You might have noticed things have changed at Highland Park in the last couple of years. Since 2017, the Island distillery has spent a fair bit of time, and presumably money, popping a jaunty Viking helmet on everything it does. You see, things went from nice to Norse on the distillery’s Orkney home back in 800AD, when the Viking kingdoms of Denmark and Norway invaded and set up shop. Once you’ve seen how many puffins there are on Orkney, it is hard to pull yourself away, in fairness.
Classic expressions were given a makeover and some swanky new Scotch whisky ranges were introduced, such as the Viking Legend series, a collection of special-edition bottlings made to highlight the journey to Ragnarök, the battle at the end of the world (there’s a Brexit joke here that I’m too tired of it all to make). First, there was Valkyrie, a smoky, rich and aromatic bottling that was matured in predominantly European sherry seasoned oak, then Valknut, a woody, smoky and spicy expression aged in American sherry seasoned oak and crafted from Orkney’s tartan barley. Now the series has come to its conclusion with Valfather, the expression that’s got our attention this week.
It was named after Odin, the head honcho of Aesir (the other gods), as well as the god of wisdom, poetry, death, divination and magic in Norse mythology. You might alternatively know Odin as Thor’s dad from those Marvel films, but Highland Park is old school and honours the classic interpretation of the one-eyed deity. There’s no trace of Anthony Hopkins in Valfather’s distinctive packaging.
Instead, the inspiration was the ancient picture stones from Stora Hammars in Gotland, Sweden. The aesthetic once again features input from Danish designer Jim Lyngvild, who has enjoyed a long working partnership with Highland Park. It’s easy to see why the distillery went with him. Lyngvild can trace his family tree all the way back to the 8th century and boasts a Viking lineage that includes his 36th great grandfather Ragnvald Eysteinsson, the 1st Earl of the Orkney Islands. He also lives in a Viking-inspired castle which he designed himself in the Danish village of Faaborg. Some people have it all.
It’s certainly a beautiful bottle. But let’s face it – you’re more interested in what’s inside it. Valfather is like every other bottle from Highland Park in that it was bottled with no additional colouring. Where it differs is how peaty it is. Which is very. In fact, it’s Highland Park’s Most. Peated. Whisky. Ever. The considerable phenolic level was supposedly intended to mirror Odin’s power, which also presumably explains the 47% ABV strength. But this isn’t an overpowering smoke-bomb of a dram.
As fans of the distillery will know, peat on Orkney is unique. The 4,000-year-old supply, cut from Hobbister Moor just seven miles from the distillery, is completely woodless and filled with fragrant heather. It has a complex, floral and sweet profile, and is markedly different from peat sourced from Islay, for example. This means Valfather has plenty of pleasantly peaty notes, without tasting like it was plucked straight from an Orkney bog.
The expression also benefits from the experience of its creator, Highland Park whisky maker Gordon Motion, who used refill casks to mature the spirit. The marketing will tell you that this lighter style of whisky was chosen to reflect the ethereal and lighter feel of Valhalla, Odin’s hall, which is a nice story. But it’s clear that Motion was careful not to create an unbalanced, overbearing whisky. Using this type of cask meant less wood interaction and consequently less cask character to compete with all that extra peat.
“Valfather and the whiskies in the Viking Legend series use more of our heavily peated malt, making the series more like cousins, rather than a brother or sister to the core range,” explained Motion. “Overall, this whisky is the richest and smokiest in taste profile compared to the rest of the series and our classic whiskies. As well as our hallmark aromatic peat smoke, it tastes of creamy vanilla, toasted cedar wood with a long floral aromatic finish offset by notes of crisp apple and sweet fragrant pear.”
So does it achieve the required balance? In a word, yes. In two words, hell yes. In three words… well, you get the idea. Valfather a fitting end to a stellar collection of whiskies. Swanky bottles and boxes along with stories about Viking legends might worry some that Highland Park’s focus is now marketing over quality. But the Viking Legend series has boasted some delightful drams, particularly Valkyrie and Valfather (sorry Valknut, it’s nothing personal) that go back to the distillery’s esteemed roots. A whisky of exceptional balance, the refill casks add depth, but not so much flavour that they dominate or distract. Distillery character is king here: vibrant orchard fruit and heathery smoke abound among the kind of hedonistic richness you’d expect from a whisky that honours a god.
If Valfather has caught your eye, then check out our full tasting notes below, as well as our recent chat on all things Highland Park with senior brand ambassador Martin Markvardsen.
Highland Park Valfather tasting note:
Nose: Robust, but refined smoke fills the nose initially followed by delicate vanilla, Conference pears, green apple skins and a heady, heavy floral richness. Underneath there’s cedarwood, honeycomb, spice from black pepper and nutmeg, as well as salted caramel before the heathery peat makes itself known. A sprightly sea breeze note emerges with time.
Palate: The palate is beautifully integrated. with layers of creamy vanilla, apricot yoghurt and a helping of crème brûlée that interplay with notes of incense burners, iron and salted almonds. Then there’s bitter orange marmalade, charred wood and dried earth among touches of cacao powder, toffee apples and smoked paprika.
Finish: Long and confident. The floral smoke lingers for an age but is offset by tropical fruit and black pepper.