Highland Park Week – Day 7: Highland Park 27yo 1972/1999 (50%, Douglas Laing, Old Malt Cask, 324 bottles)

Wow, it’s already the seventh and last day of Master Quill’s Highland Park Week. How time flies when you’re having fun, but I say that after every Master Quill Week. Somehow it is always nice to concentrate on one subject and try several examples in quick succession. This week may have been a bit heavy on the Independent side, since only two offerings released by the distillery themselves were reviewed. Beforehand I would have thought the 18yo OB would be a worthy opponent to the five Independent offerings, but it turned out otherwise. We know the 18yo can be (very) good, but we also know that it does suffer from batch variation. So quite a surprise there. Another surprise was the sheer quality of the 9yo Signatory bottling. A Whisky not even in its teens! If only all of todays NAS offerings would be this good… Yesterday we had a very nice Highland Park bottled by Douglas Laing, which churned out quality Whisky one after the other. So it wasn’t a hard decision to end this Week with a 1972 bottling by Douglas Laing again, especially since it was bottled in 1999, early on in the Old Malt Cask series (OMC). Early OMC bottlings were always right up there, so lets see if this is any different, and therefore a worthy example to finish off this week.

Color: Gold.

Nose: I had only one sniff and I’m already in love. Nectar of the gods. Super fruity, old Malt. Too much fruit to name. Pineapple, passion fruit, apricots and white peach (somewhat later in the mix), but there is a lot more. More apricots, dried and sugared, Hints of regular peach and banana. Super fruity and super funky. Nutty and sweaty. Utterly wonderful. Yes this is an old Single Malt from, and I’m guessing here, a remade American oak hogshead. Vanilla combined with clay, soft spices and very soft oak. Vegetal and slightly dusty. Hints of cereal and latte macchiato as well. The yellow fruits are thick and syrupy, but just like a great, sweetish, White Wine, the acidic part is equally important. This thick, syrupy Highland Park has such an acidic top note, that livens the whole up. This is stuff from the hall of fame, something like 1972 Caperdonich. Stellar. Sugared yellow fruits picked up by hints of zesty citrus fruit. Well-integrated acidity. With some breathing, a more restrained note emerges. Fresh air. The big fruit dissipates a bit, leaving more room for some sour oak. Underneath, a slightly meaty, cold gravy aroma. Amazing how little wood is showing throughout. Butter with hints of salt and black pepper and after a while some nice oak finally emerges to make up the finish. Creamy and half-sweet yoghurt with white peach. Calvados and graphite powder. This change in character is kind of special. This Highland Park starts out as a 1972 Caperdonich, however the Caperdonichs don’t show such a change, so both finish quite differently.

Taste: Wonderful, elegant, half-sweet at first and a bit brittle. Lots of fruit again, red fruit pastilles and a large nutty part combined with slightly bitter dark chocolate and toffee. This is a bit of a Malt with granny’s osteoporosis, but we all love our granny don’t we, warts and all. It still has enough power at 50% ABV, but the aroma’s don’t seem to be as big as in the nose. Laid back fruit and even some Belgian Beer (again). It’s definitely simpler and not as thick as I imagined it to be. Some sweetness from sugared fruits, which fade-out… The body is thin, but not weak. It disintegrates a bit. Still a pretty long finish though, leaving a note of warm milk (from the latte macchiato?)

Don’t buy the, sometimes, mediocre over-priced, over-hyped bottlings of today, unless there are no old bottles to be bought, when bottles don’t show up anymore at auction. All collected or hopefully drunk by people who appreciate them. Spend your hard-earned cash on something like this, before it’s really too late. Everybody needs to taste how it used to be, and how it could be done…

Points: 91

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Highland Park Week – Day 6: Highland Park 17yo 1984/2001 (50%, Douglas Laing, Old Malt Cask, 786 bottles)

Two more to go, so alas, we are near the end of yet another Master Quill Week. As we have seen the past few days, here is another independently bottled Highland Park, this time by Douglas Laing. Near the end of the nineties, Douglas Laing started bottling single cask Single Malts, with enormous success. It may very well have been the most successful independent bottler with stellar releases, time after time. Heaps of Brora and Port Ellen come to mind. I guess back then, they were a bigger name, temporarily, than Gordon & MacPhail and maybe Signatory Vintage. If the cask had enough ooomph, the Whisky was reduced to their preferred drinking strength of 50% ABV. It is a good strength. Nobody back then complained about reduction, or that it should have been cask strength only. I loved a lot of their bottlings and bought quite a few of them. Even though the bottle itself is pretty simple, I am a sucker for Whisky in green glass (remember Laphroaig?).

