Whisky Odyssey
Old-fashioned with a twist of the modern 

Secretive stuff (Highland Park) from Orkney

When I look up from the desk from which I write the blogs for Whisky Odyssey, my eyes fall immediately on two standard Highland Park expressions. The 10 years old Viking Scars and the 12 years old Viking Honour. Decent stuff, very competitively priced for sure, but also a little middle of the road. Something we would never have said of former 12 years old, let alone the famous 18 years old, once described as the most complete whisky out there by author Michael Jackson. These days are quite behind us. The Vikings have retaken Orkney, and their stories are strong. Oh, how I long for a simple bottle with an Orkney sunset on it.

For Highland Park that truly excels, we have to turn to independent bottlers these days. We will kick off with some remarkable stuff released by Dutch bottler Van Wees under their The Ultimate label. 

Then we move on to one of my favourite bottlers in today’s whisky market, the WhiskyNerds, and no, this has nothing to do with the fact I love these guys and that they are whisky friends from the earliest moments of my hobby. The last dram of the day is a Signatory bottled 1972, which makes it a proper Something Special Saturday.

Unnamed Orkney 2006, 16 years old, bottled at 46 % abv by Van Wees for The Ultimate

Makeup: One refill sherry butt with the ID-tag DRU17/A65#4. Distilled on Valentine’s Day 2006 and matured for 16 years before being bottled in August 2022. It is said that this casks and the many others that were released came from blending stock. A variant is available under the name Unnamed Speyside, which appears to be Macallan distillate. Now we taste Highland Park.

General impressions: Yeah, we are sure this is not whisky from the Scapa Distillery, the only other operation on the Orkney Islands. The nose kicks off with delicate herbal notes, a hint of sulphur and a delicate earthy peat note. Dangerously drinkable stuff, with loads of milk chocolate, nice cappuccino with a dash of sugar. The sherry cask plays more instruments at once, being at the same time the bringer of a sweet note, but also some dirty flavour best compared to earthy tasting red wine. The finish is smooth and warming.

Conclusion: Not very complex, but excellent at what it promises AND delivers. Highland Park like we used to drink, with some funky character, but most of all impressive body.

Score: 86 points

Disclaimer: taken from a self-owned bottle.

Secret Orkney 2004, 17 years old, bottled at 49,4 % by the WhiskyNerds

Makeup: Distilled on 21 June 2004 and put into butt # 13 for 17,5 years, bottled on 28 March 2022. The butt produced 248 bottles and not a single one of them is (sadly) allowed to mention the name of the distillery. But we know!

General impressions: Almost at the same age as the previous one, so let’s compare. It opens quite the same, on some herbal and spicy notes, but that little dirty sliver of sulphur seems to be missing from the fold (I don’t mind). There is a classical note underneath the obvious layers, that transports you back to longer ago, like this HP was distilled way before the 21st century began. Must have been a good butt here. The sherry sweetness lingers in the background.

Taking a sip, and with the previous sample still lingering, you notice this HP is much sweeter. But I do think this sweetness does not only come from the cask, but also some peated flavour on its path to a more fruity character. Less smoke, more fruit. This adds complexity, even though it is remarkable how closely familiar the Van Wees and the WhiskyNerds bottles are. Let’s see if we can put more distance between them with adding some water. Ah yes, some sulphur is released now, but the type that leans more towards spiciness than struck matches. With this style, something special can happen. We give it some time, and then we return to something different. More honeyed layers, gentle peat, some mud, and distinct heather. What is this, it puts the highland in the Highland Park! Deliciously sweet with that water, but the peat is stronger too.

Conclusion: You really have to play with Secret Orkney. Done well, it can reach up to 90 points, but it can range anywhere between 87 and that. For me, having a sweet tooth, especially when mixed with delicate peat, this is good stuff. Also, this is taken from my leftover stash that oxidated a little longer, which edged off the rougher parts.

Score: 90 points
Disclaimer: taken from a self-owned bottle.

Highland Park 1972, 18 years old, bottled at 56 % abv by Signatory Vintage

Makeup: You can see where this is going, right? We started with a 16 years old, then a 17 years old, and conclude this session with an 18 years old. But the vintage is a little further back. Distilled on 13 November 1972, put in to cask 9017, this one was matured for 18 years indeed and bottled in February 1991. Exactly 600 bottles came from the cask (the rest was consumed straight from it perhaps? No, actually a miniature version of this cask exists too).

General impressions: Strong mahogany smell, very dominant from the glass. It is very much on wood and everything you can connect to that. Smells of leather, old library, tree sap and an old-timer car. Very impressive, but also very classic for early 1970s sherry monsters. 

Yes, that is a snob thing to say. With a good dash of water we truly peel of a layer of secretive notion and discover a sweeter side to this whisky, more on caramel and delicate red fruit. Some tangerines too.

The first sip is almost aggressive in strength, as if this was 66 % instead of the 56 % mentioned on the bottle. The woody notes continue but now there is a layer of smoke. Still, I don’t think this is the smokiest Highland Park I ever had, far from it. With water a delicious taste of orange marmalade is revealed, smoked peaches enter too, and some bitterly dried apricots. Never expected this to find, if it were not for some diluting. A whole different single malt is revealed. In the finish there is still some harshness, but with water this makes for a pleasant afterglow.

Conclusion: A true old-style whisky, that was served without taking prisoners. We had to tame it quite a bit before it revealed all its complex layers and beauty. And then you can only love it.

Score: 91 points
Disclaimer: sample acquired through membership of a Blind Tasting Bottle Club. Picture created with AI help by Confession of a Whisky Freak

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