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Thursday, 2 July 2015

Highland Park Mega Tasting!

This must have been one of the most comprehensive tastings of Highland Park single malts, in Australia, in recent history! And I was lucky enough to attend. And I took some notes...

The whisky line-up was just awesome. On offer were Highland Park 12yo, 15yo, 18yo, 21yo, Dark Origins, Leif Eriksson (travel retail exclusive), and an independent bottling, which was a surprise, but you'll have to wait for the details. No skipping!

Our host for the evening was the venerable Dan 'Whisky' Woolley, brand ambassador extraordinaire. Our setting was Brisbane's whisky Mecca, the mighty Cobbler. I hadn't visited this holy place in quite a while, for no reason in particular, and I missed it so badly it hurt! Martin & the boys haven't been resting on their laurels, either, with a new (seasonal) cocktail menu, and quite a few new whiskies to boot. I'll be back real soon, gentlemen. 

It was a packed house for this sold-out tasting too, with around 40 people coming out to taste some malts. The crowd was more of a mixed bag than the other tasting's I've attended, a good mix of seasoned whisky drinkers and amateurs, and even a couple of newbies. It's great to see the whisky fan base growing, and horizons being broadened, which is what it's all about!

Naturally you can't have seven whiskies without a little food (well,  of course you can, but it may not end well!), and Dan had arranged for something special on that front. Our personal chef for the evening was Matt from Jahh Tiger, which is Brisbane's only Jamaican bar, and a great one at that. He and Dan had designed food pairings to go with each whisky, and they all worked a treat. They were also small, light courses, which is great when there are seven of them! 
Highland Park distillery is located in Kirkwall , in the Orkney islands, North of the Scottish mainland. It's the Northern-most distillery in Scotland, but the island's population is mostly of Scandinavian descent, probably thanks to the island's proximity to Norway (see map), and the Viking's propensity for 'travelling'. In fact, Dan can trace his own family history back to Orkney, and had recently returned from a visit to the distillery, among many others. I'm still waiting for that job reference, Dan...

The distillery has five major points of difference, which they call 'keystones', involved in their whisky production. They use traditional floor malting to malt their barley by hand, they use local peat, only use ex-sherry casks (both American and European oak) for maturation, they mature their whisky on Orkney, and 'harmonise' (also known as marrying) their whisky after blending, for 6 months, prior to bottling. 

The peat on Orkney is composed mostly of heather, giving it a floral, sweet and delicate flavour markedly different from the peat of other regions. Maturing their whisky on Orkney is a key factor as well, with many distilleries now shipping their malt elsewhere to mature. Talisker, for example, ship quite a bit of their whisky to warehouses in mainland Scotland. Unfortunately, this means the influence of the natural salty air on the maturing malt is either reduced, or just isn't there. So that's a good move from HP. 

The American & European oak thing is interesting, and our 'guide' for the evening had arranged our whiskies to help us compare the differences, with each bottling using a different combination of the two. American oak casks are usually associated with maturing bourbon, but in Highland Park's case all their casks have held Oloroso sherry, despite it being a more expensive method than sourcing ex-bourbon casks from the US. 

So, onto the whisky! Rather than score each malt, I'm just going to pick a winner after reviewing them. Here are my tasting and pairing notes, in order of tasting on the night. Try not to be too jealous!

Highland Park 12yo, 40%. 
Pairing: Beautiful fresh seared scallop, with toasted coconut.
Nose: Gentle and inviting, honey, lightly spiced, slight smoky & floral peat.
Taste: Floral soft peat, pepper, gentle & delicate smoke, hint of dry sherry.
Finish: Quite short, mild spice, light sweetness, tiny hint of salt.
Notes: A good value beginners malt, well balanced. Chill filtration and low strength kills the mouth-feel though, unfortunately. 

Highland Park 15yo, 40%. First time tasting!
Pairing: Tuna sashimi. I'm not a big sashimi fan, but it worked with the dram.
Nose: Tropical fruit, hint of toasted oak and vanilla, light caramel sweetness.
Taste: Over-ripe pineapple, hint of spice, decent pinch of pepper. 
Finish: Short, slight heat, spice and sweetness.
Notes: Quite an uncommon malt in Australia. Easy to spot the American oak component in this one, compared to the 12. Mouth-feel & finish still a bit lacking.