Here we have a 17yo Highland Park with hardly any color. The cask yielded a lot of bottles, so I’m guessing the original Whisky was pretty high in ABV, and came out of a Fino Sherry puncheon (or butt). I’ve tried quite a few Douglas Laing bottlings from Fino Sherry casks, so it shouldn’t be too hard to recognize.

Color: White Wine.

Nose: Very restrained, but right from the start the unmistakable aroma’s of Fino Sherry maturation. As I said, if you had a few, it isn’t too hard to recognize. Fresh sea-spray with a laid back nuttiness. The more it breathes, the nuttier it becomes. Wonderfully elegant and not as big or raw, as Oloroso and PX sherry casks can be, especially in more recent bottlings. This Fino cask didn’t impair a lot of color to the Whisky, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t give off a lot of aroma as well. Well, one thing is for sure, this doesn’t smell like a Whisky from a Bourbon or even some other tired cask. So don’t be fooled. Added to the fresh sea-spray, are some lemony notes. Zesty lemon skins. Perfumy, and ever so slightly floral. Cookie dough. Almond cookies. Hints of toasted cask. Scorched heather maybe? Vegetal, with hints of garden bonfire (but not the smoke). Slightly dusty as well. Extremely balanced, but not hugely complex. Lovely.

Taste: Yeah. Sweet, much sweeter than expected. Lots of Vanilla and nicely creamy and vibrant. Lemons and the flesh of sweet apples, so not thick nor cloying. Where the nose was quite restrained, this isn’t, but on the other hand, the nose had more “Fino” to it. Ice-cream and hardly any wood. For a short while, towards the finish, it has aroma’s from a Belgian Trappist Triple Beer. Also a bit soapy, floral with a tad of bitterness. These three are kept in check rather well, so don’t be disturbed. High quality stuff, and tasting it now it is much nicer and better than I remembered. Last time I tasted this, I still had not acquired the taste for Fino Whiskies, but now I have and I love it! Long finish, as all Whiskies should have and a very nice and warming aftertaste. If I’m honest, this isn’t the most complex stuff around, even though there is enough development in the glass. It is, however, extremely balanced, and I consider this to be high quality stuff, but I might have said that before already.

When I smell this and my mind wanders off, I feel Whiskies today rarely ever have this profile anymore, so it seems Fino casks often end up somewhere else than in Independent bottlings. Maybe the Whisky is different because Sherry casks themselves are more often made from American oak (more vanilla aromas) than European oak (more tannins). American oak makes Sherry creamier and more accessible, friendlier, aiming at a larger consumer base.

I have said it before, and I will say it again. Whiskies from Fino casks maybe are an acquired taste, as it was for me. I wasn’t too fond of the particularities of Fino cask maturation for a long time, but I got it in the end, and I have to say it works wonders with Whisky. I love it. Its like Bourbon cask matured Whisky with a twist, and sometimes quite a large twist, also the difference between Fino bottlings can be enormous.

A nice contrast to yesterdays Signatory offering. The differences couldn’t be greater, even though both come from a “Sherry-cask”. So now you know if you see: “Matured in a Sherry cask” on a label, you still know nothing and have no clue of what to expect…

Points: 87

Highland Park Week – Day 5: Highland Park 9yo 1988/1997 (59.6%, Signatory Vintage, Sherry Butt #10700, 630 bottles)

Lets backup in time even some more. We stay in the land of the independent bottler, this time Signatory Vintage. We are going to take a look at another Highland Park matured in a Sherry cask, a butt even. This one is an even younger example at 9 years of age. The G&M/Whisky Mercenary bottling was 20yo, The Wilson & Morgan was around 14yo, and this Signatory Vintage bottling is a mere 9yo. Highly unusual back then, not so unusual today, since demand has risen dramatically. There is no time anymore to age the bulk of Whisky when there are so much of you around, dear readers. We’ll also go back in time bit since this was distilled in 1988. That is almost 30 years ago!

