The Magnus Eunson tour of the Highland Park (HP) distillery was a dream come true for us at Whisky Unplugged. Not only was it a great insight into the past, present and future of the distillery, but it culminated in a genuinely once-in-a-lifetime experience. Once the site visit concluded, we were escorted into a tasting room, and invited to make our way through the landmark age statement releases that the distillery has to offer. Well, that used to be the case anyway. The Magnus Eunson tasting session was originally designed to offer punters a sampling flight of the 12, 15, 18, 21, 25, 30 and 40 year old expressions. Nowadays, due to high demand, numerous special no age statement (NAS) releases, and a fight to keep a hold onto their older stocks, there have been a few substitutions into the starting line-up of this tasting but what a backbench to draw from! And on that sporting note, here are our notes from the dugout.
12 Years Old – 40% ABV
Hello old friend! Do we need to comment? A stunning combination of sweetness (including cinnamon), fruity flavours (pear, apple, banana), sherry and that aromatic peat smoke which forms the signature tasting note in every Highland Park release. A welcome start to proceedings and a fantastic control whisky to revert back to as we take off on our flight.
Harald – 40% ABV
The first substitution in the original tasting’s roster, and it is a no-age-statement release, which forms part of the Warrior series, sold exclusively within the travel retail market. As with all HP standard expressions, the whisky is a combination of Spanish and American oak maturations, with more emphasis on the Spanish sherry casks. The word from the horse’s mouth however, is that this release will soon be brought into the distillery’s core range of releases as a permanent replacement of the 15yo, and can therefore be expected to make it a supermarket or off-licence shelf near you soon, at an anticipated £70,
The initial tasting notes are similar to the 12yo but this release has bit more of a malty backbone to it, stronger wood tones and a bit more of a cola flavour on the nose. Unfortunately, that initial rich blast of flavours seem to drop off. In the mouth, it treats you to little traces of flavours. A little biscuity. A little toffee. A little bit of saccharine sweetness. A little bit wherr, a little bit wharr. The lasting tasting note is a very gentle smoke and shortbread biscuit. Overall, we were expecting/hoping that the older whisky’s replacement would deliver bigger and bolder flavours, but the body was pretty thin and watery in the end – it definitely doesn’t need water adding to it at all. Having not had the chance to try the 15yo before (although some older stocks can still be found in the right places – albeit at knowingly hiked prices), it would be interesting to know how similar this whisky is to the 15. A good overall whisky, but at twice the price of the 12yo’s RRP however, we would rather double up on a firm favourite.
18 Years Old – 43% ABV
Ok, now we’re stepping up a gear. The 18yo is regularly cited as a world class whisky and scores very highly amongst those who choose to rate their whiskies, and so this was a very exciting opportunity. It was also the first of our tasting selection to cross the £100 threshold for those keen enough to buy a full sized bottle. So with that anticipation, what did the 18 years of maturation deliver?
Well, a delicious blend of everything we’d hoped for. Its maturation in European Oak sherry casks really do the leg work here. The nose and palate delivered layers upon layers of flavour. Milk chocolate. Spices. Stewed citrus fruits. Oranges. Hot cinnamon rolls. Fudge. Toffee. Any sweet or spicy note that you can think of, you name it, it was there. Its body was beautifully mellifluous too. Like a proper nectar. The slightly higher ABV and all of those flavours also seemed to push the peat back to a delicate supporting role, but did round off the whole experience with a deep finish for a truly quality whisky.
Sigurd – 43% ABV
As we reach the middle of the session’s offerings, we were introduced to the second substitution in the Highland Park roster, and again a travel retail based expression from the ‘Warrior’ series is set to replace the more traditional age-stated release. Here the NAS Sigurd release replaces the 21 year old in Highland Park’s line-up and is predominantly seasoned in European sherry oak casks.
On the nose, the Sigurd certainly smells stronger and more alcoholic than its siblings so far, despite having a similar ABV. It is also notably darker in colour but does not seem to be bringing all of the sherry cask flavours with it. There’s a good whiff of dark chocolate on the nose and some sweet cinnamon. In the mouth, the sherry-based orange and raisins appear alongside dark sugar, that dark chocolate richness and bitterness but they are quickly dominated by lots of oak spice on the finish. The signature smoke is there again, but seems even more distant, and plays a small part in this rich and spicy whisky. Overall, the brash spiciness takes away from an otherwise rich tasting and syrupy whisky, and, despite trying these whiskies with open minds, the age statements seem to be winning the game here so far. It retails for £165 for those interested in that sort of thing.
