Highland Park was founded in 1798 by Magnus Eunson, the man often credited with the foundation of the distillery at the end of the 18th century. Magnus Eunson was not a preacher as received wisdom would have it. He was a beadle by day and a smuggler by night, the latter operation based from his bothy on the High Park above Kirkwall where Highland Park Distillery now stands.
According to W. R. Mackintosh in Around the Orkney Peat-Fires (1898), Magnus Eunson was not a preacher, nor does his account suggest that Eunson was an illicit distiller, however smuggling was virtually a synonym for illicit distilling. He smuggled principally spirits, but remains most closely associated with the origins of Scotch whisky from Highland Park Distillery. By 1798 Highland Park had been founded; later a syndicate, which, somewhat ironically, included Eunson’s arresting officer, John Robertson, and his fellow exciseman, Robert Pringle, purchased the High Park estate, including the distillery in April 1813.
Excisemen had targeted the Orkney Islands and seized many illicit stills from 1805. Smuggling on Orkney had become so prevalent that one Sunday, Mansie’s minister denounced the activity as being iniquitous and un-Christian. When the sermon was over, Mansie was asked what he thought of the minister’s pronouncements; “I think that oor minister is no’ very consistent, for at the very time he was preaching, he had six kegs o’ as guid brandy under his pulpit as was ever smuggled.” Clearly, Mansie was confident that his preferred hiding place for the contraband, under the floor of the pulpit, was well-placed.
Highland Park is one of only a handful of distilleries that still retains a traditional malting floor, turning each batch of malt by hand, in what is a physically demanding process. To malt the barley, it’s steeped in the mineral rich water from the Crantit spring, before transferring it to the malting floor to slowly germinate. When it is ready, the barley is then placed in the kilns where the aromatic peating process begins.
One of the fundamental flavours in Highland Park single malt whisky is the delicate, sweet, aromatic peat smoke, which has given Highland Park its unique character since 1798. The Orkney Islands have an abundance of this sweet, heathery peat, which is around 4000 years old and is carefully selected from Hobbister Moor. The peat is a mixture of textures and aromas ranging from a more floral heather-rich top layer, to a darker, denser material, the mixture giving the resulting smoke a slow burning and complex aroma. For Distillery Manager, Graham Manson, the peat is the key to understanding and appreciating Highland Park; he describes its role as being “absolutely fundamental.”
With as much as 70% of the overall flavour of a single malt whisky coming from the type of cask it is matured in, it is imperative to treat these handmade casks with a reverence and respect. Orkney is unusually blessed with a wonderfully temperate climate, with neither extreme cold or hot temperatures; perfect for a long, cool maturation in our traditional warehouses. Other distilleries often mature their casks far from the distillery. We feel that by staying as close to home, we give our whisky a distinctly Orcadian personality, with a smooth character and lingering, delicate smokiness.
The majority of the Scotch whisky industry uses ex-bourbon barrels for maturation. At Highland Park, bourbon barrels are not routinely filled. Traditional oak casks are used; butts, puncheons or hogsheads – no barrels – all seasoned with dry Oloroso sherry, which contribute to the distinctive richness in the resulting whisky. Spanish oak casks seasoned with sherry give colour, spice and dried fruit character, whereas American oak sherry seasoned casks give lighter, sweeter vanilla and butterscotch flavours. Sherry oak casks are far more expensive but the view at Highland Park is that they are worth it for the rich character and natural colour they provide to the maturing spirit.
To ensure the consistency of Highland Park, the whisky is harmonised. Which Highland Park see as an essential part of their rich heritage. Each individual batch of Highland Park is drawn together from a variety of cask types, contributing an array of distinct, unique flavours and additional harmonisation for up to six months perfectly marries them together. The impact this marriage has on the whisky is nothing short of stunning and ensures consistency, as well as adding complexity and exceptional balance on the palate.
Check out Kirsty’s tasting notes on – Odin here
Find out tasting notes on the Highland Park Dark Origins here