Highland Park 40 Year Old Whisky
Whisky Review: Highland Park 40 Year Old Single Malt Whisky 85.5/100
a review by Chip Dykstra (Aka Arctic Wolf)
Posted on April 2, 2011
This review is based upon a small sample provided to me from the personal collection of J. L. Wheelock, who is part of the Beam Global team here in Alberta. The sample was smaller than my normal 200 ml minimum sample size, and the reader should be cautioned that I was not able to give the sample my normal rigorous tasting regimen of five independent tasting sessions. Instead I completed two tasting sessions of the sample and completed my review on that basis.
The Highland Park 40 year Old is a relative newcomer to the Highland Park portfolio having been released in 2008 as the premier production whisky in the Brand line-up. This is not a one-off bottling which will disappear when the stocks run dry, but instead an extremely limited yearly bottling. Like the Highland Park 30 Year Old Whisky, this 40-year-old is matured in refill sherry oak casks. The aim is to ensure that the long-term aging does not cause the oak to dominate the whisky in a deleterious manner.
This is a rare treat to be allowed to sample a 40-year-old whisky. The effects of the long-term aging in oak should reverberate through the whisky, and at 48.3 percent alcohol by volume this spirit will be a challenge to approach. Thus, it is with a little trepidation that I begin.
Although I was not given a full bottle of the Highland Park 40 Year Old for review, I was able to use this nice photo of the bottle I found on the Highland Park Website. Permission to use this photo was provided by the above mentioned J. L. Wheelock.
As you can see, the bottle arrives in an attractive dark oak display box. The whisky oozes class in a new decanter style bottle that retains the tradition of the Highland Park image, but brings this style forward with a new feeling of luxury. (The price point of this whisky in my locale is approximately $1850.)
In the Glass 9/10
I poured a portion of the sample into my glencairn glass and had a nice long look at the whisky. It was a little darker (and as I indicated earlier) a little more intimidating than the previously reviewed 30-year-old. I would describe the visual of the whisky as a rich mahogany with a noticeably heavier or more oily appearance than one would normally associate with whisky. The tilt and turn of my glass revealed moderately thick leg-like droplets which barely crawl down the surface of the glass reinforcing the indications of a more oily consistency.
In a wonderful display of duplicity, the initial aroma from the glass was not nearly so intense as the 30-year-old had been. I received some of the same notes of willow and peaty smoke, but the whisky seems to have some more sweetness on the nose which is serving to temper the aromatic assault which was present in the younger whisky. (The intimidation factor has been diminished, but only by a little.)
In the Mouth 50/60
On the palate, the Highland Park 40 year Old Whisky is a bit of an enigma. On one hand it seems to carry more individual flavours and more balance than I noticed in the Highland Park 30. Yet, it also seems… diminished somehow. The oak flavours and rich Orcadian peat are not nearly so penetrating nor as assertive as they were in the somewhat younger expression. I taste more sweetness when I chew on the whisky. It is a fruity sweetness stemming from flavours of prunes and dates…. yet again, the sweet flavours seem to be less than they should. A certain sap-like character is apparent as well, and at times this tannin/sap seems to dominate the other flavours into a submissive posture. I feel strongly that this may be what is causing the enigmatic nature I am encountering.
My conclusion is that perhaps the oak barrels have reached the peak of their ability to improve the whisky at some point in the past. The vanillans in the wood are almost spent, and the sweeter honey notes are slowly being replaced by punky spent oak flavour and tannin. The whisky has began to lessen, and perhaps it should have been captured before the barrels began to fade.
The Highland Park 40 Year Old is still very good, but for me it does capture the glory of the younger expressions.
In the Throat 12.5/15
It is in the finish that the tannin and sap I noted earlier seems to be revealed most fully. My mouth is left heated, and the top of my throat feels the heat of the spicy oak. A beguiling sweetness at the end saves the finish from crashing. I must admit I am somewhat bewildered by the contrast and the enigma that is the Highland Park 40-Year-Old Whisky.
The Afterburn 9/10
In the many reviews I have read, the very oldest whiskies always seem to score lower than their younger siblings. Yet, these whiskies are prized by connoisseurs and collectors and are sold at prices far in excess of any rational calculation of their real cost. My reviews of the Highland Park Whiskies yields a similar pattern. In an attempt to rationalize, I gave this phenomena some deliberation, and I believe I have come to an explanation of sorts which helps me to place the Highland Park 40 Year Old Whisky into its proper context. Let me begin with a little research which at first glance might seem unrelated.
According to Canadian Archeologist Bruce Trigger:
The ability to expend energy, especially in the form of other people’s labour in non utilitarian ways, is the most basic and universally understood symbol of Power. (See footnote at bottom)
This statement was made in reference to monumental architecture, structures whose practicality is dwarfed by their presence. These structures serve to remind everyone of the power of the person responsible for their completion. The oldest surviving examples of these structures is the ancient pyramids of Egypt which serve to illuminate the power of the pharaoh much more vividly than any of their surviving histories can.
I believe we have a similar symbolism in the world of fine spirits which is associated with what I shall call, Monumental Spirits. These are spirits which are aged for 30, 40, 50 years and more and which are priced extravagantly such that they become a pure luxury product.
Owning one of these monumental spirits is not about having good taste, or about appreciating the finer nuances of balance, or even a reflection of a considered opinion regarding quality. Owning a monumental spirit symbolizes the powerful idea that you believe that you are worthy of this monument. In might even be argued that enjoying a 40 or 50-year-old whisky is as close to drinking the same nectar as the gods drink that we mortals can aspire to.
The Highland Park 40 year Old Whisky is such a monumental spirit. Its price is far out of line with its utility as a whisky; but its presence on a consumer’s shelf serves a far greater purpose for its owner than as a mere whisky. Its presence illuminates its owner as a connoisseur, and it lets the select few who are allowed into its presence know that they are in the presence of something very special. But more importantly, the presence of such a monumental whisky allows those who see the whisky on its owner’s shelf to know that they are in the presence of not only something very special, but also someone, very special! The Whisky has become a symbol of worth which is claimed by ownership.
You may read some of my other Whisky Reviews (click the link) if you wish to have some comparative reviews.
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)
Footnote Citation: Trigger Bruce G. “Monumental Architecture: A Thermodynamic Explanation of Symbolic Behavior,” World Archeology, Vol 22 No. 2 (Oct. 1990) 119-132