...where distraction is the main attraction.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Single Malt Report: Highland Park 1986-2007 (Scott's Selection)

And now for something slightly different...

A simultaneous review!

At this very moment a review of this same whisky is posted at My Annoying Opinions.  A couple weeks ago, I split a bottle of this Highland Park 1986 Scott's Selection three ways with M.A.O. and his friend.  It gave us the ability to dig into a somewhat older single malt without risking $200ish on a blind purchase.  M.A.O.'s opinions have indeed annoyed a number of folks in the whisky blogging community, which is a good thing because our "community" was/is in definite need of some challenges.  I have yet to step into the discussion he has started (ignited?), but I do intend to address it in the new year -- because it's going to be difficult to continue writing about whisky unless I do so.  No matter my opinion about his blogging opinions, I respect his reviews.  I've also found his palate preferences are often similar to mine.  I recommend hopping over to his review of this whisky because as I write this, I have no idea what he thinks of this Highland Park.

(UPDATE: Here's the link to MAO's review.  And his notes are quite a bit different than mine...)

Scott's Selection is a fascinating independent bottler.  I've found semi-dusty Scott's bottles in random corner liquor stores in California, New York, and Arizona.  So they're not that difficult to find, for now.  And their prices are often much lower than other indies.  And the quality of their output tends to be decent, occasionally very good.  If I had an issue with them it would be the total lack of disclosure on their labels.  There's no mention of cask type, amount of casks, amount of bottles, or actual age.  I've seen two bottles labelled "Sherry Wood", but I'm pretty sure I've had a couple other Scott'ses that were aged in sherry casks while the label said nothing about it.  So what you'll get is: Highland Park 1986-2007, 54.1% ABV.  No more, no less.  So you'll have to pardon some of my data below.

Distillery: Highland Park
Bottler: Scott's Selection
Age: 21-ish years (1986 - 2007)
Maturation: probably an ex-bourbon cask (if it's an ex-sherry cask it's an eighth-fill)
Region: Islands, or Northern Highlands
Alcohol by Volume: 54.1%

The color is at just between light gold and amber.  See MAO's pic above.  The nose has a surprising youthful spirity nip to it, sort of suggesting old school paint (as in, not the safer low-VOC paints for sale now).  It's not too strong, but it shows the oak hasn't been aggressive over the 20+ years, which is fine by me.  But black licorice, vanilla, and tapioca pudding push that tougher note to the background.  Give it some time......peach taffy, fresh plums, clove, jasmine flowers, and yeast notes arise.  I've also been finding cardamom notes in many Highland malts recently; maybe it's my nose.  This whisky is no exception, considerable cardamom.  Not much peat, unless maybe a vague grassy veg peat?  In the palate, hot cereal (think oatmeal or cream of wheat) arrives early.  Then fresh apricots and a soft custardy note -- vanilla + brown sugar + caramel.  With some time in the glass, the whisky delivers an expressive rich citrus liqueur.  Like the nose shows, there's still quite a bite to this stuff.  The citrus liqueur notes continues into the finish along with a cayenne peppery heat.  It sweetens up here and brings with it a wisp of wood smoke.

My first impression of it neat was, per my notes, "Take a cask strength version of the 18yo, remove the sherry and 75% of the peat."  Yet it still feels a bit brasher than an 18 year old whisky.

WITH WATER (low 40s ABV)
More oak and fruit in the nose.  Fresh cut uncharred wood.  Peaches and orange zest.  Caramel sauce.  Just a hint of the licorice, cardamom, and vanilla remains.  An orange soda note builds up after some time.  The palate gets "more pleasurable!"  Mild vanilla, orange zest, burnt wood, more sugars, and a slight bitterness.  Even at this lower strength, a lot of texture remains.  It's softer now, though very drinkable at this spot.  The finish is much briefer.  It's sweet and lightly tart.  The citrus and pepper become milder.  The jasmine note makes a curious return.  And there's that hint of smoke again.

Rarely do I prefer a whisky with water added, but this one really grew on me once it was hydrated.  I don't mind some sharpness in my whisky, but this HP cozies up to the nose and tongue better when its ABV is reduced a little.

The near lack of phenolics was somewhat expected.  Having had some older whiskies made from highly peated malt, I've come to realize that lengthy maturations mellow out the PPMs.  This is no exception.  Highland Park's malt doesn't start with much peating, so as it gets older that which was there is no longer.

I've actually been on a search for non-sherried Highland Parks.  When MAO mentioned this bottle, my ears (or eyes) perked up.  I didn't know what the sherry situation was going to be like, but thought it was worth a try.  And it is.  While I don't think this whisky will WOW anyone, I also don't think it's going to offend.  It does offer an alternate look at Highland Park -- removing the sherry element and most of the peat -- if you're in search of that experience.

Availability - A few liquor shops in the US still have it
Pricing - $150-$200
Rating - 86  (approx. 86/100; it picks up the 1/2 star, or 5 points, with added water)

STAY TUNED!  On Thursday, you may just find another simultaneous review here......


