In 2017, the good folk at Highland Park really doubled down on promoting their Viking roots as part of their Orcadian history. The chunky, rectangular bottles were replaced with a new bottom-heavy curved design, laden with embossed markings inspired by the Viking carvings at Orkney’s Urnes Stave Church and assorted Viking paraphernalia. With that rebrand, as if the word Viking hadn’t appeared enough in this intro yet: the 10 year old became Viking Scars; the landmark 12 year old became Viking Honour; the 15 year old was dropped from the roster (presumably sent off the coast of Kirkwall in a burning Viking longboat); and the 18 year old became Viking Pride. These whiskies each appear in the main core range available from the distillers, along with frequent new and limited releases peppering the roster.
Highland Park have maintained that it is the same liquid / recipe in these remaining classic age statements, and so we find ourselves looking at the eldest of the core range aged siblings, featuring HP spirit that has been predominantly matured in first-fill sherry seasoned European and American oak casks, aged for at least 18 years, and then married together and captured here at 43% ABV.
I’ve been waiting to get my hands on my own bottle of this for some time, and so, with a firm favourite and some, ahem, Viking Pride at stake, here we go…
A wealth of rich, deep and sweet flavours billow from the glass. Dark chocolate, golden syrup and treacle flavours arrive at first. Then the fruitiness starts to unfold with nice juicy raisins and papaya. It’s not all about the dried fruit here though as the freshness of red fruits/berries (strawberries and raspberries) and maybe even cherries emerge. Make that a cherry bakewell flavour courtesy of a good dose of baking spices: cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. There’s a good supporting backbone of oak and smoke, that you’d expect from a whisky of this age and from the classic HP spirit’s heathery peat smoke origins.
Candied orange and honey soaked apricots are the first sensations that hit the lips. It’s a sweet, fruity and buttery concoction. A couple more sips and I’d add stewed orchard fruits to the mix too. That chocolate note from the nose is there again, which, merging that note with the honey flavour also brings a Cadbury’s Crunchie to mind. Coming back to the fruits and a big juicy raisin taste fills the back of the mouth and those cherries from the nose seem to reappear too. A late sharp and slightly bitter combo of coffee beans and clove spice seems to pick up at the end and then those familiar Sherry influenced winter spices gradually warm up and release a festive foray of ginger, nutmeg and more clove. Finally, the oak and ABV give a hot cinnamon and peppery heat.
The oak spice and alcohol strength only really come into their own on the finale here. Those warm baking spices only seemed slight on the nose, then they started to amp up in the mouth and they just continue to grow as the liquid slips on down.
Delicious. Need I say more? Well, yes, I should. You can’t really read about this malt of late without finding comparisons between the old style and the new style bottling. Many people have put this new 18yo down, saying its not up to the age statement’s former glory. If this is true – and sadly I only have a distant, fond and fuzzy memory of my first HP18 – then that must have been some pretty bloody amazing scotch because this is still pretty great stuff as far as these tastebuds are concerned.
To be fair though, I am biased. I have a soft spot for HP. It was one of the first whisky names that I really got into when I started to enjoy whisky more than just a means to a staggering end, and I’ve maintained a keen following since. Having made the pilgrimage to Kirkwall, I am lucky enough to know what treasure lie amongst this 18yo’s older brethren. Having had the higher ages that HP have to offer on that hallowed trip (see notes here) however I can appreciate that this 18yo does lack a bit of ‘heft’ when compared to those older expressions and that may be the character that the old HP18 standard may once have had. By the same hand though, old whisky is old whisky. It’s a whole different sub genre. In this 18yo, I have found a firm favourite that I will keep returning, if/when I am able to.
Whether or not this 18yo is value for money is a different and complicated question. Sure, there are other 18 year old single malts out there for less than the HP18’s asking price of £100-110 currently. If you’re just after the age statement but don’t want to stretch the purse strings that far then some of the big scotch names (Glenfiddich and Glenlivet to name just two) will be there for you in the £65-80 region, along with the more readily available Diageo malts and some other less famous names. Equally there are some players heading towards the £120+region for their 18yo. Lots of people point to the Glendronach 18yo Allardice as a comparably priced Sherry-rich heavy hitter, and that’s also in the same ball park as Aberlour, if Sherry is your thing.
For me, the HP18 has many memories associated with it, and taking just a sip of it will instantly transport me back to those good times. That’s a complicating factor when trying to consider value for money, as it is a characteristic which you can’t necessarily put a price on. Hand on heart, it probably does skew my views, but you’re talking to someone who has been a fanboy and I’ll openly admit that.
In summary, we are talking about a classic of the genre. The decision to double down on the Viking packaging and marketing has certainly divided opinion and has brought with it doubts as to the actual content of the bottle – which is ultimately what matters – but without an old HP18 to compare it against, I couldn’t really comment. Trying to put that to one side and my love for HP to the other, if I can be as open minded as possible about the whisky simply in my hand, then this is a delightful 18 year old single malt and one that I’m (Viking) proud to have.
Sample disclosure: This bottle was a Christmas gift from the family. All notes are intended as an honest, fair and independent review of the whisky, and not as a promotion. Please drink responsibly. Please drink wisely.
Photos all by WhiskyUnplugged.