Apparently, the schoolchildren from the Orkney isles have a bit of trouble understanding that they are Scottish. They do know they are British, but it troubles their minds to comprehend they are Scottish such is the uniqueness of this cluster of islands just 10 miles off the north east coast. I suppose it is easily understood, after all it has had it’s fair share of ownership via Norway and the vikings using it as a bit of a stop-over for raids into Scotland and Ireland. It is certainly a checkered and interesting past with plenty of folklore and factual history to draw upon which is why the Highland Park distillery in Kirkwall is such an interesting one. Yeah sure, there are countless sites on the mainland with tales to tell but it seems to me that this wee corner of “Scotland” ticked along quite nicely without much interference from the mainland. Perhaps the ferry was too expensive for the excise man?
Nice then, that I got the chance to taste a bit of Orcandian history for myself in the form of the Highland Park 50 year old. It’s not a new release by any stretch, as the first bottles were available early last year- but at £10,000 per bottle there are few in the world lucky enough to taste it. I was happy to wait till now.
The oldest ever release from the distillery was given to us by Daryl Haldane, Highland Park brand ambassador and general nice guy- which is surprising as he is from Fife, which is not know for many happy people.
Highland park 50 yr old.
Vatting of two refill European ex-sherry cask
1 of 275 bottles.
Bottled designed by Maeve Gillies
Appearance: Deep burnished copper with rose gold
Nose: First notes are of heavy honey and rich maple with well polished leather, dried orange peel and new hide. A more perfumed element emerges of light clove and polished woods such as mahogany with a hint of brandy butter. Beyond all of this, a leafy green oil note emerges, similar to hop heads.
Palate: As expected, the palate is huge. Rich and chewy with those leather elements turning peppery then waves of the more prominent hop leaf again. The mid palate is nutty (almonds and brazil) with rich marzipan and a note of burnt plum. Surprisingly, the palate lifts towards the end with peppermint and fennel followed by liquorice.
Finish : Sweet and juicy soft liquorice takes over now allowing this massive dram to remain entertaining and offering a supreme lingering finish.
Normally a whisky of above average age is really hard to pull apart with the aromas and flavours so well integrated that they just merge into one. But the amazing thing with this is that even a couple of days after writing my initial notes and going back to try the last remaining dram the notes stand out incredibly. Every element is in there and each note rolls up to say hello in the most eloquent of fashions.
Only two venues in London stock a bottle, Dorchester Bar at the Dorchester and the newly opened Bulgari hotel, the latter of which is where we were fortunate enough to try this whisky. The bottle itself is said to be worth around £2,500, designed by jeweller Maeve Gillies, the solid silver casing that wraps around the bottle like a sinuous web of precious metal depicts all that is Orcadian. A visitor to the beautiful Orkney islands since a child, Maeve conveyed a natural and nautical theme in her Sterling silver bottle, evoking ropes, twisted seaweed and a metal finish that looked like it could have been a very old and precious object, discovered washed up on the beach. Set on the front is a disc of genuine Orcadian pink sandstone carved with Highland Park’s logo, sourced from the original quarry that built the incredible 12th century St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. Behind this disc, viewable through the glass when the whisky has been finished, is an ethereal silver replica of the beautiful rose window inside the Cathedral.
The bottle is presented in a hand-carved Scottish oak box, also shaped to feel worn by wild elements, and set with a silver and glass porthole, through which the Highland Park logo on the bottle inside can just be viewed.
Each bottle is stamped with a silver hallmark, and in keeping with Highland Park’s policy of non sequential numbering, this one simply states 1 of 275 rather than bottle number one or two of 275.
So is it worth it? Well if you deduct the bottle price and look at the value of the liquid, then it isn’t an outlandish price for such a fabulous whisky. There are plenty others out there commanding far higher. Remember though, my rule for bottles with this kind of price tag, if you are going to buy it make sure you buy two- one to keep and one to share.
Now, at the end of the tasting session, (we also tried 12, 18, Thor and 21) I took a tour of the hotel and stopped off in the cigar room. This room is London’s only internal cigar room (its a loophole I can’t be bothered going into now- basically as shop) which is run by Davidoff cigar merchants on St James. I sat with Eddie, the son in the “father & son” operation and chatted about the comparison of whisky and cigars. Eddie then presented me with two beautiful cigars, which were hand rolled just two weeks prior. Alas, I couldn’t enjoy them in the lush surroundings as I had another tasting to dash off to- and I knew I might not give the other whisky a chance with HP 50 and a cigar on the palate. But I did ask about the cigars to add to the enjoyment later.
Eddie told me that they were the “Beaujolais” of cigars- to be enjoyed young and fresh. They had in fact been hand rolled just two weeks prior by Señora Dilia Hernandez who had arrived in the UK in May and was scheduled to attend various events and Habanos Specialists until her return to Cuba at the end of July. To enjoy them at their peak, they would have to be smoked within a week. I certainly wasn’t about to test that 7 day limit.
Señora Hernandez began her career in the cigar industry 20 years ago and has achieved the highest grade of cigar roller within the Cuban industry. Not only is she well respected, but Señora Hernandez also rolls cigar leaf in a traditional manner known as “entubado bunch” or entubar – a bunching technique which rolls each filler leaf into itself, almost like a small scroll. Each individually “scrolled” leaf is then placed together to form the bunch. This skillful rolling technique creates a more firmly packed cigar which allows air to travel between all of the leaves, carrying more aromatics/flavors to the palate. Entubado rolling is the most difficult and complex bunching method and is therefore rarely employed in large scale manufacturing.
I was now the proud possesor of two of these freshly rolled beauties and I can tell you, by the time the weekend was over, both had died a graceful death.
So from the oldest of whiskies to the freshest of cigars. Some would say it was quite a nice way to start the weekend.