Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Island Paradise: Highland Park Distillery

About this time last year, I wrote about my tour of the Orkney Brewery in Quoyloo. It was awesome. The thing is, the Orkney Brewery isn't the only place where Orcadians make delicious alcohol. In addition to the Orkney Brewery and the Highland Brewing Company, Orkney has two distilleries - within sight of one another! These are the tiny Scapa Distillery, and the larger Highland Park Distillery. During my 2012 trip, I learned that Scapa Distillery doesn't actually have a visitor center. Whaaaaaaaaat? Regardless, a few weeks ago, I headed out to the Highland Park distillery for a tour.

A few days earlier, I'd been riding up on the ferry and wound up chatting with a guy called James, who works at the distillery. He recommended that I come in on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, because those were the days when they were actually using fire to make whisky, and I'd be able to see it. So, I was in a couple of days later. True to his word, James was there, and one of the early stops on the tour was to see the peat being burned to dry and flavor the malted barley. Because the Orcadian peat gets its character from heather, Highland Park whisky is smoother than some of the other highland malts. (I'll get into some more thoughts about whisky later this week.) Highland Park is one of only six distilleries in Scotland that still does most of its own floor malting, as opposed to buying all of its barley from a third party malting company. So, the tour consisted of a tour of the malting floor, followed by an explanation of the peat-fired drying process, then a tour of the mash tun room, then another firing room (the two fires have different purposes in the overall process), then a tour of the stills.

Following the tour of the stills, we toured one of the warehouses where the casks are kept... For a long time. (We didn't tour it for a long time, the casks are kept there for a long time.) The casks are made from wood from Spain and the United States, and then they're sent to Spain (Portugal?) where they serve as port (brandy?) casks for several years in order to condition the barrels for whisky aging. For those who are unfamiliar with whisky, they age that stuff for ages. Most of your budget whiskies - other than some of the cheap blends - are going to be ten or twelve years old. The older the whisky is, the more you're likely to pay for it. It takes time, space, and attention to detail to make good, aged whisky.

That concluded the tour, which meant it was time for tasting in Highland Park's gorgeous tasting room. The tasting room's decor is built around planks from retired whisky casks, and it's awesome. We tasted twelve, fifteen, and eighteen year old malts, as well as a sample of (if I remember correctly) either Thor or Loki. I enjoyed all of them (though the run of the mill twelve year old stuff is tough to beat), but I think I most enjoyed the eighteen-year-old sample. It was sort of aggressive - you really had to respect and savor it.

Before I left, James ended up wandering into the tasting room, and I asked if he wouldn't mind posing for a picture with me (promising and/or threatening that it was going to wind up on the Internet). He happily obliged, and I ended up doing a bit of a pub crawl with him, some of his mates, and CN Ness a couple of weeks later. I'm really pleased that Highland Park was the first distillery I ever toured. There are a handful of other distilleries I wouldn't mind visiting during my remaining time here in Scotland... But that's a matter for later this week. I have a feeling that's not my last visit to Highland Park Distillery, though - something tells me that the Connoisseur Tour just isn't going to do it, and I'll need to go back for either the Viking Tour, or even the Magnus Eunson Tour.

1 comment:

  1. Those pictures are a real treat. What a lovely place to live.. :D