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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Single Malt Report: Highland Park 12 years old

I have grown into the Highland Park 12.  I tried it at a San Francisco hotel bar almost three years ago.  I remember the situation well because I really didn't like the whisky.  But that was before my magical Bowmore bottle warmed me up to peat.  That was before my conversion to Laphroaig.  That was before my discovery of Longrow and Ardbeg.

I've had HP12 at bars three times this year.  Each time I drank it, I liked it a little better than before.  When I grabbed a glass of it during my birthday carousing, I found myself grinning all the way through it.  I HAD to do a report on it and...oh look...I have a mini in my collection!

Well, it's empty now, but......

That picture actually turned out a lot better than it should have.

Anyway, the whisky.

Distillery: Highland Park
Ownership: The Edrington Group
Region: Islands (Orkney)
Type: Single Malt Whisky
Maturation:  20% first-fill ex-oloroso casks; 80% refill ex-oloroso casks [Updated: 9/2014]
Age: minimum 12 years
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

The Highland Park distillery was officially founded way back in 1798.  Whisky was made on the site even earlier than that, but not legally so.  Like most distilleries, Highland Park's ownership changed many times.  In fact the Grants of Glenlivet fame owned HP for more than forty years.  They sold it to Highland Distilleries which were later acquired by The Edrington Group in 1999.

Highland Park is one of the very few distilleries to still do their own floor maltings.  They dry their malt with local mossy peat from the nearby Hobbister Hill (Ed.: No, that's not where the Hobbitses live.).  The resulting phenol content is a strong 20-40ppm.  This makes up 20% of their malt.  The remainder of the malt is (as of a few years ago) unpeated stuff from the Tamdhu maltings.

According to Dominic Roskrow, "the percentage of first-fill sherry casks has gone up from 20 to 40 percent in recent years" in this 12 year single malt.  Like Old Pulteney 12, this is bottled at 40% ABV in the UK, but 43% in the US, though that has differed in the past.  Again, I'm glad to be getting the 43% stuff.

The color is medium to dark gold with a little rosy mahogany.  The nose is full of American oak, with the sherry subtly around the edges.  There are big coastal notes, think dockside.  Some charred peat, a little alcohol prickle, and maybe maple syrup.  Then there's the palate.  Barbecued peat, burnt plastic-y phenolics.  Silky and lightly floral.  More spirit than oak here.  Cigar tobacco.  The sherry's around the edges again, and grows with time.  Band-aids and barbecued hay in the finish, a little wood smoke and sherry.  A nice length.

WITH WATER (approx. 33% ABV)
Two oaks and Orkney peat in the nose.  Salty roasted smoked peat.  Some vanillins and dried fruit (raisins and prunes) from those oaks.  A little farmyardy too.  In fact, the water has little effect in taming the nose.  The palate holds bright briny peated malt with a touch of sherry.  There are grasses (dried and fresh) and that barbecued peat smoke.  Hay and a hint of sherry in the finish, followed by some salt and that fragrant BBQ peat.

Dang, if that's not the stuff right there, I don't know what is.  The oaks and the peat and the malt merge marvelously for such a young whisky.

For peat-phobic folks, this is not as peaty as Laphroaig and Ardbeg.  The Orcadian peat is much different than the Islay peat.  Orkney's rough winds keep the vegetation short and close to the ground, so the peat comes from mosses and grasses.  There's a lot of unpeated malt in this too.  I recommend it to anyone just beginning to expand their whisky palate.

I'm glad I grew into this one.  You'd better believe I'll be reporting on more Highland Parks in the future.

Availability - Most liquor specialists
Pricing - $40-$50 (Babies, run -- don't walk -- if you find it for less than $40)
Rating - 89 87 (upon much further reflection, and after a full bottle, I've dropped the score a smidge)


  1. HP12 is easily one of my favorite whiskies. Even here in OR, it's one of the cheaper single malts available (I got mine on sale for $36) and it blows a lot of similarly-priced whiskies out of the water. If I had to pick one whisky to drink forever, HP12 would be a very strong contender. It's got a little bit of everything.

    1. I'm beginning to see the light on this as well. If saw it on sale for $36 out here, I'd run out and buy it right now.

      I found it interesting when you had mentioned that your bottle of HP12 had its sherry influence drift away over a year. That great glass I had of HP12 at the bar last month was very sherried. The mini I reviewed here was much more American oakie.

