March 19, 2012
I’m a big fan of the Highland Park 18, which I think is a much better value and (in some ways) at least as good as The Macallan 18. I saw a great deal on Highland Park 12 year at Costco a few months ago, and snagged it for $32. There seems to be some disagreement on the web about what kind of wood is used for the 12-year. The HP website implies that it uses only ex-sherry casks, although plenty of sources online say that anywhere from 10% (for the 12 year) to 50% (for the 15 year) is aged in ex-bourbon American oak. This is the kind of ridiculousness that occurs when producers aren’t upfront about the components of their malts. So.. sherry? No sherry? Who knows, I just want to drink it. Today I finally cracked open the 12 to discover if the precursor is as good as the antecedent bottling from this far-flung northern Scotland distillery.
Note: The UK bottling is 40% ABV (700ml), while the US bottling is 43% ABV (750ml).
Nose: First impression is of warm, earthy peat. Beneath, a layer of lemon oil and candied lemon peel. Sharp ginger, grapefruit juice. Freshly-baked gingersnap cookies. As it sits in the glass, the citrus notes darken and give hints of blood orange and marmalade. Orkney peat is unmistakable, and here it is vibrant and enthusiastic, although there’s an off-note to the alcohol – just a hair too young. A long rest in the glass reveals some velvety vanilla and lavender.
Palate: Medium-bodied, almost silky, and quite smooth. Up front there’s a bitter note – burned almonds – which fades as waves of malted grains, brown sugar, lemon custard, and caramel cover the tongue. The smokiness that was missing from the nose appears here in the form of smouldering hay and spent matches. On the tongue it develops a woody cast, and slants towards varnish.
Finish: Long. The bitter notes re-emerge. Blackened wood and spent campfire war a bit with the clean, citrusy flavors. Unfortunately, the bitter woody notes prevail and last several minutes. This negative effect seems to fade the more you drink… or maybe that’s just the alcohol talking!
With Water: Water brightens the peat in the nose considerably, yielding freshly-squeezed lemon juice and cider vinegar, and heightening the alcohol tickle. On the tongue there is more malt upfront, with soft caramels, mushroomy peat, and roasted almonds. The finish may be slightly less bitter, although woodsmoke and barrel tannin persist. This dram is significantly improved, overall, by the water. I recommend its addition highly.
Overall: By the time this turns 18 and is exposed to some sherry wood, the objectionable bitter/burned flavors will have dissipated and the dram will be heavenly. For now, it’s easy to see why the 12-year commands a relatively low price. While it has a lovely lemony nose full of that Orkney peat, the bitterness on the tongue and the burned notes in the finish relegate this to the 30-dollar bin. Still, another sip covers up the sins of the previous, and it’s a sight better than drinking most blends. For a peated dram I’d rather go bigger with Laphroaig 10 for the same price, or lighten it up with Auchentoshan Classic or even Glenlivet 12 for less. That said, the Orkney peat experience is worth the purchase, and I can’t recommend the 18 highly enough.