Saturday, January 31, 2015

Highland Park, 12 year vs. Gordon & MacPhail 8 year

Highland Park, 12 year: single malt Scotch, Islands, 43%, $53
Highland Park, Gordon & MacPhail, 8 year: single malt Scotch, Islands, 43%, $33

When a distillery project in the Shetland Islands failed to come to fruition several years ago, Highland Park was able to retain its status as Scotland’s northernmost distillery. It is one of just two distilleries located on the Orkney Islands, and its neighbor Scapa lies just slightly to its south and west. Both distilleries are on the Orkney Mainland, which is the largest of roughly 70 islands that make up the archipelago that lies just north of mainland Scotland.

Highland Park was established 1798 and licensed 1825, and it is one of only seven malt distilleries in Scotland that still employs a traditional floor malting. It maintains a medium level of peat intensity, a noticeable step down from the well-known heavy hitters and falling in line with Bowmore and Springbank in that regard.

At some point in the past Highland Park increased production beyond the capacity of their in-house malting facility and they began to supplement their own malt with that of one of Scotland’s large, commercial malting facilities. The floor malted barley is heavily peated (35 to 40 ppm) and the additional malt is unpeated or minimally peated (I’ve seen conflicting reports). The two are always mixed to make a consistent, moderately peated product from batch to batch.

However, over the last 50 years the whisky made by Highland Park has become less peaty as the amount of commercially malted barley has increased relative to the amount of floor malted barley that they can produce. The ratio is currently 20% floor malted to 80% commercially malted. While some might bemoan this gradual loss of phenolic intensity, I think it is a fair tradeoff in order to keep from diluting the terroir represented by the peat local to the Highland Park distillery.

When a distiller buys commercial malt they have no control over the source of the peat that is used in the drying process. If a traditional floor malting is used, the kiln is typically fired by peat that is harvested from sources close to the distillery. As one moves around Scotland the character of the peat found in each area differs from that of other areas, as it is made up of the unique decomposed organic materials that are present in that area. The strength of that local flavor is diminished if peated commercial malt is added to the mix.

Highland Park has eliminated that effect by mixing unpeated commercial malt with their house malt which is dried with the heather-based peat found on Orkney. A few others eliminate the effect in different ways. Springbank is the only distillery in Scotland to malt 100% of their barley on a traditional floor malting and Kilchoman makes separate batches of whisky with their floor malt and their commercial malt, and labels them accordingly. I’ve been told that the strong iodine / medicinal flavors found in Laphroaig are derived from the peat that is hand harvested near the distillery and has a composition heavy in lichens and moss. Apparently this comes through quite clearly even though 70% of the heavily peated malt they use comes from a commercial source. I’d love to try a Laphroaig bottling made solely from their floor malted barley if they ever were to produce such a specialty.

Highland Park has always enjoyed a good reputation, but its popularity has really soared over the last few decades. That has caused some growing pains, primarily in the form of some big price jumps. I have also heard rumors of wavering quality over the years, but I don’t drink Highland Park (or any other whisky) on a regular enough basis to have observed this myself. One online source that I have a good deal of faith in states that the quality of 12 year Highland Park did suffer for a time, but the problem has been rectified since 2008 through better cask management policies.

On the pricing front, I recall that back in 2006 the 12 year was going for $38 and the 18 year was at $75. Today they retail at $53 and $130, respectively. That is roughly a 39% increase and a 73% increase. While substantial, that’s not really out of line with where single malt prices have generally gone over the last nine years, and it follows the trend of older whiskies having their prices rise more rapidly than younger ones.

There’s an interesting misconception about Highland Park’s cask program. They often mention that the 12 year and the 18 year are aged primarily in Spanish oak and that the 15 year is aged primarily in American oak. Many people mistakenly assume that American oak is synonymous with bourbon barrels, when in fact many sherry casks are made from American oak. Highland Park has stated that they use sherry casks exclusively, made from both types of wood. Sherry casks are much more expensive than bourbon barrels, mainly due to matters of supply and demand. Quality sherry casks are also harder to come by in significant quantities, so it’s no surprise that Highland Park’s stature slipped a bit as production grew rapidly.

All of the casks they use are seasoned with Oloroso Sherry, and the distillery employs both first fill and refill casks. The ratio of first fill to refill casks is adjusted to add further differentiation between the 12 year and the 18 year, with 20% of the former and 45% of the latter coming from first fill casks.

Today I’m tasting the flagship 12 year against an 8 year old expression from independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail. Looking at the G&M website for info, it appears that this bottling has been discontinued and replaced by an updated version with a different label design. The one I have is aged 100% in refill sherry casks (no indication of oak type) and the newer version is a mix of “refill sherry hogsheads and bourbon barrels”. I’m assuming that any Highland Park that does go into bourbon barrels is intended for blenders or independent bottlers, and not to be used in the official distillery bottlings.

Anyway, let’s see how these two stack up.

12 year
nose – Approachable, floral peat aromas with citrus notes over a malty base
palate – Vibrant; stewed fruits and a malty sweetness up front. The peat is obvious, but with a light, heathery style.
finish – It becomes more dry as it moves into the finish, with the peat notes turning more smoky and less floral. A briny, coastal quality emerges. The long finish becomes oaky, with a spicy, earthy quality.
overall – A good all-a-rounder. It has enough backbone to keep me entertained and enough civility to be an everyday drinker.

8 year
nose – There’s a malty back-drop with delicate peat notes and grassy, clay-like quality that is almost reminiscent of cat pee (not in a bad way though)
palate – Full bodied but mild mannered up front. A little bit of mint and malty sweetness is quickly pushed aside by strong grassy notes.
finish – Much more intensity on the back end. An earthy clay note is followed by a dry spice character that almost masks the peat smoke. The underlying grassy notes ride through almost to the end.
overall – Less depth and less evolution of flavors compared to the 12 year. It’s still a respectable single malt and a good value considering the price.

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