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Highland Park Whisky

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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 been schwag, 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 distilleries.)

  • 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.

  • Highland Park is one of only five distilleries in Scotland that still use traditional "floor malting," where the "green" or germinated malt is spread manually on a perforated steel floor and dried slowly over a peat fire.

  • 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.")

Next page: Tasting the results

In this article:
Highland Park Whisky - Introduction
Making the whiskies
Tasting the results
Orkney Islands, distillery tours
Web links

Also see:
Scotland's Whisky Distilleries

Photo copyright © Highland Park. Used by permission.