I don’t get sent many samples of whisky, especially now that I work for a whisky retailer, so I was very pleased to get a parcel before Christmas containing something a little bit more special than the average whisky – a pair of drams from Highland Park’s Orcadian Vintages range.
I encountered these for the first time back in October while helping out at The Whisky Show, as Gerry Tosh, HP’s Global Marketing Manager, was down from Orkney to run a masterclass tasting through the three whiskies that were in the range at the time, along with two new whiskies that were to be released shortly after the show – the whiskies I was just sent, the 1971 and 1976. I helped set up the class, poured some of the whiskies (including the ’71 and ’76 which were transported in plastic sample bottles as the proper bottles weren’t ready at the time) and was then promptly called away to do something else, so missed out on tasting them. That has now been remedied.
The Orcadian Vintages are part of Highland Park’s fairly scary range of premium whiskies, only being beaten in price by the £9000 a bottle 50 year old. Before these two most recent additions the line-up consisted of a 1964, 1968 and 1970, and these new ones extend the age range to whisky matured for ‘only’ about 35 years. They don’t mess about at Highland Park and have priced these drams appropriately, with each of the Orcadian Vintages coming in at over £2000 (and the 1964 now over £3000 at work).
As part of the justification for the silly money they’re charging for them they do present them rather well. The 50 year old beats everything, with its organic looking metal bottle sheath and hidden carvings, but the Orcadian Vintages do a pretty good job – oak boxes with carved text and heavy dark glass bottles (really heavy, as I discovered when trying to free pour 10cl samples for a room of 40 – my arm was shaking a bit by the end) with silver HP logo amulets. They are rather beautiful but the whisky inside is what’s important.
The one bit I did overhear in Gerry’s presentation of the Orcadian Vintages was about their smokiness. Highland Park use some peat in the drying of their barley, at least in the 20% that they produce themselves on their own malting floor by hand, and back in the 1960s and 70s the peating level was a bit more random than the 40ppm that they use in their homemade malt today. Gerry’s explanation, marketing story though it may be, is rather compelling – it’s to do with the wind. The traditional kiln used for drying malted barley is topped with a pagoda roof which not only looks pretty, and has become the sign of a distillery as you drive through the Highlands, it also affects the air flow. Now, Orkney is rather a windy place and the pagodas didn’t always help to keep things consistent and the amount of smoke that hung around in the kiln was increased or decreased as the wind rushed by, leading to the more inconsistent levels of peat in some of these older whiskies – a level of seasonality that you may not expect. I don’t particularly care whether it’s entirely true or not, but I rather like the idea and feel the urge to look up average windspeeds around Kirwall through the 60s and 70s…
The 1971 is a medium/dark gold with a nose of salty caramel, butter and honey, apples and pears, sweet grapes, digestive biscuits, and hints of sticky cocktail cherries and musty cupboards. To taste it starts with a big sugary sweetness that fades through custard and apples to elegant but sour fruit (unripe mango?), with cinnamon and more butter. It has a medium long finish, with woody spice, apple skins and a hint of menthol. Really rather nice indeed – showing some of the fruitiness that you often find in 1970s whiskies and which is threatening to bankrupt me at whisky auctions.
The 1976 poured a lot paler and had a nose of light brine, fruit skins, vanilla cream, milk chocolate and almond paste. On the palate it was quite soft with a creamy mouthfeel – sweet apple turned into tannic apple skins with more sour fruit and fruity caramel keeping things just sweet enough. The finish was longer than the 1971 with apples and custard, cinnamon fireballs, dry wood and a lingering hint of fruity Garibaldi biscuits. This one wasn’t so much for me – a bit too much tannin and fire.
Anyways, the Orcadian Vintages aren’t the most accessible whiskies in terms of price, but they’re just an example of what the distillery has hiding in its old stock – great whiskies that people are willing to part with stonking amounts of money for. Luckily the expertise didn’t go anywhere and they’re still producing great whiskies today. Although I am currently waiting on a 1990s bottling of Highland Park 12 year old to arrive from an auction so I can do a comparison…
Highland Park 1971
Island Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 46.7%. ~£2300
Highland Park 1976
Island Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 49.1%. ~£2000