Color: Copper gold.

Nose: Funky Sherry, but this time with some quality behind it. Meaty and buttery as well, with some nice distant fruit going on. Dusty mocha and milk-chocolate. Dark chocolate as well. Steam, sowing-machine oil. Clean toilet notes, not to be mistaken by a freshly cleaned toilet odour. I know this sounds pretty peculiar, but I get it in this, so I couldn’t help myself and had to write it down. Deeper and more brooding. Probably Oloroso. Cedar wood with an oriental spice-mix and pencil shavings. Even though it is a young Whisky, it already smells like something from another era. Christmas spices. Christmas cake. Dusty and very thick. luxury and velvety, just like the box. The more it breathes the better is gets, give it lots of room for development. A much better Sherry cask than the one, the 1992 Wilson & Morgan expression matured in. After this, forget about that one.

Taste: Well this is almost 60% ABV and that shows. Its big, thick and a bit hot, but also very fruity (meaty blueberries), and amazingly pretty woody as well, but not too much. Luckily it also has some toffee sweetness to it, to balance it all out. Steam and coal. You are conned, by the initial sip, this is going to be sweet, but the sweetness is shoved aside by bullying tannins and Italian laurel licorice. I’m guessing this came from a first fill Oloroso butt, which impaired enough onto this Whisky, so it could be used as a very nice refill cask the second time around. Long oaky finish, with an even longer aftertaste full of black fruits and (cedar) wood. It isn’t all that complex, but when a Whisky is as tasty as this, it doesn’t need to be. It’s only 9yo, but it is bottled at the right time, believe me. Probably Oloroso, but Cream Sherry or PX might be possible as well.

Ohhh, I want one of these. 1988, wow, 9yo, wow-wow. This in my glass and some 80’s music, and I’d have a great day.

Points: 90

Highland Park Week – Day 4: Highland Park 1992/2006 (46%, Wilson & Morgan, Refill Sherry)

Yesterday we ventured into the realm of the independent bottler, well two actually. Today we’ll stay there but add only one independent bottler to our collection. This time we’ll have a look at a reasonably priced, (at least it was reasonably priced ten years ago, when this was bottled), and reduced Highland Park bottled by Italian outfit Wilson & Morgan. Yes, you’ll find a lot of people in Italy with names like that!

Yesterdays Highland Park was distilled in 1995, this particular one was distilled several years earlier. Do you see a trend? However, since this was bottled ten years prior to yesterdays 1995 offering, this one is definitely younger (as in it spent less time in wood). Here it is stated on the label that this came out of a Refill Sherry cask, so lets see if this one has more Sherry influence, compared to yesterdays Refill Hogshead.

Color: Gold.

Nose: Funky Sherry notes and actually a bit soapy. Much different from the previous Highland Park. Right from the start discrepant fruity acidic notes. Dusty and vegetal. Not very appealing actually. First impression is that something is not quite right. Warm, dull (nothing sticks out or shines) and somewhat simple. Not a lot of development. It’s almost like the Highland park distillate and this particular Sherry cask are no friends of each other. I’m wondering what kind of Sherry it was. Definitely unbalanced. Hints of caramel, toast and aspirin powder. Add to that a vibrant red fruity, synthetic, acidity. Unbelievable how dusty this is. No wood and some hidden sweetness. Syrup, sugar (the smell of it, not the sweetness). Hints of morning breath and Jenever. Powdered coffee creamer.

Taste: Wow, the dullness mentioned above is right op front the taste as well, as is (finally) some wood. Short hot burst and woody spices. Friendly hint of, again synthetic, lemon. Some sweetness in the background, toffee, coffee creamer and yet again an unbalanced middle part. Rural notes. Here the dullness translates into paper. Old newspaper (hold the ink). The red fruits mentioned above make up the rather short finish, with a unbalaced aftertaste. The cask did it’s part here. It did impair aromas you wouldn’t get from a Bourbon cask. However, just like was noticeable on the nose. The Highland Park distillate and the cask didn’t work together very well.

