Accompanying Hong Kong Scottish RFC to the Melrose Sevens for their competitive debut, I was present on the Friday at the splendidly organized Veterans Tens tournament. This featured household names of the past along with club players from as far afield as Waikato in New Zealand and Hamilton in South Africa. However, the team that made the most noise and brought the most raiders was Orkney RFC. Perhaps the presence of a horde of screaming women amongst their supporters was diverging somewhat from their Viking heritage but there were a plethora of mature versions of Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas gracing the pitch whilst being roared on by the rest of the landing party. Of course, they were made somewhat more welcome at Melrose Abbey than there forefathers had been throughout centuries of less friendly raiding.
Much as we owe our Scottish wanderlust to our Celtic traditions, we are also the children of our Norse past and no place in Scotland was more a home to the Vikings than Orkney which was settled and controlled by the Vikings from the late eighth century and where the majority of the population is of Viking descent. They still raid but with less success, if the rugby was any indication and receive a better reception, if the hospitality of Melrose is repeated elsewhere. Perhaps the secret of this welcome lies in their greatest export.
Some thousand years after their ancestors came ashore, the farming people of Orkney began the production of malt whisky and with a few hiccups, both metaphorical and drink induced, along the way they are now the producers of one of Scotland’s most famous malt whiskies, Highland Park. Much of their production is a core ingredient in the Famous Grouse, the most widely consumed whisky in Scotland and prior to 1979 the distillery did not release single malts itself; only third party bottlings were available but since then they have developed an expansive range of superlative malt whiskies.
In limited space, I can describe only a few chosen samples but it is a journey in itself to explore Highland Park from the 12-year-old through to the limited issue Ambassador casks. This range is an ideal example of how small changes in distilling practice can produce a remarkably differentiated variety of fine malt whiskies. Core though are the ingredients and central to the nose and taste of any variety of Highland Park is peat. The malt is still hand turned in the traditional fashion and the peating takes place using peat cut from Hobbister Moor which is slowly burned to produce “the reek”, a thick smoke that permeates the malt.
However any aficionado of malt whisky will tell you that the peat essence that permeates Highland Park is entirely different from that of Islay and the Western malts. It is commonly acknowledged that the peat of Orkney is “aromatic peat” due to the unique conditions that formed it and each and every expression of Highland Park is enhanced by a sweet, honeyed flavour.
Like all of my favourite malt whiskies, Highland Park is remarkable even in its least exclusive, core expression – the 12-year old, which was the first proprietary malt produced by the distillery. I would in no way be diminishing it to suggest that, like a young Glenfiddich, it is in my mind an ideal starting malt. It has many of the endearing qualities of malt whisky with a light smoky essence that permeates the nose, the palate and the finish, a beguiling sweetness in its initial stages and an almost floral hint to the finish without having any of the sturdier qualities of some of the malts that grow upon us with experience. It is a truly exquisite example of the distiller’s art.
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