Highland Park Dark Origins, NAS, 46.8%. Double the amount of first-fill casks compared to the 12yo bottling.
Pairing: Apple-wood smoked duck breast. Absolutely mind-blowing!
Nose: Love it. So much richer and more concentrated than the other expressions. Thick sweetness, rich stone fruit and raisin / sultana, light salt.
Taste: Best mouth-feel so far, thanks to being non-chill filtered! No heat at all, rich fruit and floral peat, nice dry sherry and dark toffee sweetness.
Finish: Medium-length, a little spice, hint of smoke, becoming sweeter. 
Notes: The favourite so far, both for myself, and most of the group. Previously reviewed here. Hard to get in Australia, for the moment.

Highland Park Leif Eriksson, NAS, 40%. 100% American oak casks, travel (duty-free) exclusive.
Pairing: Caramelised pork belly with lightly spiced caramel sauce, which was stunning! Tied with the duck for the food win.
Nose: Buttered pineapple, white pepper, vanilla and honey, very sweet.
Taste: Quite sweet again, pineapple & milk chocolate, nutty, hint of buttery oak.
Finish: A little short, clean & fresh. More vanilla and oak, fading sweetness.
Notes: Named after the first European (a viking) to travel to the Americas, hence the American oak. 

Highland Park 18yo, 43%. More European oak casks here (55%).
Pairing: Rare beef fillet.
Nose: Fruity and soft, loads of baking spices e.g. cinnamon, nutmeg.
Taste: Rich fruit and spice, sherry, caramel sweetness, quite complex.
Finish: Short-medium, ranging from spicy to honey sweet. Hint of sweet and floral peat at the end.
Notes: I can see why it's so popular, it's very easy drinking, but I'd like to see it bottled at higher strength, personally.

Gordon & MacPhail Highland Park, 15yo, 53.9%. Dram Full Exclusive single cask. Non-chill filtered, natural colour, cask strength, ex-bourbon cask. Tasted with water.
Pairing: Spiced poached pear with creme anglaise.
Nose: Sweet caramel, green apple, vanilla, quite spicy.
Taste: loads of spice and black pepper, gentle smoke, a little chocolate.
Finish: Medium-long, tropical fruit, subtle spice.
Notes: I've had a sample of this bottling before without water, and I enjoyed it more that way. I didn't review it then, as I didn't expect to ever see a bottle again! Still good with water. Interesting to taste a bourbon-matured HP after the sherry-matured OB's as well.

Highland Park 21yo, 47.5%. 80% American Oak. Won best single malt at the WWA in '09.
Pairing: Single origin chocolate truffle with fresh raspberry. Melt-in-your-mouth yummy-ness!
Nose: Rich dark toffee, dates, choc honeycomb, light sherry, toasted spiced nuts. Light sea breeze.
Taste: Rich and intense. Loads of spice and sherry, some oak, rich vanilla, dried fruit.
Finish: A little heat, a little meaty, spiced chocolate.
Notes: More complexity, mouth-feel and richer flavours than the 18yo, and quite a reasonable price here for a 21yo malt at a decent strength. Good stuff.
My MVP of the evening is... Dark Origins! It's still my pick of the Highland Park range. Loving the non-chill filtration, first-fill casks and decent strength, regardless of the NAS thing. There is apparently a small amount of stock of the Dark Origins coming into Australia soon, and I may have to grab a bottle, if I get the chance. The food winner for me had to have been the smoked duck breast, that was just awesome, although all of the pairings were very well done. These guys know what they're doing!

Overall this was a fantastic tasting, and a great exploration of Highland Park. There wasn't an unsatisfied person in sight. Dan handled the situation with aplomb, as usual, keeping the audience engaged, interested and involved. He can carve another notch into his bedpost for this one. Likewise the gents at Cobbler, who were still open for regular trade during all this, by the way! They're hosting a different tasting every month at the moment, and they're well worth venturing out for, even on a school night. See you there...

A big thanks to Dan Woolley, Cobbler, Matt and crew from Jahh Tiger, and Highland Park distillery for putting the tasting together.