Highland Park Whisky
Continued from page 1
ABOVE: The Yesnaby cliffs face the Atlantic on
the western coast of "The Mainland," the largest of Orkney's 70 islands. Winds
carry salt from the crashing waves across the island, flavoring everything from
the floral heather peat to the oak casks where Highland Park whisky is aged for
12 to 25 years before bottling.
Making the whiskies
When I arrived for lunch with Gerry Tosh and his PR
representative, Amanda Hathaway of M. Booth & Associates, I found two bottles of
Highland Park whisky next to my plate. For an instant I thought they might have
but not to worry: Mr. Tosh wasn't giving out so much as a swizzle stick, so my
integrity as a fledgling liquor journalist wasn't compromised. Instead, I was
treated to facts about Highland Park's single-malt whiskies:
Unlike "big" Island Whiskies (Laphroig, for example),
Highland Park has a very subtle smoky flavor, with only 4 parts per million
of phenol compared to 50 ppm for some of its peers. This is because the peat
on Orkney comes from floral heather bushes, which burns hotter and cleaner
than the grassy peats on other islands. (If you visit Highland Park's
distillery during the kilning of the barley malt, you'll see white smoke
from the pagodas, not the blue smoke that's typical of other island
Highland Park's single-malt whiskies are aged in plain oak
casks and used sherry casks; the sherry casks add a sweetness and complexity
to the whisky's flavor. About 20% of the spirits in Highland Park's
12-year-old whisky come from sherry casks; for the 18-year old, the
percentage is 45%, and sherry casks account for 50% of the whisky in a
bottle of 25-year-old Highland Park.
Because Orkney's temperatures are cool and nearly constant
throughout the year, the whisky doesn't soak as deeply into the oak of the
casks during aging as it
would farther south. This results in a gentle aging process with a less
"woody" flavor. Salt in the local air also has a subtle impact on Highland
Park's flavor by seasoning the casks during the 12 to 25 years of aging.
Though Mr. Tosh is a man who clearly knows his whiskies (and
how to nose a whisky), he isn't a whisky snob. Over lunch, he described
sharing a bottle of Highland Park and a tub of vanilla ice cream with his
wife while watching the Eurovision Song Contest on TV. ("We'd take a bite of
ice cream, then a sip of whisky, then another bite of ice cream, then
another sip of whisky....It was one of the best experiences of my life.") He
also told of visiting a working-class club where men would drink Scotch
whisky mixed with milk. ("It sounded awful, but it turned
out to be surprisingly good.")
Tasting the results
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