Highland Park Ice & Fire Editions

ASOIAF: A Sip of Ice and Fire

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.

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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

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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

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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.

Ice: 17.5/20

Fire: 16.5/20

Check out the A Cheeky Dram scoring system here!

Ardbeg Kelpie (Committee)

Ardbeg Kelpie will wrap its seaweedy tendrils around you

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The beautiful Kildalton coast on the tiny island of Islay is home to Ardbeg, a distillery that celebrated its 200th birthday in 2016. With experienced master blender Bill Lumsden at the helm and under the ownership of Moet Hennessy, Ardbeg has gone from strength to strength since it was rescued from its mothballed state in 1997. I find it interesting that whilst you see Ardbeg on the shelves of every Dan Murphy’s and almost every local liquor store, the bottles are shmickly packaging and their marketing campaigns are clever, underneath all of this the production at Ardbeg is actually quite small. Just Six Oregon pine washbacks and one pair of stills – that’s right, one pair! Despite this limitation the distillery produces 1.3 million litres a year, which all goes into an impressive number of expressions.

Ardbeg is a distillery that has a fascinating history intrinsically intertwined with its remote location on the craggy coast so they play on this mythos and lore to draw one in. Yet combined with this history is a sense of innovation, experimentation and vision for the future. The Ardbeg core range are like a group of friends that you have known forever and that you know you can count on anytime. However, the Ardbeg annual releases are like the cool new kids who capture your attention and impress you with their moxie. Ardbeg’s annual releases over the last few years have been nothing if not interesting. Some have been received more favourably than others. For example, Perpetuum in 2015 was a little underwhelming but the committee edition shone. Dark Cove in 2016 was good, but again, the committee edition was richer and lingered longer.

For those that may not be familiar with Ardbeg, let me explain the concept of the committee edition. Being part of the Ardbeg Committee is basically being part of their fan club or on their mailing list. The best part of this is the chance to purchase special bottlings reserved exclusively for members of the Committee. Each year a new expression is released for Ardbeg Day, 3 June. There is always a general release of the expression that is pretty easily available. However, before the general release is on the shelves, committee members have a chance to purchase the committee edition. On the release date you need to get up at the crack of dawn to click around on a website in a nervous but sleep-addled state, all with the hope of quickly securing a bottle for yourself within the short window before the entire lot is sold. If you’re lucky, your prize will be getting to try the Ardbeg annual release at cask strength instead of 46%. And it’s fun to have the more exclusive version 😛

ardbeg out

This year, the annual release is the Kelpie. What exactly is a “kelpie” you may ask? Being an Aussie, I certainly wondered! As I said, the mythos and lore of Ardbeg is strong, because of their connection to the sea, which has always been associated with adventures, tall tales and mystery. This release plays on all of that. Apparently, a kelpie is a Scottish version of a shape-shifting water spirit. They are said take the form of a horse but to be able to change into human form, and they lure sailors and those close to the shoreline to their doom. Lurking in the Gulf of Corryvreckan (just off the coast of Islay) and various lochs and seas around Scotland, they try to fool humans into following them into the murky depths. If they can throw in a cheeky dram of Ardbeg as well then I might just follow! To me, the idea of kelpie celebrates the seashore upon which the distillery stands and the folklore that surrounds it.

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Without further ado, however, my review of the committee edition…

This year, the committee edition of the Kelpie is bottled at 51.7%. It has no age statement and has been matured in a combination of bourbon barrels and virgin casks made from Russian oak grown in an area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

I tasted this without water. You may want to add a drop to open it up or if you don’t usually drink cask strength whisky.

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Nose: A seaweedy, salty hit like a wave breaking. The distinctive iodine, medicinal note. Smoked fish – I thought smoked salmon, my husband thought something oily like mackerel. Invigorating pine characteristic of Ardbeg. Black pepper finishes it off.

Palate: Really peat forward and more of the smoked fish flavours that you get on the nose. Black olives, very bitter dark cocoa and pepper follow. A charry taste of bacon grease.

Finish: I tasted this last weekend… I’m almost still tasting it 😉 petroleum, smoke, toffee that’s been on the stove a moment too long because you were distracted.

I absolutely loved this. My favourite Ardbeg annual release to date. Fingers crossed that the general release is just as good and keep your eyes peeled for a comparative review when I get a chance to taste it too.

17/20

Check out the A Cheeky Dram scoring system here!