This one is long gone and you don’t even see them that much on auctions. Most older bottles of reduced Whisky, by Wilson & Morgan were very affordable, so I guess most were drunk when they were released. If you come across this one at auction or on a dusty shelf somewhere, well it’s not without reason it stayed on that shelf and when auctioned, I wouldn’t pay all that much for it. Its Whisky, it’s not bad and it doesn’t have big flaws. Definitely drinkable, but not a high flyer if you ask me. A bit unbalanced and very restrained or dull, but not boring, or maybe that as well…

Points: 80

Highland Park Week – Day 3: Highland Park 20yo 1995/2015 (50%, Gordon & MacPhail, Exclusive, for The Whisky Mercenary, Refill Hogshead #1485, 325 bottles)

Day three of Master Quills Highland Park Week and after two OB’s, its time to see what the IB’s are up to with Highland Park. Here we have a special one since it is one independent bottler, Gordon & MacPhail, bottling a Highland Park for another independent bottler, The Whisky Mercenary. This may very well be the best of three worlds, first Highland Park make a great distillate. Second I love how G&M work, where they try to have as much in their own hands as possible, The wood, the maturation, the selection and the bottling to mention but a few. Third, Mercenary Jurgen has a good nose, and is able to pick some nice stuff, and believe me it’s hard to get what you really want as an independent bottler. So here we have a 20yo Highland Park from a refill hogshead. When looking at the colour it seems to be at least a third refill remade hogshead from staves taken out of Bourbon barrels. Now forget what I said, because looks can often be deceiving and it is actually very dangerous to do so. My bad, and I hope you won’t make the same mistake like me.

Highland Park 20yo 1995/2015 (50%, Gordon & MacPhail, Exclusive, for The Whisky Mercenary, Refill Hogshead #1485, 325 bottles)Color: Light gold, almost White wine.

Nose: Right from the start, not even smelling from the glass, but whilst pouring, a nice creamy vanilla smell passes by. On top some Calvados. Quite some aromas that have to do with apples. Fatty red apple skin, but mostly warm apple sauce. In the background it has some more scarce notes of other distillates, other than Whisky. Can’t put my finger on it yet. Nutty chocolate paste with a trace of red fruit acidity. Warm soft wood with hints of semi-sweet yellow fruit and some dust. Underneath this has some smoke combined with soft woody spices and cold butter. American oak alright, and definitely not first fill or the next fill. So I guess my dangerous assumption plays out all right this time. So overall quite nice, good balance, but not very complex though. Adding to my feeling the cask may have been a bit tired already. I don’t think it was filled yet again.

Taste: The first note is that of wood. Soft wood. Next some sweetness. Honey, smoky toffee and caramel at first but the wood takes over again adding some dryness. Vegetal. Same as the nose. Good balance but not very complex. Tired cask again, even though the biggest influence seems to be that of wood. Medium finish and hardly any aftertaste. When its gone, its gone. No honey or wood stays behind. After some breathing and taking sips again, the Calvados notes emerge on the taste as well. The diluted toffee notes seem to grow not bigger, but wider, like butter candy with hints of lemon skin shavings or lemon curd, since that is sweeter. Also distinct notes of almonds. The smoky notes present themselves here as well now. So with extensive breathing there seems to be more (complexity) to this Whisky than I initially thought. See, how you have to be patient? Don’t fill up your glass too much, give it room for air, and be patient if you want to enjoy its full potential.

Connoisseurs, there is that dreadful word again, dislike tumblers or any other “wrong” glass. They are adamant about it. They don’t allow for flavour development, of which this Highland Park is an excellent example. This Highland Park needs a good glass. Personally I equally dislike it when one buys the “right” glass but then fill it up too much (and then post  a half full Glencairn glass on social media). This again doesn’t allow the Whisky to develop in the glass. You need a lot of room for air. Try it. Be patient, be smart!

The hint of smoke is actually very nice and makes it resemble Talisker and, to a lesser extent, Springbank a bit. So if I had to taste this blind I would have gone for Talisker, without the pepper though. Good distillate, reasonable cask and a nice profile. Needs some time, so don’t be hasty. Good Highland Park and just like the Leif Eriksson, again one without Sherry, and another thing becomes clear, 50% ABV > 40% ABV.

