Highland Park 12 Year Old

Highland Park 12 year old

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Highland Park. Located on the Orkney islands, Highland Park is one of the most northerly whisky distilleries in Scotland. But what truly makes it distinctive is its taste – Highland Park expressions all show an unusual combination of peated malt and sherry cask aging.

As a result, most Highland Park expressions end up in either the C or I flavour clusters. My Flavour Map page describes the cluster analysis and principal component analysis in detail – scroll down to see the full flavour map and cluster descriptions near the bottom of the page.

It is very uncommon to find whiskies in the relatively unpopulated area between C and I in the cluster analysis/PCA. Most rich-tasting whiskies fall firmly into one of the two camps – that is to say, they are either clearly smokey (I-J) or clearly winey (A-C).  This makes Highland Park an unusual exception, as their expressions typically mark the inner edges of the C/I clusters (i.e., where the overlap would be, if there more examples). This gives Highland Park a truly unique – and distinctive – flavour profile.

Let’s take a look at how some of the common Highland Park expressions do in my Whisky Database. Note that there are more HP expressions tracked there than are shown below, but these are among the most commonly available (all carried by the LCBO, for example). The “$” are relative indicators based on worldwide prices (as explained here).

Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.68 ± 0.52 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10 yo: 8.58 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12 yo: 8.70 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 18 yo: 9.18 ± 0.28 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21 yo: 8.86 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 25 yo: 9.20 ± 0.25 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)

Clearly, from a simple price/score perspective, the 10yo, 12yo and 18yo are the most compelling options to consider. For my inaugural commentary on Highland Park, I’ve chosen to start with the relatively common (and affordable) 12 yo expression. I hope to do a full commentary on the 18 yo at a later time (UPDATE: available here). The 12 yo was picked up at the LCBO for ~$80 CAD (bottled at 43% ABV).

There is wide range of opinions on the 12 yo, as shown by the standard deviation above. Some hold this whisky in high regard, a close second to the popular 18 yo. Indeed, one reviewer in my database significantly prefers it over the 18 yo. But most reviewers give it a middle-of-the-road score – and one gives it a very low score. Combined, this brings the overall average down (and results in an increased variance).

Nose: Personally, I find a lot of the core Highland Park characteristics present in the 12 yo – at least on first sniff/sip. Orkney peat is very distinctive, and is definitely present on the nose here. It is not overly smokey though – I would describe it instead as a more earthy aroma. It’s also quite fruity, with some definite prune, raisin and plum aromas. Some of the more citrus fruits as well. I personally don’t detect any of the classic sherry red berries on the nose. All in all, definitely a pleasing nose.

Palate: The smokey peat quickly asserts itself, although it is not as overwhelming as some in this flavour class (I).  I get more of the red fruits now, with vanilla and some definite honey/brown sugar sweetness as well. Unfortunately, there’s also a hint of almond-type bitterness that grows more strongly on subsequent sips.

Finish: The finish is surprisingly long lasting, with lightly lingering impressions of the initial earthy and fruity notes from the nose. Unfortunately, the bitter note from the palate remains consistent on the way out, and so eventually becomes the dominant characteristic in the end.  A rather unsatisfying finish for this reason (although I suppose that might just encourage you to drink more!). I suspect this bitterness is a symptom of the young age, as I don’t detect it on the 18 yo.

One thing that definitely helps here is a splash of water. I always encourage my guests to try a bit of water in their whisky (after first tasting it neat – see my hosting a whisky tasting page). While I drink most non-cask-strength whiskies neat, a few drops of water makes a huge difference here. There is an immediate increase in the sweetness on the nose and palate, bringing in some tropical fruit notes that I don’t detect neat (particularly banana). It also seems to help counteract the bitterness in the finish – although I suspect it does this more by masking the bitterness than diminishing it, but the end result is the same.

Highland Park 12 year oldNote that only a few drops of water are required for a standard ~1.5oz whisky pour. If you use a teaspoon, you are likely to flood the whisky (and thin out the body). Of course, that’s fine if that is your preference – but do try just a few drops first to see what you think. This is one case where I find it makes a surprising difference.

The Quebec Whisky guys are typically moderately positive for this whisky. Ralfy gives it a median score – although he also recommends it as one of three beginner malts to try.

UPDATE January, 2016: As pointed out in the discussion thread below, this whisky has been re-reviewed recently by the Rumhowler (original and 2015 re-review), WhiskyWon (original and 2015 re-review), and Jim Murray – and in all cases, the score has dropped significantly.  As a result, I now track reviews pre/post 2014 separately in my database, in addition to the overall average of all reviewers.

Highland Park 12yo (all reviews past 5 years): 8.67 ± 0.23 on 18 reviews
Highland Park 12yo (reviews pre-mid 2014): 8.83 ± 0.26 on 15 reviews
Highland Park 12yo (reviews post-mid 2014): 8.28 ± 0.39 on 8 reviews

UPDATE July, 2016: My Highland Park 18 yo review is now available.

 

6 comments

  • I might also note that Highland Park is subject to some batch variation. The first HP12 I tried (2012) is one of the best whiskies I have ever tried, with a fabulous smoky and dry finish that still lingers in memory – the whole whisky told a real story. The second bottle I owned was also fabulous (2014), but not what the first was. Now my third bottle, bought this year in 2015, is quite a bit of a disappointment not nearly showing the complexity and grace of the previous too, and sulphury.

    Generally, very good, and worth a bad batch or two – if you’re dissapointed you may have just had a bit of bad luck not representative of the worth of the whisky.

    • Thanks for comments Jason – a very good point about batch variability. All expressions are subject to this, and some seem to suffer more variability than others (likely depending on the complexity of their construction). My HP 12 yo is also from 2015, and it is interesting to hear of your experience.

      As a reminder for those who are interested – by meta-critic scores all restricted to reviews done in the last 5 years, to at least ensure modern batches are being compared (i.e., there is even more variability as you go over a longer time frame).

  • Thank you for linking to my review, which incidentally was written in 2009. I always appreciate when my work is referred to whether in agreement or disagreement. incidentally, at the time of my 2009 review, my scores and thoughts were very much in line with Jim Murray’s written review in his whisky 2008 Bible. He has subsequently reviewed newer batches but I have not.

    Fortunately though, I have recently received a new bottle which I believe was produced in 2015. Initial sampling indicates that this whiskey is not what it once was. This seems to be a common refrain as I taste newer batches of both whisky and rum from many different producers. My suspicion is that increased demand for these spirits has led to these producers being persuaded to make compromises in order to satisfy increasing demand.

    (That is a general statement regarding the spirits industry and is not intended to reflect directly upon Highland Park in particular.)

    • Thanks for the comments Chip, appreciate you adding that perspective here!

      I should have mentioned that your review was from awhile ago. While I don’t have Mr Murray’s 2008 guide, he does reference in his current (low) score of HP 12 that this used to be one of his favourites. So there does seem to be a consistent view that quality has decreased over time.

  • I suspect a higher percentage of reconstituted casks, chilled filtration and use of less caramel is responsible for the change.

  • Review post just updated with additional details on the general change in reviewer scores over time.

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