30 Years Old – 48.1% ABV
Now, the keen eye amongst you will notice that we have not moved onto the 25 year old expression. Despite its name and praise as “the best spirit in the world” being printed on the tasting sheet in front of us, the whisky is unfortunately missing from the lineup. We were told that, despite the demand for the whisky, and having made an order internally within the distillery itself, the current demand for the whisky and other well-aged expressions, means that the 25 year old is currently unavailable, and has been for some months. There’s no plans for another Warrior series substitution here however, and patience will have to be a virtue exercised before this world leader returns. As for this tasting session however, its substitute will appear below. That aside, onwards to the 30 year old…
The Highland Park 30yo has spent those 3 decades maturing in refill sherry casks. Apparently, the distillery’s new make spirit fares better in refill casks when matured for such long periods of time, than having been kept in first fill casks. Whenever we hear about the use of 2nd, 3rd or further refills in casks, we tend to be sceptical about the influences, but after 30 years in the cask and with a whisky this good, what do we know? This whisky is soooo sweet. Its body and texture feels more like a liqueur than a single malt, and it delivers a super sweet and silky experience. The age has made for lots of lovely syrupy oak influences and smells just like the empty sherry cask barrels found on the tour. It is so aromatic. Lots of sherry influence in there. Following that sticky sweetness though there is spice, spice and more spice. 3 whole decades in barrel and what a journey. Well, not that it has travelled very far, given that we tasted it in the distillery itself – though we were informed that all Highland Park whiskies have been bottled in Glasgow – and so this whisky has had at least one return journey. The lasting flavour and aftertaste here is that of juicy raisins. On reflection, we did not really get any of HP’s signatory smoke but that caramel-rich, orange peel and oak influence just goes on and on… and on. What a whisky!
40 Years Old – 47.5% ABV
As we start to draw to a close, the anticipation of the next whisky is palpable in the room. We caught a glimpse of the 40yo whisky in the gift shop on the way in, and at a very precise and costly sum of £2,725 for a full-sized bottle, we realised that a single measure of this whisky would actually cost more than the tour itself, so we were expecting great things! Also, taking into account, the quantum leap in quality between the Sigurd and the 30 years old expression, then what would another decade of maturation deliver up?
Well, the answer is (unsurprisingly) wood. The 40yo has a really perfumed woody smell – it’s all about the wood in fact. After 4 decades, you’d have thought so too. From the moment the glass cap was taken off the top of the dram, the smell of the wood changed with time too, like it was telling the story of its barrelled incarceration. What did it deliver taste wise? Well, WU’s resident whittler and woodworker said that it tastes just like the inside of his workshop! There was a really fine white sugary sweetness to it too and a dark chocolate flavour and bitterness that seems to have become a signature tasting note in these older HP expressions, as was the rich orange and slight brine/sea-salt quality. Speaking of the HP signatures, the aromatic peat smoke note was barely recognisable in this quadragenarian, but it was there and tasted more like cigar paper, than the smoke itself. In the finish, despite the age, there was still fire in the old girl yet and it made for a final peppery flourish. Overall, the wood ruled the roost in this whisky. Fantastic. Maybe not so much so as the 30yo, but we are talking about a whole other level here.
46 Years Old – 40.1% ABV
Well, this is something special. Truly special. This was the substitute dram offered in place of the 25 year old expression and what a treat for us. This is not a bottling that has been made commercially available, nor is it even bottled as a single cask release for special issue on site, but instead it is served at the distillery for this tour only. This whisky was originally distilled in 1968 and has been captured at its final cask strength of 40.1% ABV – just before it could lose its whisky credentials in a final offering to the angel’s share. At 46 years old it is also the oldest whisky that any of us in WU had tasted before. The whisky was previously housed in a 3rd fill ex bourbon cask and it transpires that we had secretly been shown it during the Magnus Eunson tour, unbeknownst to us that we would soon be tasting it! Sneaky!
As a single ex-bourbon cask, HP’s traditionally sherry-led maturation was not on display here but the ‘aromatic peat’ that HP rely on was present, albeit at the back there somewhere, just. The bourbon barrel was the dominant feature here (obviously) but strangely it had done very little to colour the whisky. What it had done though, was give the whisky all of it’s wood and vanilla flavours. The strong wood influence even felt like it had left a pine needle flavour in the mouth. There were still some subtle tropical notes present too. Pineapple in particular. The finish was quite spicy (pepper) and punchy and overall the oak was king here. In the aftertaste you could basically taste the staves. What an experience and what a way to close a thoroughly phenomenal tasting! These final whiskies particularly are in a league of their own!
The distillery is planning on releasing its next batch of 50 year old whisky this Christmas time. Maybe we could put it on Santa’s list? Well, only if he was amongst the initial wave of people who have already managed to buy up the limited run of 274 bottles before they were even been put on general sale! At an anticipated £13,500 per bottle, you would’ve had to have been a saint this year to get on that list too! At that kind of price, regardless of the silver-plated crystal decanter that the whisky is presented with, you really have to ask if any of it will ever actually be drunk? Not by us, that’s for sure. Not this batch anyway. We can but live in hope for the future!