Over the past few years, Highland Park have really embraced their single cask programme. We’ve seen a multitude of single casks being released each year, highlighted by Angus MacRaild in a two part series ominously called “Death by Highland Park”. And it doesn’t seem Highland Park will be stopping anytime soon. One of the latest extensions to their single cask range was recently bottled for The Whisky Exchange—a pitch black Highland Park 2003 16 Years from a first fill sherry butt.
Now, Highland Park is often associated with wooden packaging and over the top Viking marketing. To me (and maybe you as well) that’s a negative association. It feels a little bit try hard. To the less geeky consumer all this probably looks and sounds really cool. Either way, it is how Highland Park wants you to see them. Otherwise they wouldn’t spend a big chunk of their marketing budget on it.
The problem is it sometimes tends to drown out what a fantastic spirit Highland Park makes. Their single malt is seriously one of the best around; I feel that almost shouldn’t be up for discussion. Just look at all those undisclosed Orkney single malts that have been bottled in the last few years. They are consistently very good.
And yet, I might never completely take Highland Park seriously. Because when you spent all that money, time and energy on marketing, sometimes it feels like your overcompensating. Rarely do they let the liquid speak for itself. Each new release is accompanied with an elaborate back story that’s probably somewhat grounded in historic reality, but feels like the work of an overzealous marketing intern.
There’s and exception though—and the single cask range is it. Often picked by retailers, they’re simply all about the whisky. That’s rather refreshing and allows me to focus on what’s inside the bottle.
Highland Park 2003 16 Years (58.9%, OB, C#1885)
Nose: Roasted coffee beans and dark caramel with loads of warming spices like cinnamon and cloves. There’s a touch of burnt rubber, but also soy-marinated, barbecued chicken (focus on the soy). Bung cloth and chili-laced dark chocolate too. Finally a whiff of resin. Taste: Big, intense, dry and heavily sherried, yet it has preserved a bit of juicy sweetness. There’s even a tinge of smoke (while I couldn’t detect any on the nose). The spiciness is spot on and well-balanced with dried fruits and burnt caramel. Some tobacco leaves, maybe even a touch of mint. Finish: Lingering spices, raisins, caramel, coffee grounds. Very long.
Sickenly intense. It’s all just a bit much, isn’t it? Something in me doesn’t want to give this a high score — because where’s the art in chucking spirit into an über active sherry cask (probably with a good few liters of sherry still inside) like this?
But that wouldn’t be fair, because at the same time it is remarkably balanced as well. And I’m sure many people will looooooooove this. Man, it’s been a while since I have had a bomb like this. Available at The Whisky Exchange.