Alexander Murray & Co Ltd ‘Highland Park’ 13yr
Distilled in 2000 at Highland Park Distillery, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland
Bottled by Alexander Murray & Co Ltd at cask strength 56.1 % abv
Summer is in finally here, and we have the second quarter Scotch Whisky Club Tasting Notes for you! We’re excited to be featuring another new broker bottler to the Scotch Club, Alexander Murray & Co Ltd. While they specialize in custom label bottlings for individual customers and businesses like Trader Joes and Costco (Kirkland), they also bottle their single malts under their own name. We tasted nearly 30 expressions and this was one of our favorites. It didn’t hurt that it was one of few that were bottled at cask strength! Highland Park is a favorite of many regular scotch drinkers (myself included). The last time we featured an expression from Highland Park was in our inaugural release of the Scotch Club in 2007. While most of the core expressions of Highland Park are matured in sherry casks, this one was matured entirely in bourbon casks, making it daytime appropriate and summer approved.
The island of Orkney is simply a magical place. Definitely not British, not really Scottish, as it was a Norse settlement for more than 700 years until it was assumed by Scotland through a marriage. Civilization has occupied this land since 8000 BC. Orkney, along with all the other Hebridean islands including Islay remained loyal to Norway until the 13th century. In 1262 Angus Mor, the Lord of Islay, fighting alongside the Vikings lost control to Scotland in the Battle of Largs. Scotland needed the land for strategic naval positioning fighting off the Danish as they settled on lease terms with Norway. Later in the mid-1400s, after years of unpaid rent to Norway’s King Christian I, Scotland’s debt was forgiven in exchange for the marriage of Scotland’s King James III to Christian’s daughter. The next 300 years solidified a Scottish Norwegian alliance that resisted countless attempts at Danish overrule to no avail. Though Orkney had officially become part of Scotland, most Orcadian people never considered themselves Scottish, and the islands have truly a distinct feel.
Highland Park distillery was established in 1798 by Magnus Eunson. The famous 18th century rogue smuggler set up shop on the former site of an illicit still that had been in operation for decades before. Ironically, in the basement of a church where he was a preacher that once stood on the site. It was known as ‘High Park’ for its location on a hill above the town of Kirkwall. In one telling story, it is said that Magnus got word of an imminent inspection by the local exisemen John Robertson, looking for evidence of whisky smuggling. He quickly assembled some of the parishioners and moved all the barrels of whisky from the cellar into the church, where they put coffin lids over the barrels, and draped them with white funerary shroud. When the taxmen arrived, the mass launched into a roar of loud and soulful mourning. One of the parishioners mumbled to the visitors “smallpox”, and just like that, Robertson bailed without completing his search. Eunson was finally arrested in 1813, and as irony would have it, the distillery was sold to the same tax excisemen John Robertson, who promptly turned it legit and began legal distillation. Highland Park distillery has been in continuous operation ever since. Today Highland Park along with sister distillery Macallan is owned by the Edrington Group. And both are renowned amongst collectors and drinkers alike as one of the best, most well-rounded drams.
Highland Park also boasts the title of northernmost distillery in Scotland. The distillery’s location in the Orkney Islands provides a setting that encompasses the very best of all of Scotland’s distilling regions. The Orkneys are now considered a part of the Highlands, and its whiskies share many of the traits of the more familiar highland distilleries, like aromas of heather, wildflowers and honey. The barley for their whisky is malted and then slowly kilned dry over a period of 5-7 days using peat smoke, imparting a slight smoky quality to the whisky, although this peatiness is not nearly as strong as malts from Islay. They are one of the few distilleries peating their own barley, up to 20% nowadays. The island location also exposes the whisky aging in cask, to strong breezes and storms coming off of the North Sea, imparting a slight saltiness on the whisky as it matures. Whisky at Highland Park is aged predominately in used Sherry casks, which imparts a vinous, fruity quality to the malt, as well as a touch of sweetness (although this particular bottle saw no Sherry cask).
The Highland Park that you hold in your hands was not bottled by the Highland Park, but by independent spirits bottler Alexander Murray & Co. As we’ve discussed before, prior to the last quarter of a century or so, almost no Single Malt Scotch was bottled with the intention to be consumed straight. Nearly every cask of whisky was sold to the blending houses, who, according to their house style, would blend dozens of different single malts, along with more neutrally flavored grain whisky, to achieve their house style. Frequently these blends will contain in excess of 50-60 different whiskies, each used sparingly to lend a bit of their character to the final product. Starting in the mid-1800’s, specialized wine & spirits brokers, and even a few licensed grocers began purchasing casks that they thought were especially distinctive. These merchants would bring the whole casks to their shops, and display them on site. Their customers would come in, frequently bringing their own flasks, bottles, or other containers, and buy their whisky by the liter, tapped straight from the barrel. When the bottling of whisky became cheaper and more commonplace, these merchants switched over to selling their whiskies by the bottle, so that they could market their products to a larger audience than just their local customers.
After distillation, the ‘new make’ spirit was filled to what is known as a refill American hogshead: a barrel of specific size (a hogshead is 66 US gallons, or 250 liters) that was previously used to age Bourbon whiskey in the United States. According to law, bourbon must be aged in brand-new, heavily charred casks. After bourbon is bottled, there are a lot of used barrels left over that are of no further use to the Bourbon distiller. Most are sold to Scotch distilleries, as the more neutral qualities of used wood are great for the milder, subtler Scotch whiskies made of malted barley. This type of barrel will slowly lend its color to the aging Scotch, without imparting any overt oaky flavors. This whisky is lightly peated, providing just a hint of smoke on the nose and palate. The nose expresses an unmistakable Highland Park quality of orange, honey and heather that is further developed on the palate. Flavors of spiced orange, burnt orange peel and heather linger on the finish. Every sip conjures aromas of zested orange and memories of summertime flowers while aromas of salty seaside air permeate. At cask strength the finish is spicy but with the addition of a dash of water the flavors really open up and develop. I’ve also noticed that as I drink the bottle past the shoulder mark the whisky continues to open up and develop. This whisky is a perfect summertime sipper – light enough to sip in the sunshine while still being expressive and full of character. If it gets hot out, try it with splash of chilled soda water with an orange twist. Enjoy!