I couldn’t resist reviewing two very special drams to celebrate today’s premiere of the 7th season of Game of Thrones. Ever since reading the first book, I’ve been firmly in the camp of the Stark family and have been enchanted by the entire world of the North of Westeros: the ever-changing ‘King in the North’, the weird wildlings, the giants and other beasties who live Beyond the Wall, and the Greyjoys who plunder up and down the coast. So, naturally, my thoughts turn to the distillery that best captures and reflects this northern and wild spirit … Highland Park.
Highland Park has recently rebranded itself as the ‘Orkney single malt with Viking soul’. Their new tagline is:
“Our whisky, like our island home, is shaped by a wild climate and stormy seas, and by the Vikings who settled here over 1,000 years ago, leaving their mark on our people and our culture.”
This is far from a cynical marketing ploy and truly reflects the unique history and character of the Orkney islands, which are located some 16 kilometres (but an entire world away) from the north coast of the Scottish mainland. Orkney has been inhabited for some 8500 years, first by Neolithic tribes whose houses, standing stones and burial cairns remain on the island to this day, and then by the Picts who brought their own traditions and culture. In 875AD the islands were annexed by Norway and settled by the Norse. Even though the Scottish Parliament annexed the earldom to the Scottish Crown in 1472, Orkney still retains many Norse/Viking traditions to this day and they say that one third of Orcadians have Viking DNA.
Highland Park distillery itself is located in the Orcadian town of Kirkwall and was founded in 1798. It still fundamentally operates today in much the same way it always has: the distillery maintains a traditional floor maltings where the barley is turned by hand, the peat is still cut from nearby Hobbister moor, and maturation still occurs in warehouses on Orkney.
Given the history of Orkney and the proud traditions of Highland Park, it is only natural for the distillery to integrate the local Viking history into their branding. I fondly recall the Valhalla Collection, which was a series of four limited-edition annual releases named after the Norse gods Thor, Loki, Freya and Odin. Following on from the Valhalla Collection, Fire and Ice were released in 2016 and were the next two Nordic-themed bottlings, inspired by the great sagas of the Viking age recorded in the oldest Norse poems, the Poetic Edda.
Highland Park Ice Edition 17 Year Old
This release was inspired by Niflheim, the Norse realm of fog, frost and darkness and home to the ice giants. It was matured in ex-bourbon casks and bottled at a respectable 53.9% ABV.
Nose: A fascinating and complex mixture of tropical fruits, milk chocolate, and milky arrowroot biscuits.
Palate: Phwoar! A cacophony of flavours vying for attention – distinctive and fresh notes of pineapple and mango, mellowing into coconut, a hint of cherry cola, sherbet, and at the end definitely some maritime influences, a little peat, lingering smoke and baked apple.
Finish: Rich and viscous, lingering spices, dry woodiness.
Highland Park Fire Edition 15 Year Old
This release was inspired by Muspelheim, the Norse realm of fire, the crucible of the suns and stars, and home to the fire giants. It was matured exclusively in refill port-seasoned casks and bottled at 45.2% ABV.
Nose: Comforting aromas of warm spices, coffee, mixed peel, smoke.
Palate: Opens with dark chocolate and lightly roasted coffee (absolutely no bitterness), then come the red fruits (sweetened cranberry, plum), a hint of vanilla pods, and maple roasted pecans.
Finish: Spicy and smoky.
Both releases are imposingly (and somewhat ostentatiously) packaged in their own wooden case, which is reminiscent of a jagged mountain (for the Ice Edition) and volcano (for the Fire Edition). There are also beautifully illustrated mini-books of Nordic tales included alongside the whisky.
If you can manage it, it is fascinating to trying these whiskies side-by-side because of their many contrasts. On my initial tasting I preferred the Fire Edition because of its big, rich flavours of chocolate and red fruit— something I expect and love from a port-influenced dram. However, on subsequent tastings I preferred the Ice Edition because of its incredible complexity. Coquettishly, the Ice Edition refused to give up all its secrets at once, and every time I went back to it I changed my tasting notes as I discovered that something else was coming to the fore. However, I can finally and definitively say that, for me, the lingering notes of pineapple and coconut on the palate of the Ice Edition make it the ultimate winner in this battle of ice and fire.
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