17 March 2021
Distillery Profile: Highland Park
The Highland Park distillery is located on the outskirts of Kirkwall, the main town on the Island of Orkney that just off the north coast of Scotland. Orkney is comprised of around 70 islands in total (some only appear when the tide is low!), of which around 22 are inhabited. The islands sit at 59º latitude, which is almost the same as Bergen in Norway.
What this means is less seasonal effect on temperature, but plenty of effect on light. Summers peak at about 16ºC and over 18 hours of sunlight. Winter rarely drops below 0ºC and captures a mere 6 hours of daylight. Wind, on the other hand, is a constant feature. The islands actually feel like they are near the top of the world, the sun and shadows behave differently in Orkney, the clouds appear low, distant and somehow squashed.
The isolation is palpable, and it’s said that only 1% of Scots ever visit, which is why it might seem surprising that the islands have been prized for so long. The standing stones of Orkney are the oldest man made structures in the British Isles, Roman conquests took great interest in the islands too, as did Viking invaders in the 10th Century, who have left behind a lasting Nordic burble in the otherwise Scottish dialect of the Orcadians. Orkney was also the chief tactical Naval base during the first and second world wars, mainly due to the Scapa flow, which is one of the largest natural harbours in the World. During times of war the population grew by a factor of six, from the steady 20,000 souls, up to 120,000.
The Highland Park distillery stopped production during both wars, during WW2 the wash backs served as gigantic bathtubs for naval men who would walk over from nearby communication bunkers.
The rather Nordic sounding Magnus Euson first founded a distillery on the Highland Park site in the late 18th century and the operation was founded properly in 1798 by David Robertson. Before the Excise Act of 1826 it would have operated illegally, which is the reason for the tactical placement it holds with views out to Kirkwall harbour and the incoming roads from the south - no, there’d be no unexpected visits from Excise Officers here!
Obviously the distillery is a totally legitimate operation today, owned and operated by the Edrington group, who play parent to the Macallan brand as well as the Famous Grouse blend, which HP contributes towards.
From a production perspective Highland Park’s most interesting feature is its malting floors. It is the largest of the seven distilleries that malt their own and supplies 20% of HP’s total requirements and 100% of the subtle peat influence that is lingers in the final product. The remaining 80% (unpeated) malt is bought in from Simpsons Maltings on the mainland. I’m told by HP’s distillery manager, Graham Manson, that when all is said and done the barley that is malted by at the distillery itself costs twice as much as it would be were it bought in from the mainland. But Highland Park consider the Orkney peated malt to be a part of their whiskies DNA, and the accountants are fighting a losing battle in this instance.
The Peat smoke on Orkney is different to that of the mainland partly due to the lack of trees on the island, which gave up braving Orkney’s incessant salty winds a long time ago. Highland Park’s peat is brown like soil, rich with heather roots and not a lot else. Peat cutting takes place on Hobbister Moor in late spring, where over 350 tons is cut, mostly by hand, in the space of two weeks. Its influence is that of a light sootiness, rather than the iodine phenolics of a comparable Islay malt.
The second most interesting feature of HP bookends the production process, and it is wood. No bourbon casks have been filled since 2004, and every cask whether made from American or European Oak is constructed in Spain and loaned out to be filled with sherry for two years. Even for Highland Park’s core 12 year old expression, the distillery must be thinking about supply and demand a full 20 years in advance. Daryl Haldane, Global Brand Ambassador, tells me that “the acid in the sherry removes the flavours from the wood that we don’t want in Highland Park.”
The multitude of expressions that Highland Park produce trace out a battle between old and new world casks, fought by fresh first-fill warriors and tired (and tested) refill veterans. Each expression is like a de-briefing of the aftermath where one side usually tips the other.
For us, it’s the strict code of malt and wood that Highland Park adhered to, coupled with the open attitude to explore complex avenues of wood influence over time that defines Highland Park whisky and makes it some of the most highly respected stuff out there.