Sometimes an invitation arrives that I clear my diary for, such is my intrigue and thirst for whisky exploration. One such invitation was to attend an event at Canary Wharf where I would be afforded the opportunity to sample the rarest and oldest bottle of Highland Park whisky ever released. A 54 Year Old with a retail price of £39k.
Price tags of this magnitude demand attention. They are statement whiskies, mostly finding their way into investment portfolios, but occasionally opened and enjoyed. £39k is a lot of money, but what price for something so rare, exclusive and hopefully delicious? It is far less than the depreciation on just one of a buyer's cars which may hardly be driven, and would hardly touch the sides of a super yacht's fuel tank. So, it could be argued that it is well priced, especially given the age and rarity.
Highland Park has been located in Kirkwall, on the isle of Orkney since 1798 having been founded by Magnus Eunson. Eunson was a well-known smuggler and illicit distiller in the area and built the distillery on a remote spot where he could easily hide from the authorities and avoid paying taxes on his illegal whisky production. Eunson was known for producing a particularly high-quality whisky, and his reputation quickly spread throughout the local area. Despite his success, Eunson was eventually caught by the authorities and sentenced to six months in prison. However, he was able to resume his whisky production upon his release, and he continued to produce his beloved Highland Park until his death in 1827.
After Eunson's death, the distillery was sold to James Borwick, a local merchant who recognized the potential of the brand. Under Borwick's ownership, the distillery continued to produce high-quality whisky, and the Highland Park brand became more and more popular throughout Scotland and beyond.
In the late 19th century, the distillery was sold again, this time to James Grant, who owned the Glenlivet distillery. Grant was a shrewd businessman, and he recognized the potential of the brand to compete with the finest whiskies being produced in Scotland at the time. Under his ownership, the distillery was expanded and modernized, and Highland Park continued to grow in popularity.
During the 20th century, the distillery went through a number of ownership changes, but it continued to produce some of the finest single malt whiskies in the world. Today, the distillery is owned by the Edrington Group, one of Scotland's largest whisky producers, and it remains highly respected and sought-after.
One of the most distinctive features of Highland Park whisky is its use of peat, which is a type of fuel made from decomposing vegetation. Peat is used to heat the malted barley and it gives Highland Park whisky its characteristic flavour. The peat used is unique to the Orkney Islands, and it is known for producing a particularly rich and complex flavour profile. It is quite different from Islay, having a higher heather content and more delicate smoke.
The 9000-year-old peat is taken from the Hobbister Moor, just 7 miles away from the distillery. The 17-hectare moor is known for its birdlife including lapwings, curlews, redshanks, snipe, and meadow pipits as well as being a stopover for migratory birds.
The peat is hand cut in April and dried over summer (the Gulf stream gives some warmth reaching a balmy 16C) before being burnt in one of their two historic kilns, the youngest of which is over 100 years old. It is this rich history that captivates me about whisky. Modern techniques would undoubtedly be more efficient and cost-effective, but at what cost? It also makes for a great backstory of craftsmanship, skill and tradition. I also find it fascinating that the stills at Highland Park have windows, enabling the team to view the boiling liquid that will eventually become whisky. Something I hope to see soon.
The tasting event for this 54-year-old whisky, of which only 225 bottles are being released, was truly a magical experience. The team had transported Orkney to the banks of the Thames at London’s only lighthouse, The Chainstore. We were invited to forage for island herbs (1000 plants had been transported from Orkney to London) in order to create our own Old Fashioned cocktail, having been taught how to carve our own ice balls.
The delicious dinner was cooked by James Cochran and accompanied by Highland Park based cocktails. Rather annoyingly, I was so engrossed in the food and drink, I didn’t have an opportunity to chat with James. We both worked at Reads restaurant in Faversham for a time, with me being the Sommelier and him in the kitchen. Hopefully, there will be future occasions like this. It really was exceptional. But onto the whisky…
Highland Park 54-Year-Old
This is the distillery’s oldest and rarest expression to date. Creating the whisky involved combining four refill butts and six refill hogsheads in February 2008 before being refilled into first-fill European sherry butts, where the whisky has been ageing ever since. As a result, the whisky has a fantastic intensity and deep, rich colour. At 46.9% this seems to have been the perfect time to bottle, which also coincides with the distilleries 225-year-old anniversary.
