This is part 2 of my look at the Highland Park core expressions. In Part 1, I shared some details about how HP creates their whisky, and compared the 12, 15 and 18 year offerings. In this post, I will continue with the 21, 25 and 30 year expressions, for which I ordered a 50ml sample of each. The only core expressions I’m leaving out of these posts are the 16 year and 40 year. I might be getting a sample of the 16 soon, though.
Highland Park 21 (47.5% abv; $100-$120?)
Bottle Stamp: L0886H 22:10
The 21 year was released in 2007, exclusive to travel retail and duty-free. The 21 year is based on the DNA of the HP 1977 Bicentenary (singlemalt.tv video link) special release, with an emphasis on refill sherry casks. This is supposed to bring out more smoke. There is also a “slight emphasis” on American oak (from the April 2008 HP newsletter), but I don’t know what the percentage is. While the 1977 Bicentenary release was bottled at 40% (43% in the U.S.), this new one was released at 47.5%. However, this past year, Highland Park announced a shortage of casks for the 21 year, so they are now bottling it at 40%. If you see the 47.5% version, get it!Nose: Take the 15 year and add raspberry to the lime on the nose, plus additional smoke and oak. However, the smoke seems to subdue the citrus relative to the 15. Palate: Initial sweetness, then intense citrus on the palate. The extra 4.5% abv over the younger expressions really does seem to add impact as the liquid moves from the front to the middle of the mouth. Finish: Smoke and citrus hit the back of the nostrils hard on the finish, but then dissipate quickly, leaving a medium smoke for a reasonably long time. Comments:I kept wanting to compare this to the HP 15 43% expression. It really does seem to have a similar underlying profile, but with a purposeful infusion of smoke, and an impact on the palate that makes you want to sip and enjoy. The 15 year, meanwhile, doesn’t offer much of a challenge to the palate, but it’s extremely (dangerously) drinkable. Compared to the HP 18, I felt that this 21 year was less complex, but certainly offers more of a punch. It’s a trade-off between complexity/balance and smoke/impact. I call it a tie at 90 points.
Highland Park 25 (48.1% abv; $250-$275)
Bottle Stamp: L0914G 13:11
Highland Park introduced the 25 year in 1998, a year after the 18 year was released. The 25 year extends a pattern with the 12 and 18 year bottlings, with a focus on European oak, and an increase in the use of first fill casks with each successive release. The 15, 21 and 30 year (all introduced later) all break from this pattern in some way. Bottled with 50% first fill sherry casks, the HP 25 is the darkest whisky in the lineup (HP does not use caramel coloring in any of their releases). This high proportion of first fill sherry casks is also intended to provide a very sweet experience (the sweetest in the lineup).Nose: We’re back to the dried fruits, figs and berries of the 18. However, it seems a little muted in comparison, and it’s more fig than berry. Not particularly smoky. Palate: It starts a little flat and dull, then explodes with smoke and pepper at the back of the palate and into the finish. Only the fig remains of the fruits. Finish: Big hit of smoke and dried fruit, but for me, it subsided much more quickly than I expected and turned a bit flat. Comments: This is an excellent whisky, but I’m a little disappointed. I’ve seen a number of whisky enthusiasts expressing a preference for the 25 year over the 30, and at $200 less, that makes for the kind of “bargain” that I love (granted, we’re still in super premium range). However, the nose never seems to blossom with this one. It’s got nice impact on the palate, but the pleasure is fleeting, and to me, it lacks the complexity I was seeking in a 25 year HP. 89 points.
Highland Park 30 (48.1% abv; $450)
Bottle Stamp L 0999G 23:11
The 30 year was just introduced in 2005 as a regular release. The maturation “recipe”, if you will, for the 30 year differs significantly from the 25. In this one, only refill casks are used. 25% of them are American sherry oak, and the other 75% are European sherry oak. As mentioned with the 21 year, the focus on refill casks is intended to bring the smoke more to the fore, in order to balance the heavier sweetness that comes from the long period in European oak casks.Nose: Rich toffee sweets turn to dried fruits, then it blossoms into fresh berries and kiwi. There is a light to medium smokiness. Surprisingly subtle oak given the age.
Palate: More fruit and sweets up front, then turns peppery approaching the finish. My tongue is all a-tingle.
Finish: This one just goes on and on, with lingering pepper on the tongue and fruity smoke dancing in the nostrils. Comments: The 30 year is everything I hoped the 25 would be. Looking at other reviews now, I see mention of orange and chocolate for the 30 year, which I equate to the combination of American and European oak. However, my own sensory interpretation of this one is that the American oak takes the fig and dried fruit from the European oak and turns it into fresh berries. It reminds me of the fruitiness that comes from my all time favorite Laphroaig 30. I’m tempted to rate them as equals, with the HP 30 providing more impact in the mouth than the Laphroaig, but the Laphroaig 30 having a magical nose that I haven’t found the equal of yet. If I had to pick just one, it would be the Laphroaig. Let’s say 92.5 points.
Big HP, little HP
The three expressions in my Part 1 post were all bottled at 43%, while the three discussed in this post are in the 47-48% range. The additional abv definitely makes a difference in palate impact, and that seems to carry through to the finish.
When comparing the full lineup, I think it’s easy to get drawn into the impact of the higher abv (big) releases and suddenly find the younger (little) ones feeling weak and less satisfying. I urge caution when taking this approach.
For example, when I tasted the HP 18 immediately after the HP 30 (with some water in between), I had momentary doubts about my professed love for the 18 year expression. Should I really rate it as close to the 30 as I did, even with the obvious difference in mouth impact and smoke? However, when I pull out the 18 year and evaluate it on its own, the doubts disappear. It’s a fabulous, complex, well balanced whisky.
I’m thoroughly impressed with the whole HP line. Having learned a little bit about the way they use their casks in the maturation process, I’m also in awe of their blenders. I’ll feel very “safe” purchasing new expressions from this distillery (like the upcoming Earl Magnus 15 yr. cask strength). As for the six expressions from these two posts…
The HP 12 is a fantastic value at around $35, but as long as I can afford it, I’ll opt for a combination of HP 15 and HP 18 in my cabinet for regular Highland Park cravings. I love the lime and sheer drinkability of my 43% U.S. bottling of the 15 year, but not sure what to think of the 40% version based on my 50ml sample experience. If I could get my hands on the 47.5% 21 year, that would be a no brainer, too, but I’d like to sample the new 40% bottling first. In the super premium category, if I came up with $250+ to spend on an HP (not this year), I’d mail order a 30 year from the U.K. for about the same price as the 25 year goes for here in the States.
Finally, it’s the 18 year and 30 year expressions that stood out the most to me. I totally get it if some people feel the 18 doesn’t have quite enough smoke, or impact in the mouth, but I think that’s overlooking the amazing complexity and balance of that dram. Deciding between the 18 year and 21 year kind of feels like choosing between a luxury sedan and a sports car. Now, the HP 30…that’s a freaking Porche Panamera. Luxurious accommodations, but still does 0-60 in 3.3 and pulls 0.92g on the skid pad. The Highland Park 30 looks better than the Panamera, though. :-)