Non-age stated, single malt whisky releases are on the rise, and so far, consumers have shown that they have a good level of comfort buying Scotch Whisky that doesn’t disclose the age of the whisky inside. Highland Park has had some success in this space, and was an early mover with their Highland Park Warrior Series. The Highland Park Warrior Series features six non-age stated whiskies, ranging in price from $53 to $1300, available only through travel retail/duty free. Selling a whisky for over $1000 that doesn’t disclose age is a pretty amazing feat, and that success most likely emboldened Highland Park to add a non-age stated whisky to their core line. Highland Park Dark Origins Single Malt Whisky isn’t a special or limited release – it’s meant to be a new and permanent park of Highland Park’s offerings.
The name for Highland Park Dark Origins refers to the sordid history of the Highland Park Distillery, which was started by a bootlegger named Magnus Eunson, famous for hiding whisky in the pews of his church to try to evade tax collection. It’s a nice nod to the origin story of the distillery, but a slight departure from the Norse imagery and mythology that has proven so successful for Highland Park over the past few years. Packed in a dark black bottle, Dark Origins looks distinctly different from the other releases in the core Highland Park portfolio. The bottle may be familiar to fans of the Warrior releases, as the jet black bottle is similar to those used for the Ragnvald and Thorfinn releases (although both of those are much more ornate).
Highland Park Dark Origins Single Malt Whisky (46.8% ABV / 93.6 proof, $79.99) – trumpeting “double first fill sherry casks”, Dark Origins uses double the amount of malt whisky from first fill sherry casks than Highland Park 12 Year. Although there’s “double” the amount of sherry cask finished whisky here, the color is very much in line with Highland Park 12. One reason is Highland Park doesn’t add any coloring to their whiskies, or chill filter them. This increase in sherry cask finished whisky is very apparent on the nose, whose sherry influence is unmistakable. Dark chocolate covered dried cherries literally leap out of the glass, while underneath there is fig, date, honeyed malt, a soft nuttiness, and a touch of smoke. Highland Park Dark Origins’ sweet chocolate cherry and honeyed malt entry is well in line with the soft and lush openings of Highland Park 12 and 15, but that’s where the similarities end. The opening is actually a little bit of a head fake, and the soft, sweet entry is quickly replaced by a bold, spicy, and smoky midpalate. In the midpalate the honeyed malt moves to a supporting note and the chocolate begins to dissipate. In its place a more acidic and spicy character emerges with green apple, black pepper, and allspice. There’s also a fair amount of heat added to the equation, far more than with Highland Park 12 and 15.
It’s also in the midpalate where Dark Origins’ peat smoky character is most pronounced. You’d never guess from the nose that Dark Origins would get so peaty, but here in the midpalate it’s the peak smoke that’s the star. One of the things that a non-age statement release allows a company to do is use young malt. In the midpalate we get both sides of the young malt equation. On one side we have a level of heat you don’t see with old malt, but on the other you get a nice young peat smoke which is more earthy, floral, and wilder than older peat malt. How much you enjoy this flavor will greatly determine how much you enjoy Dark Origins. The younger malt, combined with so much sherry cask whisky, also creates a much drier flavor experience than the other releases in the core line. Highland Park has experimented with a much drier flavor profile with their last Valhalla Collection release, Freya, and that experimentation has clearly impacted the approach for Dark Origins. The head fake in the opening is also reminiscent of another of the Valhalla releases, Loki, which changed directions in a similar, although more sophisticated, manner.
The finish for Highland Park Dark Origins is fairly dry and a showcase for the peat smoke introduced in the midpalate. Dark Origins seems to do very well with a few drops of water, which especially helps the finish, but also helps with the overall integration. Priced at $80, Highland Park Dark Origins sits in the Highland Park line between Highland Park 12 and Highland Park 15, but stylewise it’s a completely different animal. Highland Park Dark Origins is a bold attempt to reach out beyond Highland Park’s core audience to reach whisky drinkers who may otherwise gravitate towards some of the peat smoky Islay malts as well as perhaps appeal to the American whiskey drinker’s palate with a drier flavor experience. With Dark Origins, Highland Park has sacrificed its pitch perfect balance and integration for bolder flavors and a slightly wilder flavor experience. It’s an interesting move that might not appeal to all Highland Park fans. Although we generally prefer balance in Single Malt Whisky, it’s hard not to appreciate what Highland Park is doing with Dark Origins, which could represent a bold new direction for the company.
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