  1. It's interesting, MAO did find some peat, as well as sulphuric notes. Did the sulfur (I'm just going keep spelling it differently) come from the spirit or a non-Murray-approved sherry cask? Both of our reviews recognize old-school Highlands malts, but different perspectives.

    He just pointed out to me that while his review was from a freshly opened bottle, my whisky may have opened up a little as it had been decanted into a smaller bottle and had a week or two to sit.

  2. The problem with simultaneous reviews on two site is the question of where we have the conversation. I just responded to your comment on my blog and expanded on my statement about it not being as far away from mine as I'd initially thought. I'll paste it in here too:

    We both got the vegetal peat note on the nose–I think what you separated out as yeasty I probably clustered with peat. We both got apricot and citrus on the palate and the bitterness (though you got that more with water). We also both got pepperiness/heat on the palate, and while I got more smoke/soot than you did neither of us found it at all phenolic. And we both got caramel at different points in the nose. Some of the other things I think are examples of similar notes calling out slightly different associations: your old paint and my new briefcase, for example. Similarly, your black liquorice may be related to my pine resin.

    Of course, there are differences: you didn’t remark the gunpowder/rock salt notes, which seems striking because I think you are generally more turned off by sulphur than I am. It may be those notes dissipated in the two weeks between the actual taking of our notes (for those not involved: my notes are from a fresh crack of the bottle taken not too long after it was divided up, and Michael’s came two weeks later thanks to my laziness in getting his share to him). It may also be that I am describing as “gunpowder” briny/metallic notes that you wouldn’t characterize that way. And, on the whole, you obviously found it more fruity than I did, especially on the nose.

    I don’t mean to try to explain away differences/discrepancies in any of the above. I think it is important to stress how subjective the whisky nosing/tasting experience is and how idiosyncratic the language into which we translate that experience can be.

    I’m looking forward to Thursday’s session. And I think I’ll revisit my sample again so as to try and remove the time variable a bit.

    1. Yeah, when I first read your review this morning I laughed thinking, "Holy moley, it's like different whiskies." But I agree, we did have a number of similar experiences but expressed it differently. For instance, I wasn't 100% sure about defining what I'd smelled as black licorice, but it's the connection my brain was most confident in making. An interesting study in sensory experience / language connections for me.

      The sulphuric issue interests me as well. I'm usually pretty sensitive to sulphur. And I don't mind a little bit of it, but when I found a big wallop of it in that Old Malt Cask Brora (a few months ago), I did begin to wonder how much sulphur I could enjoy. Jordan of Chemistry of the Cocktail said on Twitter that sulfides will oxidize to disulfides which don't smell as strongly, so I'm wondering if the decanting process and a couple weeks time softened up the gunpowder note in this HP.

      Ultimately, we both actually liked the whisky, though for different reasons. You probably liked your experience a little more than I, though my experience preferred to swim. Now I'm really curious about Thursday's whisky.

    2. Also, any further conversation between MAO and I about this whisky will be moved to MAO's site, just for ease.


  3. Well... Scotts Selection is offering very nice malt from time to time :)
    I really think that i haven't tasted many HP single casks yet, and i'm not sure what would show HPs distillery character better... a bourbon or a sherry cask, but i definetly would like to try one.

    1. Yeah, I haven't had a bad Scott's yet. There have been a couple that were so-so, but most I've tried have been good. A couple were dynamite. Most of the bottles in the states are those bottled between 2003-2007. Haven't seen any new ones yet, though I know that Europe has newer ones on the shelves.

      I'm still snooping around for a well regarded, but affordable, bourbon cask HP. I'm starting to wonder if their malt plays better with sherry. Need to do more research...

    2. Well... if you need someone to organize a bottle of HP out of a Bourbon Cask let me know. I have many friends and surely would be able to organize something. The only thing i'm not too sure about are US Regulations when sending alcohol by mail.

      Meanwhile i will enjoy a Dram of a 1965-2005 Glenfarclas from Scott's - lovely stuff :)

      Slàinte Mhath

    3. I'm pretty sure there is a slew of state and local regulations stating that you can't send alcohol by mail, unless you are a licensed distributor or seller. I also have yet to hear of a case when a whisky lover was prosecuted for such a crime. I would speculate that press and public opinion would not take too kindly on prosecutors wasting taxpayer money on enforcing prohibition era laws. There is the aspect of shipping flammable liquids, but that doesn't seem to stop merchants to send me cask-strength whisky by mail (but not via US Post Office).

    4. I always find i funny how the US seem to prohibit the most simple things while meantime you're able to buy firearms for kids... however... this is drifting into politics so i keep my mouth shut.

      Back to topic - i will ask some friends in our forum how they handle to send samples to the States.

    5. I've seen a couple old Glenfarclases from Scott's sitting on a shelf in a specialty place out here, looking dark as coffee.