Points: 86

Highland Park Week – Day 2: Highland Park 18yo (43%, OB, 2014)

What are you doing Master Quill? Not too long ago you already reviewed one of those “newer” Highland Park 18yo‘s, did you forget? Are you drinking too much, making your memory slide? Nope not really, but with this one I want to tell you a short story…

A long time ago, the wide necks were replaced by the more feminine bottles, which in turn, in 2007, got replaced by this more manly look they have got today, well… Back in that day I felt Highland Park were a bit suffering from batch variation, something the industry is afraid of because it may put-off loyal drinkers of a particular expression. It must look, smell and taste the same every time around. It is a sort of mantra throughout the industry. Unless you are called Springbank and make exactly thát your strength. By “thát” I mean: batch variation. Just look at the success of the 12yo “Cask Strength” expressions. You see a lot of comparisons between batches on the internet. In the end everything at Springbank is released in batches that vary from one to the other. “Hello, I’d like a Springbank 18yo, released in 2016, no not the 2015, the 2016 please…”

I loved the old, wide neck, 18yo Highland Park to death and when that got replaced by the feminine looking 18yo I bought me a few of those, expecting more of the same. Well, the new one was pretty disappointing in comparison. I was sad the whole time drinking the bottle, and when I finished it, I sold the rest of the bottles, I bought, not buying the 18yo for a long, long time. Recently I got hold of a sample of the “new” 18yo (bottled in 2012) and was nicely surprised. Not as good as the wide neck, but certainly worth your time, effort and money. I liked the 2012 so I bought a few bottles of the “new” 18yo when it was on offer, and ended up with a batch that was bottled in 2014. (L0405S L4 16:09 14:53) (S=2014).

This is a story about batch variation, and something about a donkey hitting its head on a stone, so lets compare this 2014 with the 2012 I reviewed earlier.

Highland Park 18yoColor: Full gold (slightly lighter than the 2012).

Nose: Barley and pleasantly fruity. Definitely more fruity than the 2012 batch. Waxy, warming, heather, vanilla and honey, so it’s a Highland Park alright. Dusty and when smelled more intensely, some smoke emerges. Peat, not so much. Influences of dull smelling Sherry (as in not fruity), and even hints of a compound containing the element of S (Sulphur). Cookie dough and charred pencil shavings. However right from the start it also smells a bit thin. Watery. It’s also lacking some depth and I would almost say that it smells younger than the 2012 batch. Next, some paper-like and vegetal notes. More smoke and a fresher note of Belgian style Beer. Slightly less balanced as well, but also somewhat more complex. If I dare say so, this one has even some exotic notes reminding me of Amrut (matured in Bourbon casks).

Taste: Hmmm, the first thing I notice is definitely a discrepancy in the balance of this 18yo and an obvious weakness. Tiny notes of paper and cardboard. Warming. Hints of the Belgian Beer-notes are right there from the start. Cream and a hint of cold fresh butter. Sherry and hints of vanilla and cardboard. Not as complex as the nose. Watered down wax and heather and an unpleasant edge of bitterness, which has some staying power. After letting it breathe for a while, quite unexpectedly, some hints of red fruits pass by. Short to medium finish, with again a Beer-like quality to it. I was taken aback a bit by this when it was just opened, now the bottle is half full, got some time to breathe and it still isn’t getting any better. Change, yes, better, no. So this one really got several chances to redeem itself, but alas. It isn’t to be.

Where the nose was still good and complex, this definitely is a lesser batch of the “new” 18yo. The 2012 batch is way better than this 2014, and its an obvious difference as well. (I have them both before me). So it happened to me again. Donkey. I taste a 18yo Highland Park, like it, go out and buy several bottles at once, and I end up with a different batch, most definitely less good than the one I tasted before. Disappointing and annoying. Luckily I keep samples and can do proper H2H’s, proving to myself, I’m not going slightly mad. I still have some unopened bottles of this batch, bugger. Now I have to sell 18yo Highland Park bottles again.

