I haven’t had the opportunity to attend a Highland Park tasting event, but I did notice that they bottle miniatures of most of their lineup, so I decided to buy some of those and do an HP comparison in the comfort of my own home. I already owned full size bottles of HP 12 and 18, so I purchased miniatures of the 15, 21, 25 and 30. Later, I discovered that the UK bottling of the 15 year (and the 12 year for that matter) are at 40% vs. the U.S. 43% version, so I ended up buying a full size bottle of HP 15 locally for the comparison.
In this post, I’ll share my tasting notes and thoughts on the 12, 15 and 18 year bottlings. I’ll then post a “Part 2” to compare the 21, 25 and 3o year, and discuss how those older, higher proofed bottlings relate to these first three. I’m leaving out the 16 year duty-free and 40 year bottlings from this comparison, as I wasn’t able to find miniatures of those two.
The Highland Park whisky making process
Highland Park seems to be known for its sweetness up front, which turns to drying and a light smoke at the end. The smoke comes from the use of some peated barley. The peat itself comes from Orkney, and the fact that it’s formed from the heathery moorland supposedly results in adding a honey sweetness to the barley, in addition to the smoke.
Assuming that they always start with the same basic spirit, coming from the same stills, I was curious as to what components go into the “recipe” for creating the individual HP expressions besides the length of maturation:
- Cask type: HP uses only sherry casks in the making of their whisky, but they use a combination of Spanish and American oak casks. The Spanish oak contributes dried fruit flavors, while the American oak provides vanilla and citrus notes.
- Refill cask ratio: They use varying combinations of first fill and refill sherry casks, with the ratio between these two being used for color consistency as well (they don’t caramel color their whisky).
- Cask Harmonization: Each batch of whisky, after a primary maturation period in different types of casks, is vatted together, and then returned to casks for six or more months of additional maturation. The older HP expressions are “harmonized” for longer periods. This process adds consistency to the HP releases.
I don’t think they disclose the specific ratios for all three of these elements of maturation, but I’ll share what information I’m aware of as I discuss each of the expressions.
[Note: All prices listed are just the local price range from a couple of big box liquor stores (Total Wine & More and Bevmo)]
Highland Park 12 (43%; $35-45)
HP 12 was the first Highland Park single malt, and the only standard expression from 1979 until 1997, when they introduced the 18 year expression. The 12 year is matured predominantly in Spanish oak casks, 20% of which are first fill.Nose: Peaches in syrup, a hint of leather (that’s right…I said leather, not heather), and something a little earthy/vegetal, though I hesitate to say peat. Sometimes the peaches seem more like candied orange. Palate: A good mouth coating with more sweets, some spice and a nice tingle on the tongue. Becoming dry at the end. Finish: Medium length with continued drying. The fruitiness is back, though muted, and enveloped in a light smoke. Comments: Ok, is it just me, or does the HP 12 nose have a lot in common with Dalmore 12? However, the HP separates itself with more impact in the mouth, and a longer, more interesting finish. I felt the Dalmore 12 was worth 83 or 84 points, and this one deserves a couple more points for the improvements in the mouth. An excellent standard expression! 86 points.
Highland Park 15 (43%; $55-65)
The 15 year is matured in 30% first fill casks, vs 20% for the 12 year. Additionally, there is a higher proportion of American oak casks. I don’t know what the ratio of American to Spanish oak casks is, though. The 15 year was just introduced in 2003.Nose: Seems simpler than the 12, actually. HUGE lime (like it’s infused with lime peels) with a little bit of oak, and just the slightest hint of smoke. Palate: Citrus with some sweet spices. More drying than the 12, and a little more zip and tingle on the tongue. Finish: Drying, with big lime coming back, along with the light smoke that seems to be a signature HP trait. Comments: The 15 year is not a natural progression on the way from the 12 to the 18. The shift in focus from Spanish to American oak really changes the profile, and I can understand where some people would find this a bit disconcerting. I’m a big fan, though. It’s not super complex, but that infusion of lime perks me up and makes me take notice. I love the way it adds zip in the mouth, while still retaining the fascinating drying and light smoke from the 12 year. Personally, I’m inclined to reach for this one over the 12 in most cases. Is this one of those guilty pleasures? Will the lime start seeming excessive by the time I empty the bottle? I don’t know, but right now I’d give it 88 points. [Update] I revisited the 15 year in my Earl Magnus blog post and the lime does seem a little more over the top now. The palate is a little more watery, too. I updated my rating to 87 points just to show a little more separation between this and the 18 year and Magnus. I still think the 15 is a great whisky.
A tale of two HP 15 year olds: I mentioned at the top that I had also ordered a mini of the 40% HP 15 from the UK. I wanted to provide notes on the 40% vs 43% bottlings, but I encountered a problem. My 40% sample was completely flat on the palate, and when it hit the finish, an off-putting soapy flavor came up into my nostrils and stuck with me until I washed it away with one of the good HPs. For now, I’m giving HP the benefit of the doubt, and assuming I somehow got a bad sample. If that’s not the case, and this is what the 40% 15 year old tastes like, that would be a real shame.
Highland Park 18 (43%; $83-99)
Now we jump up to 45% first fill casks, and predominantly Spanish oak like with the 12 year. The 18 year was the second core single malt expression introduced…18 years after the 12 year was introduced, funny enough.Nose: Darker and richer than either the 12 or 15. Much more fruity. Starting with dried fruits and sweet spices and turning into fresh red fruits and berries. Not a sherry bomb, but the additional first fill casks are obvious here. I think I’m also picking up a little bit of fresh oak underneath the fruit. Palate: Good body and fruity flavor. Bigger mouth feel than the 12 or 15. Finish: More red fruits. There is smoke, and it’s starting to get bigger than with the first two…lifting the fruits up into the back of the nostrils and staying for a while. Comments: Wow! Amazing balance on this one. The way the Spanish sherry cask influence comes out, but doesn’t completely take over is very appealing. It doesn’t seem quite as drying as the first two, actually, but still a great mouth feel. Sweets, spices, oak, fruit, smoke…they all enter and exit at the right points, and mix together in the right way. It’s hard to explain, but I just have a hard time finding fault. That’s not to say it can’t be improved upon. There could be more mouth impact and more smoke, and I wouldn’t complain one bit. Still…this is a pretty amazing whisky. I rank it right up in the neighborhood of my favorites at 90 points.
It’s interesting how they’ve used the sweet/smoky combination to achieve a common, identifiable distillery character across the expressions, yet each is a very distinct experience. I don’t know that age has contributed to the differences between the 12 and 15 year so much as the maturation “recipe”, especially with regards to the use of American oak. The 18 year, on the other hand, seems to have a richness about it that indicates a sweet spot in the aging process.
If you just look at the point ratings I assign to these three expressions, it looks like I’m phoning it in and awarding a couple of points for every 3 years of aging. That’s not the case at all, though. These three expressions arrive at their satisfaction level and rating in completely different ways, with age potentially playing just a little bit of a roll in the 18 year story. I could imagine somebody switching these ratings around based on personal preference, but I find it easy to recommend all of these as high quality drams with a good value proposition (not taking into account that 40% 15 year sample).
Coming in Part 2…
In my next post, I’ll compare the 21, 25 and 30 year, which all have a higher alcohol percentage. I’ll also talk about them relative to these younger expressions with regards to profile similarities and value proposition. I REALLY want to like the 25 year more than the 30 because of the price difference, but will it be able to pull off the upset? Also, my take on the 21 year being voted the best whisky in the world this past year in the Whisky Magazine awards.
Update: Here’s the link to The HP core expressions – Part 2