Tasting Notes: Highland Park – 15 Years Old (Viking Heart)

It has become something of an unwritten rule that scotch distilleries revere certain landmarks in their journey: 12 years, 15 years, and 18 years are seemingly those milestones when it comes to core range releases. During my time as a whisky drinker, that middle entrant has done the hokey cokey within the Highland Park core range. In 2003 it became a travel-retail exclusive, and then made its way into the core range. In 2017 the 15yo was removed from the roster by HP in favour of putting their casks towards older expressions and/or focussing on non-age statement releases. Well, in 2021, the 15 year old expression made a welcome return to the fold, and did so in a novel fashion.

Resurrected in the distillery’s now distinctive Viking garb, the 15 year old has been branded as the “Viking Heart”, and features Highland Park malt that has been aged in a combination of sherry-seasoned European oak casks, sherry-seasoned American oak casks, and a small proportion of refill casks.

Highland Park 15 – Viking Heart

What people seem to have talked about more than the return of the whisky itself, is the choice of bottle. Not satisfied with simply falling in line with the core range’s chunky glass bottle emblazoned with the lion and serpent imagery, that design has instead been embossed onto a ceramic decanter. The Orcadians have partnered with Wade Ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent, to produce a lead-free porcelain decanter, glazed inside and out, to go back to their roots and “rewind a century or two [to when] our whisky would have been stored in earthenware vessels”.

The whisky is captured at 44% ABV, without colouring or chill-filtration and is selectively available at an RRP of £80 GBP.

Tasting time…

Nose

This is all about warming autumnal dessert type smells up front. Think Crème brûlée. Bread and butter pudding. Butter scotch. There’s some slight orchard fruit and with all that sweetness it’s more like toffee apples. A Cadbury’s Crunchie comes to mind too due to a big toasty honeycomb flavour and some gentle milk chocolate flavours. And of course – as a Highland Park – there’s a little heather honey and peat.

Taste

It’s a soft start with a delicate and pretty oily texture – it slips right over the tongue. Toffee and vanilla sweetness arrive up top and then the signature HP heathery peat makes a real appearance and it brings a peaty heat along with it. Those soft and sweet desserts are back with apple strudel springing to mind courtesy of a combo of almonds, apple, and cinnamon, which have all been laced with custard.

Finish

A slight black peppery heat prickles on the way down and lingers for a little while but afterwards there are little aftertastes of fruity zest like tart blackberries, blackcurrants, and damsons. There’s a cinnamon note too which – if I was getting romantic about it – reminds me of the final lick of the spoon after your apple strudel as you retrieve the last vestiges and crumbs from the plate.

Verdict

I had a lot of expectations going into this.

To be honest, I was expecting more of a sherry-rich, dark fruit-led experience. I thought that it would be bringing boozy raisins, cherries, and berries to the table with it, placing it somewhere between the 12yo and 18yo. It did not deliver that – albeit there is a decent little kick of Christmas spice to be had – but instead it brought lighter fruits and more vanilla than expected, though still very much in the dessert category.

What I was not expecting was the texture. It is quite oily and silky around the mouth, without being syrupy or cloying, and then the 44% ABV and cask influcenes provide a black peppery spice that stops it from being a solely sickly sweet venture.

The word in the marketing that kept catching my eye was “pineapple” and I can see where that comes from but it wasn’t a note that I really could latch onto. To me, there were more hints of British autumn orchard fruits rather than anything tropical i.e. apples and pears along with that slightly tart aftertaste I was talking about that reminded me of blackberries. On that point, the fruit flavours in this are just tart enough without being sharp or astringent.

What the marketing also talks about – and I can fully get behind – is the heather-rich honey note. This might be the heatheriest HP I’ve ever had. It is often a background note to their whiskies but here it seems to be front and centre – or at least part of the lead cast.

A little bit of water seems to make the nose even sweeter and go towards sugary sweet / sherbet territory. Taste-wise it tames down the fruitiness and tartness to a sweet and simple vanilla fudge flavour.

Dynamic Ceramic

Despite initially putting me off, the ceramic bottle actually feels and looks really nice in situ. It pours really well too. It gives you a satisfying pop to the cork each time and it doesn’t have that locking cap thingy that their glass bottles all now have. It just feels nice to the touch. It has won me around when seeing and using it in person.

Overall, I am happy to have this bottle in the set at home, completing the core age statement flight. Whilst not quite the step between the 12 and 18 that I expected, it actually seems more like a natural step up from the 10, with that lighter body and heather honey focus. I may not be in a rush to replace it when it’s gone but I will keep it in the back of my mind, and I will hold onto the ceramic bottle for sure. For now, it is a welcome addition to the cabinet and lovely to have all the siblings together. How do they all compare side-by-side, well that’s a question for another time and another post.

Highland Park’s heavy-handed Viking branding may have polarised whisky drinkers’ opinions but the name of this whisky is “Viking Heart” and I think that, more than any other HP release that I have tasted, this best showcases the heathery Orcadian peat which is indeed at the heart of Highland Park.

M

Viking Heart

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.

All photos by WhiskyUnplugged.

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