Just to be sure I brought this bottle with me on an evening with my Whisky club, a seasoned bunch of experienced older fellows (I hope they don’t read this). I said nothing, just observed people drinking it and listen to their reactions and comments. Well people, it turns out it wasn’t only me…

This hurts. I have been a big, big fan of Highland Park since my beginnings in Single Malt Whisky, and that will never die, because I know it is a good distillate. However, the amount of mediocre bottlings put out by Highland Park today are scaring me (as does the emphasis on marketing). Bugger.

Points: 82

Highland Park Week – Day 1: Highland Park “Leif Eriksson” (40%, OB, Travel Retail Exclusive, 2011)

Time for another of Master Quill’s weeks. This time around we’ll focus on Highland Park. When rummaging through my stash of samples or bottles I sometimes come across a few which have some sort of common link, usually being made at the same distillery, but there can be many others. In no way should it be a true cross-section of the standard range or should it be all official or recent bottlings. Nope, the aim is to have fun with seven Whiskies, more or less picked at random. In this case Highland Park gets the honor. I have picked seven Highland Park Whiskies to have fun with and put them in some sort of logical order. We’ll start off with Leif Eriksson, one of many travel retail offerings. Usually reduced to 40% and usually bottled in a convenient litre bottle. This time however it is the standard 700ml bottle that can be easily picked up outside of an airport…

I may have mentioned this before, but Highland Park is owned by the Edrington Group. A company that also owns The Macallan. With both these distilleries, or brands, Edrington do a lot of marketing. There is an obvious core range made up of Whiskies with age statements, and some of them have already featured on these pages as well. Besides that Highland Park, as many others, loves travel retail outlets and are keen on issuing special series (aiming at collectors).

I am a big fan of the Highland Park distillate and when we look at Highland Park, pré marketing, you would have a hard time finding even a mediocre bottling. Just have a go at an older wide neck bottling and you’ll know what I mean, or even ask Olivier Humbrecht about Highland Park and you are set for the day.

The beginning of the special series craze, I mentioned above, started with the release of Earl Magnus in 2009 (5.976 bottles). It is part of a trilogy called the Inga Saga. Earl Magnus is a 15yo Highland Park of impeccable quality, and back then was released at a more than reasonable price. It was followed up in 2010 with a 12yo called Saint Magnus (11.994 bottles), which was a bit less interesting and the series was concluded in 2011 with an 18yo called Earl Haakon (3.000 bottles). It was a hybrid of the standard ages of 12yo, 15yo and 18yo, but also bore names of mythical figures from the history of Orkney. Today its hard to imagine a company releasing only one special bottling a year! By the way, this 18yo was top-notch again. Many series like this were created since.

However Leif Eriksson is not part of any series I know of. It’s a bottling commemorating the Viking Eriksson who was the first European to set foot in North America. So it shall be no surprise this Highland Park was matured wholly in American Oak casks (probably all ex-Bourbon).

highland-park-leif-erikssonColor: Gold.

Nose: Starts with a hint of smoke and heather, and a nice funkiness I know from older Highland Parks. Initially also quite sweet. Nice sweet barley notes, honey and also quite fruity. Cold butter. A very appealing, and slightly dirty, nose. Lots of vanilla and creamy latex paint, as could be expected. Less expected was the coal dust and Aspirin powder I got next. Highland Park is a distillate that does well in any cask. Excellent nose.

Taste: Oh no. Aiii, sweet honey and sugar-water. What a shame. This one is definitely ruined by reduction. Maybe they felt it was too hot at cask strength and since it had to be bottled for travel retail they automatically reduced it to the lowest strength possible, 40% ABV. Sweet, creamy vanilla again. Hints of almonds. Lots of creamy notes as well as lots of vanilla. That’s the main marker of the taste. Not a lot of wood though, although there is a nice toasted cask edge to it. The palate matches the nose very well. This should have been a litre bottle, since to get the max out of this you need to drink this in big gulps and roll it around a lot in your mouth (needs a lot of air as well). Funny enough a slightly bitter oak note emerges in the aftertaste…

You can still taste the potential of this. It is almost as if has to be suitable for pilots who still have to fly. I hope not. The nose is wonderful and the taste does show the potential. It is not a bad Whisky. It could have been a very good Bourbon expression of Highland Park, but it was ruined by one bad decision. The amount of reduction. Still, it sometimes can hit a soft spot, and is still an example how Highland Park can be without the (big) Sherry.

Points: 81