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Highland Park 12 Years Old (2015)

Review: Highland Park 12 Years Old (2015)   86/100
A review by Chip Dykstra (Aka Arctic Wolf)
Posted on January 23, 2016

The Highland Park Distillery traces its heritage back to 1798 where it was apparently founded by Magnus ‘Mansie’ Eunson, a local butcher, beadle (lay official of the church), and part-time smuggler. (The association with Magnus Eunson is by no means certain, but it does provide a wonderful back story for the distillery.)  The distillery itself is located in the Highlands of Scotland on the Island of Orkney which is famous for its heather rich meadows, and its unique organic Orcadian peat. At this distillery, all of the Highland Park Whisky is matured in two styles of oak barrels which are stored in warehouses with earthen floors and stone walls. Some of the whisky is matured in Spanish (Sherry) oak, and some of the whisky is matured in American (Bourbon) oak. Maturing the whisky in two different styles of oak allows the blender to capture characteristics of each in the final blend.

The 12 Year Old Highland Park Whisky is the core expression of Highland Park Distillery, that is to say, it is their flagship brand. Highland Park prides itself in not making any compromises when making whisky. The twelve-year expression is bottled at 43 % alcohol by volume, and is the youngest in Highland Park’s impressive lineup.

I reviewed this particular expression of Highland Park Single Malt Whisky back in 2009, and for several years it was one of my all time favourites. Recently, I received a newer bottling. I decided to put the whisky once again through the paces of my review system to see how this bottling (2015) compared to the great 2009 bottling.

Highland Park 12In the Bottle  5/5

The twelve-year-old expression of Highland Park comes in an oval-shaped black cardboard sleeve/box. The back of the sleeve contains a variety of advertising/informational highlights which whets the appetite for what is inside. The front of the box is labeled in white, silver and orange lettering.  However, what I like most is the fancy glyph  (Highland park logo) which is printed on the front of the container.

The bottle itself is adorned with a simple but professional label and has that same glyph embossed onto the bottom half of the bottle under the label. A solid high density cork finishes the presentation.

In the Glass 8.5/10

When I pour a few ounces of the Highland Park spirit into my glass, the peated nature of the spirit is immediately apparent. This time around, the charcoal smoke within the peat seems bulkier than it was in the past while the floral nature of the Orkney peat is sitting a little further back than I remember. When I inspect the whisky visually, I see it has a nice golden amber colour sitting a few shades to the left of the hue of a bright new penny. When I tilt the glass and give it a twirl, I see a thin sheen has been deposited. The crest at the top is stubborn at first, but it soon begins to drop slightly fat leglets which fall and become medium-sized legs which able at a moderate pace down the inside of the glass,

The whisky has had more time to breathe, and when I examine the breezes above the glass I sense more of the familiar aromatics of Orkney peat. There are light heather and lavender smells as well as smells of willow trees sitting atop a boggy peat. A very light butterscotch and honey sweetness is present as well, and this helps to make the Orkney peat more approachable. There is also a light astringency in the air or perhaps it is more accurate to call it a mildly acrid sensation similar to the smoke from a gun barrel. This hints at a bit of an ‘ashy’ quality within the peat smoke. Within all of this is a nice fine oaky spiciness with grain spices and bits of poplar wood and sap running throughout the breezes. Hints of cinnamon and ginger and a touch of menthol seem to be part of this spiciness.

Overall, I find that nosing the whisky is quite enjoyable, there is a strong underlying complexity to the aroma, although that hint of acrid ‘gun smoke’ has me slightly worried.

In the Mouth 51.5/60

The initial delivery brings bits of butterscotch and honey wrapped within aromatic heather and peppery oak spice. There is also a light ‘grassy’ quality which seems to make the whisky taste ‘thinner’ than I remember. As the whisky progresses through the palate, I begin to taste the peat and the oak spices overwhelming the sweetness, and then a rather firm bitterness sets in with a firm impression of charcoal ash separating itself from the herbaceous peat and the oak spices. When I chew on the whisky the oak spice ramps up even more heating the palate bringing me spicy flavours of poplar sap and willow as well a stronger impression of aromatic heather.