    2. I dearly love this whisky. After reading this tonight, I decided to have a dram. I was getting some crazy (and fantastic) jolly rancher flavors out of it. I don't know if my palate was wacky from Indian food several hours earlier or if the oxidation has really changed it (there are only about 2-3 oz left in the bottle), but it was quite enjoyable, nonetheless. I have a little extra whisky-spending-cash, and I'm considering snagging a bottle of the 18. We'll see...there are just so many choices!

    3. HP 12 is a favorite of mine and a best-value. I've noticed some of the same cask-impressions: even over a couple months I noticed a big change, going from quite sherry-cask dominated flavors to a lot of vanilla and banana-type flavors that I associate with American Oak. Actually it started tasting a lot like a peated Glenmorangie 10. Either way it's delicious - I'll take it both ways ;-)

    4. @JoshuaLuke - I've keep finding different notes in the HP12 each time I try it. It's remarkable. A year ago, the 18yr could be found for 79.99. Now $100 is the low end of the going rate.

      @Ryan - I'd take a peated Glenmorangie 10yr any day! Hopefully you're getting a good deal on the HP12 in PA...

    5. Well, you can get Glenmorangie Finealta, but that's $75-80, which is a bit hard to swallow.

    6. Have a buddy that received the Finealta for his b-day. He was pretty happy about it. I don't think the whisky is that aged (though it is 46%) and it's clearly not that limited so I'm not crazy about that price either.

  2. Full disclosure, I had one of the slope sided dumpies of HP12 back in the late 80s and found it too salty and odd flavored and didn't like it. It turned me off to Highland Park and I didn't own another bottle of HP anything until 2008. Those old 1980s slope sided dumpy dusties are quite fondly loved today but I suspect bottle aging is going on. I would love to try that old stuff now. Anyway, I came back with HP18 which was initially poured for me by Paul Pacult at the tasting at Keen's Steakhouse in honor of his book Kindred Spirits2. HP18 was his pick as "finest spirit in the world" at the time (as it was for over a decade). I had to admit the 18 was pretty good - fruity and yet distinguished with some maritime air, salt, and a kiss of gentle peat. Since then I've become much more attentive to the HP line but never quite got back to the HP12 until Whiskies on the Hudson when the beautiful Nicola Riske poured me a short one. The 12 is darned fine whisky by any measure and a great value at the price. But I was standing in front of the lovely Nicola Riske as I drank it (full disclosure).

    1. Nicola Riske can definitely sell a malt. Wish she would pay us a visit out here!

      How was Paul Pacult at that tasting? Have never heard him speak or read much about him outside of his website and books.

  3. Highland Park 12 is my choice for house bottle (i.e. when the bottle is empty I go off to get another). To me, a glass of HP12 is a great choice if you just want some whisky and not worry about making tasting notes.

    1. I may be following you down that path, especially now that I got my tasting notes out of the way. :)

  4. Michael, I've recently read that, like Macallan, Highland Park exclusively uses ex-sherry casks in their standard range (ex-bourbon casks are reserved for independents and blends like Famous Grouse). I don't know what the maturation is but Highland Park 12 is definitely a vatting of ex-sherry casks made from Spanish (European) oak that were both first fill and refill. Highland Park 15 uses more ex-sherry casks made from American oak so that bottling has a different flavor profile from the 12 and 18 year old.

    By the way Jason of Jason's Scotch Whisky Reviews is the source of this info and he got it by emailing Gerry Tosh of Highland Park. And I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before but my comment is buried in another of your reviews. At close glance I'd say the percentage you've posted on your info box looks accurate except for that ex-bourbon note.

    One more thing, Highland Park 15 is definitely a different whisky from the 12 because of the American oak influence but I think it's definitely one to try because it's sweet and citric profile makes it very easy to drink.

    1. Yeah, I'm still trying to find out where I found the maturation info I had listed. It's so specific that it had to come from somewhere. But since I couldn't find the source of that stuff, I went through some of my old notes and found the maturation info their US rep gave me last year and updated the post.

  5. "Ed.: No, that's not where the Hobbitses live."

    Michael, you do realize you have Gollum as your editor?

    And I can't believe it took me 3 1/2 years and one comment search to realize that.