Before tasting it we were able to sample the 21, 25 and 30-year-olds to experience the distillery DNA (to be featured in a separate article). The 54 had a beautiful warmth to it of herbs and spices with a subtle smoke lingering in the background, entombed behind scents of manuka honey. This carried on to the palate but with the addition of nuts and in particular honey glazed almonds. Fundamentally, you have to ask yourself if you enjoy a whisky, regardless of age or price. Not all whisky gets better with age, but this is a resounding success and utterly delicious. It is a dram that commands your attention, you know it is special and should be afforded contemplation. It is a bottle that would take pride of place in any collection, and in particular on display as it works as a piece of art.
The bottle itself was designed by Stoelzle Flaconnages Senior Designer, Michael Rudak. It is exquisite and mention has to be made of the conical ‘push’ at the base in reference to the mash tuns at the distillery.
The presentation case, which uniquely is made of Scottish oak, and designed by John Galvin, depicts the Yesnaby cliffs and is a perfect tribute to the wild yet calm grandeur of Scotland's west coast. The cliffs are a stunning geological feature located on the west coast of Orkney and have a dramatic beauty. The cliffs consist of a series of towering sandstone formations that have been shaped and sculpted over time by the forces of wind and water. The rocks are layered with bands of red sandstone, which creates a striking contrast with the deep blue of the surrounding sea. The cliffs reach up to 200 feet in height, providing breathtaking views of the ocean and the rugged coastline.
The case draws from these natural elements to create a work of art in itself. Each piece is unique and references the surroundings from the smooth inside to the textured outer, depicting the effects of weather over time.
Intrigued to know a little more, I asked Gordon Motion, Highland Parks master whisky maker, a few questions about this quite extraordinary Highland Park 54:-
How often would the barrel have been tasted in the past 10 years? The casks would be tasted 3-4 times in the past 10 years. We try not to disturb old casks like this very often but will check for leaks on a more regular basis.
How old would you guess the wood to have been when the tree was felled do you think? They’re most likely felled somewhere between 100-150 years old.
How many more of these very old casks are there? We still have casks of old Highland Park, the number of casks and volume is a closely guarded secret.
Out of 1000 casks, how many would you estimate can make it to over 50 years without losing all of the whiskies’ character? None should lose character as that will only develop over time. The biggest risk to old casks like this is that they fall below 40% so we have to monitor them to make sure they survive. In 1968, we filled over 10000 casks and only 10 were kept back to ultimately create the 54-Year-Old.
Are you laying down significantly more casks for ageing now thinking even of 2100? Yes, we are filling more whisky now.
If so, what makes you choose a particular cask and do you age in a specific warehouse? All casks are filled with no final destination in mind. As they mature and I see samples of them, I’ll select some to continue ageing depending on their character. We age our casks in various warehouses to spread any risk but I find the relatively stable temperature in Orkney allows for a longer maturation with slightly less loss.
What is the oldest whisky you have in your casks that you had made specifically for the distillery? It’s a secret.
Outside of HP, what is your favourite drinking spot in Orkney? Outside of Highland Park and the world of whisky, I like to try locally brewed beers so any bar which serves a good pint.
And your favourite restaurant? I would recommend The Storehouse in Kirkwall for some great Orcadian food.
Outside of HP, if you could only drink the whisky from one other distillery who would it be? I don’t know, I haven’t tried them all yet.
Although situated circa 10 miles off the north coast of Scotland, Orkney is easily accessible by plane (flights from London City are due to start in April 2023) or by foot or car ferry, should you wish to visit. As you might expect, the weather there can be wild with 70-100 mph winds, but the distillery and its 23 warehouses have withstood the test of time. Rather interestingly, the warehouses are numbered 1-25, but quite why is lost to history. I can only surmise that 2 might have fallen victim to the occasional ferociousness of the elements.
Highland Park actively welcomes visitors and is open for pre-booked tours Monday to Sunday from 10.00-17.00 (April 1st – October 30th) and Tuesday to Saturday, 10-17:00 (November 1st – March 31st). They have 5 distinct tours available, ranging from a tour with 3 drams for £30 to a Rare and Exclusive tour at £1300 should you really want to indulge yourself - given the quality of the whisky and the beauty of the island, I suggest you do.