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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)