The 12 Year Old whisky has a strong complex flavour profile, and if I spent more time I could tease out more flavour descriptors. However it is also true that more sweetness within the dram would have been very welcome to combat the spicy bitterness which seems to settle in after a few swallows. This feeling is reinforced when I add a touch of ice as this brings more bitterness forward in the form of chalky chocolate flavours which dry the mouth just a little more than I would like.

In the Throat 12.5/15

The Highland Park 12 Year Old seems to be a lighter bodied whisky than it was in the past. This is most noticeable in the finish which is now medium length at best, and which displays hints of sharpness which were not present when I reviewed this whisky in 2009. The exit features grassy menthol-like flavours which linger, and an ebbing bitterness that yearns for just a touch more malty sweetness.

The Afterburn 8.5/10

Although some industry insiders deny it, whisky brands do change over time. In the case of the Highland Park 12 Year Old, these changes are apparent. I suspect the culprit which has caused the shortening of my score for is a new companion whisky on the Highland Park ladder, the Highland Park 15 Year Old Single Malt.

The addition of the 15 Year Old Single Malt to the Highland Park line-up has shortened the number of barrels available to be used in the 12 Year Old malt whisky. Not only that, the particular barrels which have become lost for this whisky for blending purposes would be in their entirety barrels which contained whisky older than 15 years. This would account for the ‘thinner’ nature of the Malt which was evident in my tasting sessions. There may be another reasons for the changes as well, in particular the oak shortage which has led some distilleries to stretch the overall lifespan of their aging barrels further which would imply the barrels used for maturation would have a higher average overall age for at least some of the expressions, and these older barrels would have less oak and less caramelized flavours to impart to the whisky.

This is of course merely speculation. What I can say for certain is that although the current bottling of Highland Park is excellent, as my score of 86/100 attests, the heights I assigned to this whisky in 2009 were not reached by the same expression of the whisky which I received in the fall of 2015.

You may read some of my other Whisky Reviews (click the link) if you wish to have some comparative reviews.


Suggested Recipe:

Blood and SandBlood and Sand

3/4 oz Highland Park 12 Year Old
5/8 oz Sweet Vermouth (Martini Rosso)
5/8 oz Cherry Brandy (Bols)
3/4 oz Fresh Squeezed Blood Orange Juice
Orange Zest or Peel (optional)

Add the first four ingredients into a metal shaker with ice
Shake until the outside of the shaker frosts
Strain into a cocktail glass
Garnish with orange peel (optional)

If  you are interested in more cocktail recipes, please click this link (Cocktails and Recipes) for more mixed drink recipes!


As always you may interpret the scores I provide as follows.

0-25 A spirit with a rating this low would actually kill you.
26-49 Depending upon your fortitude you might actually survive this.
50 -59 You are safe to drink this…but you shouldn’t.
60-69 Substandard swill which you may offer to people you do not want to see again.
70-74 Now we have a fair mixing rum or whisky.  Accept this but make sure it is mixed into a cocktail.
75-79 You may begin to serve this to friends, again probably still cocktail territory.
80-84 We begin to enjoy this spirit neat or on the rocks. (I will still primarily mix cocktails)
85-89 Excellent for sipping or for mixing!
90-94 Definitely a primary sipping spirit, in fact you may want to hoard this for yourself.
95-97.5 The Cream of the Crop
98+ I haven’t met this bottle yet…but I want to.

Very loosely we may put my scores into terms that you may be more familiar with on a Gold, Silver, and  Bronze medal  scale as follows:

70 – 79.5    Bronze Medal (Recommended only as a mixer)
80 – 89.5     Silver Medal (Recommended for sipping and or a high quality mixer)
90 – 95         Gold Medal (Highly recommended for sipping and for sublime cocktails.)
95.5+            Platinum Award (Highest Recommendation)



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