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Friday, July 9, 2021

Highland Park 18 year old four times, four bottling codes

(Highland Park cluster homepage)

In previous decades, Highland Park 18 year old was considered a modern classic, then more recently it became one of the bellwethers of the single malt price surge as it jumped from $100 to $150 seemingly overnight. When Highland Park rebranded in 2017, the 18yo became Viking Pride (because Erik Thorvaldsson drank a lot of Highland Park 18) and received a whole new bottle shape.

I'll be honest, I haven't tried the stuff since the rebranding, partly because of the price, partly because there are a A LOT of whiskies out there. But I have obtained two samples and two minis of the pre-Viking 18 year old. One sample was from an OC Scotch Club event, the other was from a Columbus Scotch Night event, and I bought the two minis from a place in LA that was slinging them for only $6.99 a pop!

Each of these four HP18s has a different bottling code, and interpreting HP bottling codes can be challenging. Luckily for us, there have been several online discussions that have gotten as close to the truth as any of us will likely get unless we're hired by The Edrington Group. Here are three such conversations: the first of which was initiated by a mysterious chap named Mongo (who has feelings for Sheriff Bart):

https://whiskywhiskywhisky.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=95835 - This one was initiated by a mysterious fellow named Mongo (who has feelings for Sheriff Bart).
https://www.connosr.com/highland-park-bottling-codes-whisky-discussion-1731
https://www.connosr.com/macallan-cs-bottle-codes-whisky-discussion-1547

Going by the information gleaned by these good people, a drinker can discern an HP18's bottling year by the bottling code, specifically the letter that ends the first part of the code. For example:

L0092K L10 25:02 10:04
L0262M L3 14:04
L0276R L3 11:07
L0566S L4 16:12 11:40

The label style, seen on the minis in the pic below, ran for 11 years from 2006 to 2016. Per the linked discussions, here is your secret decoder:

F - 2006
G - 2007
H - 2008
J - 2009
K - 2010
M - 2011
P - 2012
R - 2013
S - 2014
T - 2015
W - 2016

So for my samples:

L0092K L10 25:02 10:04 - bottled in 2010 (erroneously marked 2009 on my sticker)

L0262M L3 14:04 - bottled in 2011

L0276R L3 11:07 - bottled in 2013

L0566S L4 16:12 11:40 - bottled in 2014

Because these are all only 43%abv, I can try them side-by-side-by-side-by-side without causing an international incident. Probably.



Highland Park 18yo, 43%abv
code L0092K L10 25:02 10:04 - bottled in 2010

Oh the nose. Clementines, apricots, lychee and guava. Candied pecans, almond extract and toffee pudding. And if that wasn't enough, there's a definite Yamazaki 18 note to it.

The palate may be even more complex than the nose. Sweet clementines meet bitter stone fruit skin meet ultra tart limes. Almonds, salt, stones and a bit of dunnage rest in the background. There are some very sticky, almost paxarette-style sherry casks in the mix. They show up late and never leave, just like me!

It finishes with sweet citrus, tart citrus, roasted almonds and minerals/stones.

This HP earns its reputation. It's a work of art. Stellar right at 43%abv, it is the least peaty HP18 I've ever had, and the fruitiest. At times it reads older than 18 years, but I doubt there was anything much older in the mix, since single malt sales were already on the rise in 2010. We were spoiled at that OCSC event.

RATING - 90


Highland Park 18yo, 43%abv
code 
L0262M L3 14:04 - bottled in 2011

Raw pecans, raw almonds and gravel lead the nose, followed by a gentle briny peat and a hint of nocino. Hints of orange peel and apricots sneak into the smoke after a while.

The palate begins with bitter chocolate, dunnage, creme de cassis and dried currants. There are hints of a super dry cabernet at the start, which then fade away and are replaced by grapefruit notes. Considering the dilution and filtration, the whisky has a very silky mouthfeel.

It finishes with bits of bitter chocolate, smoke, lemons and grapefruits.

A year later, a drier batch. Gone are most of the 2010's fruits, replaced by some very good edgy tart and bitter qualities. Because of this, the whisky is less moreish, and more of a fighter. It would pair well with a heavy dessert and a winter evening.

RATING - 88


Highland Park 18yo, 43%abv
code 
L0276R L3 11:07 - bottled in 2013

This one's nose leans closer to a seaweed-y Islay peat than I'm used to finding in an official HP, but it's quieter and more delicate than the famous malts from that island to the south. There are summer wildflowers, orange blossoms and almond brittle in the middle, and some sherry cask dried fruits in the back.

Again with the orange blossoms, now on the palate, joined by orange brandy, almond skins and a pinch of salt. Hints of peaches and musty casks linger in the background. It's the sweetest of today's four HP18s, and there's no sign of the nose's peat.

Plenty of sweetness fills the finish as well, though it's slightly tempered by some salt, wood smoke and bitter peel.

Though the nose is very interesting, the palate is simply pretty. It's very well made and a pleasure to drink (too quickly), but without the previous two HP18s' complexity, it feels like a half step down. The palate needs that peat, even if it's just a touch. Again, it's good stuff but not that much better than that era's 12yo.

RATING - 86



Highland Park 18yo, 43%abv
code 
L0566S L4 16:12 11:40 - bottled in 2014

There's definitely some complexity to the nose here. There are minerals, limes, and a hint of the briny peat, but also some butterscotch, orange blossoms and dried cranberries. Oddly, an eau de vie note appears after 30 minutes.

The palate begins with bitter orange peel, grassy smoke, pruny sherry casks and lots of buttery American oak. It loses some of that oak over time, but it's only replaced by black pepper.

It finishes bitter, buttery, and peppery, with a few limes.

This one was of a much different quality than the other three. It was also the most recent sample, from a bottle opened less than a year ago. If memory serves me right (which is not guaranteed), this whisky underwhelmed at the whisky event as well. The nose is the best part, again, and keeps this from dropping into the 70s, rating-wise. I'd take any of the popular Speyside/Highland 18s over this one's palate.

RATING - 81


That ended on a weird note. My hope is that the L0566S was from an off batch, and that my lone unopened bottle of HP18 (a letter 'T') doesn't have similar issues. The 2014 was the only one of the four where the oak became aggressive. Were it a 2021 bottling, I wouldn't have been shocked, but 2014 seems early for cask tinkering.

Meanwhile, the 2010 was utterly lovely, and some folks might even like the 2011 better. I enjoyed finding the orange notes appear in all four whiskies, taking on different forms at different times for different senses. The palates' lack of peat was fascinating as well. Either my palate was blown out from 2.5 months of Port Charlotte or 18 years of maturation in the official warehouses softens and shifts Highland Park's phenolics.

May your remaining bottles of pre-Viking Highland Park 18 year old match your preferences. Next week, I will drink something stronger...

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