covers more smoke and sweet fruit. 

Highland Park 18 Year Old – Viking Pride is available from Master of Malt. That’s us!