I often get asked, “What’s your favorite spirit?” It’s a tough question, as the answer often depends on my mood, what I’ve been drinking lately, and what kind of flavors I’m craving. It also isn’t the best question to ask me—what I like and what I drink when I am not working reflect my tastes and interests. There are some nights that I want a spirit to really challenge me, and others that I want nothing more than a comfort spirit, something easy and familiar. The better question may be “What spirit do you recommend the most?” The answer to that is Highland Park.
Located in Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, one of the northern most points in Scotland, Highland Park pulls together the best elements found in Scotch whisky into one of the most complex, balanced, and flavorful whiskies in the world. Most people look at Scotch whisky based on the typical regions the small island is divided into: Highland, Lowland, Islay, and Speyside. Highland Park often gets looped into the additional “Islands” category, but in many ways it’s a style on its own.
Highland Park is one of the few Scotch whisky producers to still malt their grain in the traditional floor malting process. This involves spreading out barley onto a stone floor and letting the barley start to sprout naturally. The sprouting is then halted and the grains dried. As with many of the Islay Scotch whisky producers, Highland Park uses peat in the fires that dry the malted barley. Highland Park adds an additional element to the process by adding heather to the fires. This drying process adds a distinct, light smokiness to the final whisky as well as a hint of heather flower. The smoky notes in Highland Park is not nearly at the level of whiskies like Ardbeg or Laphroaig, and it balances exceptionally well with the other flavors in the whisky.
Another key element to the flavor of Highland Park is the barrels used to age the whisky. Highland Park uses the traditional “used” bourbon barrels that are common to most of the Scotch whisky distillers, along with sherry casks. Both the bourbon and sherry casks impart elements from what was previously in them. The end result is a symphony of flavors that includes the sweet elements from the bourbon and sherry, spice from the oak, smoke from the peat fires, floral from the heather, and cereal notes from the grain used to make the whisky.
Highland Park is readily available in 12-, 15-, and 18-year releases. The 12-year Highland Park can be found around $40, an exceptional price considering the quality of the spirit. The 15-year generally runs around $60, and 18-year for about $80. Highland Park may be the best example of a line of whisky where older or more expensive isn’t necessarily better. The Highland Park 15 is by far my favorite expression, with a balance and finesse which is slightly lost in the 18-year. But whatever expression of Highland Park you choose, you’ll be sipping on one of the finest whiskies in the world, and one of my top recommendations for spirits people should buy.
Watch our Behind The Scenes of Highland Park Whisky.