Highland Park (12 year)

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.

ScotchNoob™ Mark:

About The Distillery

The most northerly distillery in Scotland (although Scapa is only a kilometer to the southwest), Highland Park is located on the distant Orkney Islands, off the northeast coast of the Scottish mainland. The distllery’s water comes from Cattymaggie Quarry, which is decidely hard. It’s the peat, though, that makes Highland Park unique. Orcadian peat, sourced locally, is predominately compressed herbacious plants and heather (unlike peat from farther south, which is partially formed with tree matter and/or seaweed). The peat character is mild, however, as only 20% of the mashbill comes from Highland Park’s own floor maltings (and of that, only half is peated). The rest is unpeated malt imported from the Scottish mainland. Another Highland Park eccentricity is the use of predominately ex-sherry casks, without any finishing. This dance between heavily sherried wood and light Orcadian heather peat is what gives Highland Park its unique qualities. According to the website, all Highland Park whiskies have no coloring additives, although the core expressions are chill-filtered.
Highland Park (12 year)
43% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $32 - $40 [Sponsored Link]
Acquired: Costco in San Jose, CA, $32

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  • A tour-de-force of flavor description, Nathan. You capture the odd and extremely distinctive flavor profile of HP 12 admirably. Your criticisms my draw some controversy, personally I concur.

  • If you can, try the Gordon & MacPhail’s 9yo bottling. I’m not sure how they age it, but it tastes different from the standard HP line.

    • I had a 5cl sample of a Gordon & MacPhail 8yo Highland Park a couple of years ago, and it was phenomenal (it came in an ‘Orkney’ sample pack with a NAS Scapa and something else, which may have been a bastard malt as it didn’t say where it was from). Having yet to try a standard Highland Park, I’ve nothing to compare it to, but Gordon & MacPhail certainly seem to know what they are doing.

  • HP 12 is my favorite anytime single malt. I’ve been drinking it for 15 years or so now. To my palate it is the best of all the 12 year olds. I haven’t really given it a critical tasting for some time now so given your notes matbe it is time to revisit it with a critical eye, errrrr nose,

  • It’s been awhile since I had HP 12 so maybe it’s time to give it another go ’round. I remember not caring for it that much the last time I had a bottle, but my tastes have certainly changed since then. I found a place that carries miniatures of HP 18 and it is sublime.

    • Good find, Troy.

      According to the blog post from Jason, Highland Park uses *no* ex-bourbon casks, BUT they use ex-sherry *American Oak* casks for the 15. That’s pretty unusual, since American Oak is almost exclusively used for bourbon first. The email also makes it sound like they use mostly Spanish Oak ex-sherry casks for the 12, which makes some sense. The “rest” are probably refill sherry.

  • Awesome whisky, Nathan, thanks for the heads-up! My bottle came with a 18yo mini. To be honest, I’ve been more impressed by the 12 than by the 18! One of the best values in single malt. I didn’t get the bitter notes that you mention, just full-bodied sherried goodness.

  • Interesting, I also got the 12 that included a 50mm of the 18, and to me the 18 just highlights the inadequacies of the 12. Totally agree with the bitter notes of the 12, and I’d much prefer any of the Ardbegs or Laphroaigs over this.

    OTOH, the 18 is very impressive; shame I can’t find it for under $100.

  • […] Scotch Noob thinks a little less of it. Though he’s a big fan of the 18 year, he’d rather spring for an Islay like Laphroaig or a more toned down Scotch like Auchentoshan than spend time with the 12 year. I don’t necessarily agree, but I understand how Highland Park’s balancing act could easily alienate though looking for a more aggressive malt. […]

  • Spot on with the rating. I got some of this because of high ratings, but it really isn’t that great at all. Smooth, smokey, delicate-yes, but overall a disappointment. Don’t fall for the marketting hype.

  • New to the scotch scene, but this will go towards the bottom of my short list. I have enjoyed the glenlivet, balvenie and macallan whiskies. I tried a islay whisky, bowmore, and haven’t enjoyed that at all. This highland park, to me, tastes like a watered down bowmore. I guess peaty/smokey isn’t my thing(yet?). I wish I could of sampled before buying a bottle, would of put that money towards another balvenie. 2/5

    • Hi Brian,
      Yes, I personally wish I could sample every whisky before buying a bottle. Some lucky people live close enough to well-stocked whisky bars that they can try a bunch of things and then go buy their favorites. Alas, I’ve exhausted the selections at all of my local bars. If you live somewhere that can receive alcohol deliveries from the UK, you could try buying a few 30ml sample bottles from Master of Malt. They have a good selection, and it’s a great way to try whiskies before buying. Check Drinks by the Dram.

  • To my very inexperienced palate, I got competing sweet and smoky from this; to the point that, actually, it reminded me of a smoother JW Black label.

  • I agree with this in part, though I don’t notice the supposed offensive flavors listed here with the bottle I’m currently working through (it could just be a better batch). Overall, I’d give it 89/100 probably. I will say though that I’ve never seen HP 12 yr for less than $55 in the United States (with the possible exception of online retailers – plus $40 shipping!).

  • Not a fan of smokey whisky as my first was Bowmore 18, smelled like a hotel sauna and tasted like burnt tires. This first snort of HP 12 was surprisling delicious, loved the sweetness with the hit of smoke at the end very nice and @ 43% abv added bonus. I’ll be keeping this on the bar.

  • Holy crap, I feel like I just licked a stick that was pulled out of a campfire. I pulled up these notes to make sure that my taste buds weren’t crazy.

    I should have looked at this review before purchasing.

  • I’ve renewed my interest in whiskey this winter and really enjoy your site/reviews very much. I’ve always had a bottle of blended scotch around…and usually a good single malt…but I have been on a tear through more recently including Monkey Shoulder, Aberlour 12, The Glen Dronach 12, The Balvenie DoubleWood 12, and Highland Park 12. The Highland Park has been released now (2018) as “Viking Honour” and in a new bottle. While the rest of my list I’ve found range from pleasant to excellent…this Viking Honour HP and its smoke/peat just doesn’t mesh with my tastes. I’ll give it more of a chance as my tastes evolve…but perhaps peated whisky simply isn’t for me. I seem to prefer the Speyside sherry nuanced drams…call me crazy.

  • I had the 43% bottling. Couldn’t agree with your review more.

    My expectations were initially dashed because I expected the HP Orcadian peat to be similar to Islay variety. Turns out (to me) this is slightly more like your Clynelish 14, “there but not there” because it springs in and out thanks to the citrus and grassy notes I get.

    That being said it is a well rounded dram with everything workimg. I particularly like the apent matchstick aftertaste you get after a few swigs.

    It reminds me a lot of Balvenie 12 Doublewood in terms of the performance on the palate, as well as the finish. The oak/barrel tannins are quite strong but they add to the “personality”.

    I am yet to try the 18 but it is on my radar. I think this is definitely a sharing whisky, one to have with company.

    It takes well to mixers (*gasp* sacrilege).