Highland Park Distillery is located in Kirkwall, one of twenty islands north of Scotland that are part of the Orkney Islands. Although Highland Park has the word “highland” in it, the whisky is not made in the highland style. In this case “Highland Park” is a literal description of the location of the distillery, which is on an elevated area of the quite flat island of Kirkwall and surrounded by open space – literally a highland park. Highland Park’s whisky exists in the general “island” style of whisky, which is one of the more varied styles and loosely classified.
[Watch our video: Behind The Scenes of Highland Park Whisky]
One of the major things which gives Highland Park its distinct character is the use of 20% peated malted barley. To make this 20%, Highland Park still follows the classic tradition of malting their barley on the floor of a large malt room. Before the modern drum methods of malting were invented, used at places like the Port Ellen Maltings, all malt was made from barley soaked and then laid out on the floor to germinate. The process of floor malting is labor intensive, done by hand, and requires the malt to be hand turned every eight hours.
In addition to floor malting, a big part of what makes Highland Park unique is the peat used to smoke their malted barley. The peat on Kirkwall is noticably different than the peat on Islay. Kirkwall has very few trees and much of the peat on the inner most part of the island doesn’t have the level of marine vegetation that you find in Islay. The majority of the Kirkwall peat comes from decomposing Scottish heather which gives the peat a much lighter color, and more importantly, a distinctly different aroma and flavor when burned.
Highland Park’s malted barley is brought up into a large chamber where it is laid out and dried over peat fires. The smoke from the peat fires drifts up through the peat and then escapes through a vent at the top of the structure called a pagoda. The wet malt takes on the flavors and aromas from these peat fires, which is a combination of sweet and strong smoke.
Highland Park has an 11 ton mash tun which they run at half capacity with about 6 tons of grain per run. Highland Park’s mash consists of 80% unpeated malted barley combined with the 20% peated malt which is floor malted at the distillery. This malt is ground in a mill and then added to a mash tun where water is added and the grains are cooked. This cooking of the malt helps the grain break down the startches into fermentable sugar which is necessary to make alcohol. It’s at this point that a lot of the peat flavor is extracted from the husks of the grain and makes its way into liquid extract which comes from the mash tun process called the wort.
The wort is pumped into huge 29,200 liter fermenters called wash backs where yeast is added and the wort ferments into a brewers beer. It’s this fermented beer, called distiller’s beer, which is distilled to make Highland Park Whisky.
In addition to the floor malting and the Kirkwall peat, another major contributor to the character and flavor of Highland Park are the giant copper stills that they use to make their whisky. The size, shape, and structure of a still can dramatically impact the spirit inside, and the Highland Park stills help emphasize the sweet, smokey, and slightly salty quality which is specific to Highland Park.
One of the keys to Highland Park’s character is the use of 100% first fill Oloroso sherry casks. Highland Park uses a combination of casks made from American and Spanish oak, seasoned for 8-12 months with dry Oloroso sherry. Unlike most other Scottish whisky producers, Highland Park doesn’t use any ex-bourbon casks to age their whisky.
The result of this process is a wide range of distinct Highland Park whiskies which provide exceptional balance between the smoky peat, the sweet malt, the fruity sherry, and the spicy oak. In the US the most commonly found expressions of Highland Park are the 12 year old and 18 year old single malt whisky. Both of these expressions are among some of the best whisky produced in the world. Highland Park does an amazing job of creating whisky that is full flavored but maintains a superb balance. By combining spirit in different amounts from the American and Spanish oak casks, Highland Park has a tremendous palate to paint their whisky with. As a result Highland Park has the ability to put out fairly remarkable special editions including the Valhalla Series that include Thor and the recently released Loki.
Highland Park is a special place that creates a very special whisky. It’s some of the best in the world, and a lot of that has to do with the unique way and in the unique place that it’s made.
Watch our video: Behind The Scenes of Highland Park Whisky