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Highland Park Distillery: Crafting Whisky in the Heart of Orkney

highland park | whisky distillery

June 14, 2024

Nestled on the remote Orkney Islands, Highland Park is a renowned name in the world of Scotch whisky.  But why is it such a unique spirit?

Nestled on the remote Orkney Islands, the Highland Park Distillery is a renowned name in the world of Scotch whisky.  But why is it such a unique spirit? In this article you’ll find out everything about the distillery and what makes its whisky such a special one. 

Where is Highland Park?

As we already mentioned, Highland Park Distillery is on the Orkney Islands, some of the northernmost islands in Scotland – so far that if you decided to come here and visit during winter it might be quite an adventurous journey. The distillery gets its name from High Park hill in Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkneys. Situated on high ground at the southern edge of Kirkwall, Highland Park has two pagoda-topped kilns and 23 warehouses. Funny enough, despite the numbering system going up to 25, there are actually only 23 warehouses.

The History of Highland Park Distillery

For over 220 years, Highland Park has sat stoically through long winters and raging storms. 

Legend has it that Highland Park Distillery traces its roots back to 1798 when Magnus Eunson – allegedly a priest by day and a whisky smuggler by night – started distilling spirits illicitly. Apparently, he used to hide his distillation equipment in an old church. This clandestine operation in the hills above Kirkwall served as the birthplace of Highland Park’s whisky-making tradition.

According to other versions of history, the distillery was founded by farmer John Robertson in 1798. The Robertsons family owned Highland Park until 1826. By then, Robert Borwick became the licensee, and it remained in the hands of Borwick family members until the 1870s.

In 1895 James Grant purchased Highland Park, expanding the distillery twice and building up a strong relationship with Robertson & Baxter (R&B). Today, Highland Park is now part of the Edrington Group. 

Today, Highland Park continues to be the driving force in Orkney as they commit to keeping their Viking heritage alive – a nod to the centuries when the Orkney Islands were Norse lands. Indeed, some of the most popular original bottles from the distilleries celebrate those same origins, with various series being released themed around Orcadian history and Norse gods.

The Production

The distillery features a semi-lauter mash tun and 12 wooden washbacks made from Oregon pine, with fermentation times ranging from 50 to 80 hours. They have four stills—two wash and two spirit stills.  

Highland Park is renowned for its traditional production methods. A tradition they take great pride in, built on some unique key elements.

The Malting Floors

One of the few distilleries in Scotland to use home-grown grain, Highland Park still malts a portion of its barley by hand on traditional stone floors. Highland Park turns their barley by hand every 8 hours, 7 days a week. This helps maintain a constant airflow and the right amount of moisture to absorb the intense smoke from the peat fully.

The Peat

Orkney peat is unique, with very few trees on the island and a landscape covered in plants. This results in a peat that imparts a more floral and sweet smoky fragrance compared to the peat from other regions.

For example, while Islay’s peat appears to have more marine vegetation and contains more creosol, Orcadian peat is composed entirely of sphagnum moss and heather. This result is a different aromatic spectrum, lightly smoky, but significantly more heathery.  

Highland Park obtained their peat from Hobbister Moor, located 7 miles from the distillery. When the peat is burned in the kilns, it produces a phenol content of around 20 ppm, giving Highland Park its distinctive smoky yet heathery flavour profile.

The Cask Selection

Highland Park carefully selects its casks to achieve the perfect ageing for their whisky. They source staves from American and European oak trees, which are then crafted into casks and filled with Oloroso sherry in Spain. After maturing for at least two years, the casks are sent to Orkney to age the whisky, imparting rich flavours and character.

The Climate

The Orkney Islands have summer highs around 16°C and winter lows around 2°C. This benefits the whisky maturation process, as it takes place in a cool and evenly paced environment, with no high peaked temperatures. 

Whisky Characters

Highland Park whiskies are celebrated for their balanced and complex flavours, featuring notes of honey, heather, and spices. The whisky’s heather character blends with delicate peat smoke and an oily maritime note, complemented by floral notes and honey sweetness. The sherry casks used in maturation add orange notes and spicy nutmeg aromas.

Highland Park Whisky Recommendation

Now that you’re well-versed in Highland Park’s history and whisky-making process, it’s time for some bottle recommendations! Here are a few of our favourites.

Highland Park 50-year-old

Highland Park 50-year-old
Bottled: 2018
Stated Age: 50 years old
Cask Type: 2 Spanish oak, sherry seasoned, hogshead cask
Number of bottles: 274
Strength: 42.5 % Vol.
Size: 700 ml 750 ml

This 50-year-old Highland Park whisky will surprise you. At first sip, you will immediately taste the wood and the deep sweet sherry tones that are balanced out by the sourness of red fruits and a touch of light smoke. 

Highland Park 1964

Highland Park 1964
Bottling Series: Orcadian Vintage Series
Distilled: 1964
Bottled: 2009
Cask Type: Refill Hogshead
Number of bottles: 290
Strength: 42.2 % Vol.
Size: 700 ml

This is indeed a whisky with some depth and complex characters. The flavour profile is surprisingly infinite, and every sip lets you discover a new note: toffee, dried strawberries, gingerbread, crushed black pepper, crème brûlée, cinnamon bark, toasted vanilla pods, and, of course, a light cloud of peat smoke.

Highland Park 1973

Highland Park 1973
Distilled: 1973
Bottled: 2008
Stated Age: 35 years old
Strength: 49.6 % Vol.
Size: 700 ml

We know. It’s quite difficult to come across a dram of this single malt, but we promise it’s worth the hunt. If you are into complex whisky, you will love this one. The floral notes harmonizes with some mineral notes. You can sense the earthy tobacco, old leather and orange. On the mouth, it’s quite potent but it’s harmonized with fruity syrup and a touch of citrons, with a smoky aftertaste. 

In Conclusion

Now you pretty much know everything about Highland Park.

With over 220 years of history, this Highland Park Distillery combines traditional whisky-making methods with the unique terroir influences of Orkney to craft a truly one-of-a-kind whisky. From its Viking heritage to its meticulous production process involving hand-malted barley, unique peat, and carefully selected casks, every element contributes to the rich, complex flavours that Highland Park is celebrated for.

What’s your favourite Highland Park whisky? Tag Mynameiswhisky on your social media and let us know!

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