      As Florin noted, there are interstate laws within the US in addition to international restrictions when it comes to shipping liquids (specifically those of the flammable sort). There are even a number of large US vendors that have stopped shipping within this country, due to these laws and taxes, even at the expense of losing a considerable chunk of their business.

      Our country has an odd relationship with booze, add into that mess some terrorism concerns (exploding whisky!) and 50 separate state governments, and you get this situation we're discussing. As it exists now, it benefits neither individuals or businesses.

      I would definitely recommend asking international forum folks as to how they send stuff. Also, drop me a line at divingforpearlsblog at gmail.com if you get some good tips from them. Thanks!

  4. If you're able to get one of those Glenfarclas you will not regret it. The '65 one is kinda weird, but in a good way. It misses the distillery characteristics and is going more towards a wood note together with asome drying sherry and smoke. I really prefer the last official '66 for Germany which is really a gem even with it's high age.

    As soon as i receive more infos from the forums i will let you know. A friend of mine is travelling the states on a regular base and could surely take some samples or even whole bottles into his luggage. Usually he's in SF but maybe thats an option.

  5. I just got told that Scotts Selection is going to quit. They just sell off what they have in their warehouses and thats it. What a shame :(

    1. I hadn't heard that. I hope that's not true. They've never been big on the marketing/advertising front, which might not be great for business but is appreciated by some of us consumers tired of hype. The most recent Scott's I've seen in the US is this Highland Park bottled in 2007. Everything else I've seen was bottled between 1996 - 2006. If what their distributor's rep told me last year is true, there are a TON of casks still in their warehouses. I wonder if they'd sell their stock to other indie bottlers? Or back to the distilleries looking for old stock? That way they'd limit their expenses.

  6. Jason of, well, Jason's Scotch Whisky Reviews actually emailed Gerry Tosh (Highland Park's distillery manager) all the way back in 2010 to ask about the distillery's cask usage. Tosh replied that HP uses all ex-sherry casks but the wood is a mix of American and European oak. Highland Park 15, specifically, uses more refill casks made from American Oak hence why it had citrus notes (apparently a characteristic of American oak maturation which lines up with Glenmorangie's citric flavor profile).

    Based on this response, I would infer that HP filling an ex-bourbon cask would be a rare occurrence and likely done for blend filling or selling to an independent bottler. This does make me curious to try one though.

    1. I get that citrus thing in the HP18, I wonder if that has anything to do with it.

      HP's US brand rep, Martin, told me that thing regarding the refill American oak casks and the HP15. I actually like that one a lot more than most folks, and mostly because the sherry is very reserved.

    2. There's a video I found on Youtube of a tour of Highland Park. The most curious thing I noticed were a set of Port wine casks in the warehouse which the tour guide explained was an experiment HP had conducted a while back. The result wasn't Highland Park so it appears the casks were left aging in the warehouse while the distillery staff wondered what to do with them.

      Personally I would totally take them off their hands and dispose of them for free.

    3. Edrington's marketing company could probably come up some sort of tie-in with a Viking legend about wine and then sell the bottles for $1000 a pop. Plus I'm sure any indie bottler would be happy to take the casks off their hands, even if they couldn't name the whisky "Highland Park". Otherwise, yeah, I'm with you.

  7. I've been thinking and I'm starting to wonder whether Highland Park has any ex-bourbon casks. I bring this up because I've been pondering about their use of American oak ex-sherry casks which are functionally the same barrel (not sure about their volumes though). G&M has been offering an 8 year old HP in the last few years that were matured in refill casks most likely made of American oak and the flavor profile is similar to other ex-bourbon matured malts. I'd say this would make for a great taste comparison but an ex-bourbon cask HP seems to be a unicorn among the indies.

    1. Many of their Viking-themed releases sound totally bereft of sherry. See Serge's reviews of Freya, Harald, Leif Eriksson, Sigurd, and Ragnvald. (I'm suggesting Serge because I do not foresee me trying a single one of their Viking releases.) Now whether they're using fourth-fill US oak ex-sherries or a fresher ex-bourbon may be a mystery. Whatever ex-bourbon casks HP has probably goes into Famous Grouse; I can't imagine they'd waste sherry casks on that blend.

    2. And I just proved myself wrong. I noticed Beltramo's had an Alexander Murray bottle of 13 year old Highland Park which I immediately picked up because it was 56.1% ABV (a rarity for Alexander Murray given they water down a lot of their whisky to 40%) and an ex-bourbon cask. Next to it was a Signatory Highland Park 15 that was also from an ex-bourbon cask. Since I agree that ex-bourbon HP is probably going into Famous Grouse, I am very happy to see the indies grabbing a few casks to bottle themselves.

    3. K&L carried that Alexander Murray HP bottling for a little while. Total Wine has it at their stores. It also interested me because the rest of the bottlings don't interest me. They appear to have a lot of casks of whisky and they appear to be abusing them all. Binny's appears to have a few indie single bourbon casks of HP too.

    4. The really weird thing is that bottling of Highland Park is cask strength. Alexander Murray's ENTIRE line (from their website) is 40% except for that HP.