...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Assessing the Highland Park cluster at the halfway point

(Highland Park cluster homepage)

"Distillery character" is a term tossed about by writers who know what they're talking about, and writers who don't. As My Annoying Opinions detailed six(!) years ago, the term is fluid, a construction, and certainly not clear cut. Styles at some distilleries, like those who focus on sherried whiskies (Macallan, Glendronach, Glenfarclas, Dalmore, etc.), seem to be driven by cask sourcing and management programs, rather than what comes out of the stills. Some shift with ownership changes, like Ledaig/Tobermory and Bowmore. Others seem to be running away from a once famous style, like Ardbeg (towards dog and pony shows) and Laphroaig (towards......?). Then there's Glenmorangie, where Bill Lumsden is the distillery character.

That brings me to Highland Park. Back when the official releases centered around the 12yo, 15yo (R.I.P.) and 18yo, I thought I had a sense of HP's style: soft peat and citrus peels merging flawlessly with mild sherry casks. Today's its character is......Nordic? In the process of tossing out dozens of releases, the distillery seems to pushing for branding more than consistency. It doesn't seem to have hurt their sales (though who's rushing out to buy their NASes?), so I doubt they'll switch tracks any time soon.

If (or when) I reference HP's distillery style during this cluster, I'm referencing something close to the spirit. Not the naked new make, but rather a whisky not overwhelmed by its maturation vessel. That's my preference in general, which is why this cluster isn't just a bunch of Orkney sherry bombs.

Out of the six high-strength sherry cask Highland Parks I've tried during this cluster so far, I'd only buy one, with cask violence being the main issue with the others. Meanwhile, I'd be happy to chase after three out of the four bourbon cask HPs thus far. That trio mixes fruit, earth, minerals, salt and a little smoke just right. But my favorite of the first 15 Highland Parks may be the official 18yo that was bottled back in 2010. It's kind of perfect, with that style I thought I'd find more often during this cluster, a style that may not actually exist.

As with the Port Charlotte cluster, my expectations have been blown to bits, though much earlier in this cluster. There aren't as many through-lines connecting the whiskies as I'd thought there would be. I'll keep my whisky antennae up for the style I thought I'd find, as well as the good stuff I actually did experience in the bourbon casks. But the second half of the cluster leads to older things, whiskies that have drawn character from the cask over more years than the younglings from the first half. I'll have to say goodbye to the spirit and indulge instead in my adventures in time. I'm willing to make that sacrifice.