Finding good whisky is difficult. I don’t mean on the shelves – despite loud online debates to the contrary, there has never been such a range of different, great-tasting drams available – but finding a cask of whisky that is not only really good but also for sale is really hard.
Fortunately, there are still independent bottlers out there who have contracts and relationships set up which let them get their hands on excellent spirit, and some of them will even let us have the occasional cask all to ourselves. Today’s guardian whisky angel is Gordon & MacPhail, owner of some of the finest casks of whisky in all of Scotland, and bottler of our latest Whisky Exchange exclusive release – a cask-strength Highland Park 1999, matured in a single first-fill bourbon barrel.
Highland Park rarely bottles whisky that’s matured solely in bourbon casks, usually adding sherry-matured whisky to the mix to give the richer character that its whisky is known for. However, the spirit is worth examining in a more naked state, and while a first-fill ex-bourbon barrel still adds a lot of cask influence, it lets the distillery character shine though – soft fruit and a uniquely Orcadian smokiness.
When it comes to smoky whisky, Highland Park is not the first name that comes to mind. However, about a third of its malt is produced at the distillery’s own maltings and heavily peated to between 30 and 40ppm. Despite being at Ardbeg and Caol Ila levels of smokiness, it’s quite different, thanks to the use of heathery Orkney peat rather than Islay’s medicinal and iodine-laden fare. The peaty malt is then mixed with unpeated malt from the mainland, giving Highland Park’s spirit its characteristic gentle smokiness.
Nose: Honey, lemon and heather, with freshly scraped vanilla pods and tropical-fruit-flavoured chews. Soft floral notes build in the glass, with wax polish and a wisp of smoke.
Palate: Spicy and fruity, with balancing dryness and a tannic touch. Roasted banana and pineapple are joined by clove and freshly ground cinnamon, with apples, pears and black liquorice slowly developing. Behind it all is a pinch of ground charcoal and rich, savoury wood smoke.
Finish: Spicy, with mineral-heavy smoke and liquorice, that softens to creamy vanilla and clove.
Comment: Carefully balanced fruit, spice and smoke, showing the core of Highland Park’s character without a sherry overcoat.