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February 14, 2012

Highland Park at the Quaich Society

A treat for the Quaich Society: two bottles of Highland Park Earl Magnus.

The art of pillaging has moved on somewhat since the last time an insatiable horde sought the treasures of Orkney. Quaich Society guests were in fact deeply well-mannered as they queued for a welcoming and welcome dram of the Highland Park 12yo to begin the first tasting of the new year. They sensed that riches would come their way without the need for axes or blood-curdling yells, and they were right.

Patsy Christie and David Howe of Maxxium Brands ventured north to St Andrews to introduce the most northerly of Scotland’s single malts. Aided by some multimedia projection, we could appreciate what implications this might have for the whiskies in our Glencairns. Predominating images were of movement: sea and air principally. It is some challenge not to get blown away on Orkney, but Highland Park’s stature has swelled over the years and today it poses dismissively against the gale.

In my tenure at the Society, we have not welcomed a brand which malts a proportion of its own barley. With Highland Park, this affected the style of our tasting profoundly. ‘Orkney is a big part of Highland park,’ David had said, and Patsy produced a bit of the islands themselves forthwith to demonstrate what he meant. With some good-natured flouting of the health and safety laws, this slab of Hobbister Moor peat was ignited and passed around the congregation, a cloud of wraith-like smoke circulating. As it came in my direction, I detected a spent birthday cake candle smell, and a deeper aroma of incence. Placed beneath Highland Park barley for a few hours and this will generate the delicate heathery quality which I found enlivened all of the whiskies on show.

First up was the new make, and one I was desperate to try. I have said elsewhere how much I love this bolshy, raw product and I’m pleased to report that as new makes go, this is up there with Glencadam’s and Glen Garioch’s. It is stunning. On the nose there is orange and lemon, then fabulous buxom barley which blends a creaminess with a lovely, earthy crispness. This leads into a light prickle of sweet smoke.

Full-bodied on the palate, it displays clean and crisp qualities again. Barley sweetness and some honeydew melon. Shortbread and coconut - gently earthy. It really is magically complex.

A revelatory peat moment. My favourite kind of revelatory moments, if I'm honest.

‘When David and I were planning this tasting,’ said Patsy, ‘he asked me whether I wanted to talk about maturation. Of course! I love wood!’ Her impish grin set the Quaich Society a-sniggering but there was more to Patsy’s cask policy lecture than innuendo. With such premium, classically sherried brands as The Macallan and our guest for the evening, Highland Park, owners the Edrington Group had to source the best oak they could. I heard the following detail on Orkney and it was reiterated: the Edrington Group spends more on wood than the rest of the Scotch whisky industry combined. From the Missouri forests, American oak is shipped to Spain, converted into casks, filled with sherry, emptied and returned – whole – to Scotland. They care about what will contain these fine spirits for years to come and have done for sometime, as the recent launch of the 50yo attests.

We could see the results of that excellent new make after a few Orkney summers in these casks with the 18yo. F. Paul Pacult’s opinions may mean nothing to you – and they certainly mean nothing to me – but to his esteemed palate the 18yo is ‘the best spirit in the world’. Fair enough, but I don’t think it is a sufficient basis on which to anchor sales patter. Or maybe I would say that, having always preferred the 12yo. I’m sorry, but it has far more variety and balance than this specimen, which in the past has poured toffee into my nostrils and not much else. It performed admirably on the night, though, and is undoubtedly an impressive dram.

Patsy Christie and a tiny tot of the new Thor. Great things, small packages and whatnot.

A genuine privilege came in the form of the Earl Magnus of which, we were told, none now exist for sale. The character of this 15yo, cask strength individual was nuttier than the 18yo with more vanilla, apple and pear. A dab of water released far more orange and lemon, which, though a fraction peatier, mirrored the profile of the new make closely. The palate delivered with smoke and spice in addition to caramel, red apple and other red fruits.

The final venerable malt was the 21yo which launched itself out of the glass with robust, warm sherry tones. I detected embers in tbe grate, too, continuing the lovely delicacy of peat that the range had supplied hitherto. Red fruits appeared on the palate with a bit of phenolic smoke.

We almost forgot about the 21yo, however, because the normally docile and genial Quaich Society got a bee in its bonnet. The way issues such as ‘chillfiltration’ and ‘artificial colouring’ were hurled back and forth put me in mind of the Houses of Parliament during the Blair years and the words ‘weapons of mass destruction’. They would not give an inch. HP is chillfiltered, but only a little bit, it would appear. They don’t colour at all. Patsy, a whisky nerd up there with the most obsessive, cited research conducted by the Scotch Whisky Research Institute which said that chillfiltration had no effect – zero, nada – on the flavour profile of a whisky. I don’t know what to believe anymore, as I struggle to credit that the residue left on the edges of the glass after a single cask Glenfarclas has no impact on mouthfeel or the behaviour of the malt in your mouth. Never having had the opportunity of tasting the same malt chillfiltered and not, I cannot compare. If regulations are so strict about what you put into whisky, however, I think we need a little more guidance on what is taken out.

Patsy and David evaded the jabs and thrusts of the Quaich Soc’ers with composed, honest answers. Even a loaded comment about the calibre of cask selection and what might make its way into Famous Grouse would not provoke them. They received a raucous round of applause for their efforts, and I would like to thank both of them for bringing their expertise and excellent whiskies along to us. Maybe a few more minis of Thor for next time, though?

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