This past July at Tales of the Cocktail, I had a chance to speak with Stephanie Ridgway, brand manager for Highland Park. Our conversation covered the “dark” history of the distillery, age statements, and Highland Park Dark Origins, the distillery’s newest addition to their core lineup. The name of the whisky is a nod to how the distillery came to be founded. Let’s kick off a short Highland Park series with what I learned from that fascinating conversation and a review of Highland Park Dark Origins.
THE DARK ORIGINS OF HIGHLAND PARK
Highland Park is the most northern distillery in Scotland. It’s located in the Orkney Islands in Kirkwall. It can be traced back to the mid-1700s. Magnus Eunson was a butcher by trade, and well regarded in Kirkwall. He even preached in church about the evils of drinking alcohol to the folks of the town. Here is where the “dark origins” of the distillery begins. Eunson, along with a few friends, illicitly distilled whisky in a small bothy by the cover of night. They filled casks and rolled them down the hill to hide in the same church he preached on Sundays. UK exciseman John Robertson was sent to Kirkwall to investigate, and found no evidence of illicit distilling, thanks to some quick thinking by Eunson. One account says Eunson heard of Robertson’s imminent arrival and hurriedly moved to cover his operation. He arranged the casks hiding in the church in the form of a casket and laid a cloth over it. Eunson and his men wore hoods and stood next to the “casket” as Robertson arrived. As the taxman stepped closer to the hidden treasure, Eunson whispered “smallpox”. That word put enough fear in Robertson that he quickly fled the area. He wasn’t about to catch this disease. Eventually, Eunson was caught, but disappeared. Robertson, the arresting officer, confiscated everything and purchased it at auction. On the same grounds that Eunson illicitly distilled whisky, Robertson founded the distillery we now know as Highland Park.
WHISKY & AGE STATEMENTS
Dark Origins is the latest addition to Highland Park’s core lineup. It’s the only one without an age statement. Ridgway says the high demand for aged whisky couldn’t have been predicted years ago, and that eliminating the age statement allows the master blender access to more casks for a final blend.
“If it’s good whisky, it’s good whisky – regardless of age.”
Ridgway says the whisky industry created the demand for age stated whiskies. Drinkers were “trained” by the industry that age stated whiskies are better, and they need to be re-educated.
HIGHLAND PARK DARK ORIGINS
Dark Origins uses double the amount of first-fill ex-sherry casks versus their 12-year expression. Keep in mind that, other than a few special bottlings, all whisky distilled at Highland Park is aged in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. Also of note is all of Highland Park’s whisky is distilled and aged at the distillery. No casks are shipped to the mainland for aging. Ridgway best describes HP Dark Origins “like taking a dark chocolate-covered cherry and wafting it over an Orkadian peat fire.” It’s bottled at 46.8% abv and non-chill filtered.
On the nose, the sherry cask influence is quite apparent. Stephanie’s description is a good one. I get a creamy, slightly bitter note – like dark chocolate, along with some berries, sweet toffee, black tea and peat. This peat is different than Islay peat. It’s not as briny. Taste-wise, there’s a sweet entry. Think raspberry jam and peanut brittle. There’s a slight peatiness here, as well as a slight bitter note. The palate very much follows the nose on this whisky. The finish is long, bittersweet and becomes dry.
Dark Origins is a well-crafted whisky. The decision to use more first-fill sherry casks gives DO a sweeter, fruitier character than it’s 12-year-old sibling. Don’t let the no-age statement deter you from picking up a bottle. Plain and simple, this is good stuff.
Thanks to Stephanie Ridgway for a great conversation and great whisky.