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

ice

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

fire

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!

Brainstorming Boilermakers

Welcome to the weekend!

I have only recently come to love boilermakers, which is surprising given my longstanding love of both good beer and good whisky. Over the last six months or so I have had some excellent boilermaker experiences. Firstly, I visited a bar called Boilermaker House in Melbourne which lives up to its moniker by having an entire section of their menu devoted to boilermakers. Secondly, my husband’s brother gifted him a selection of boilermakers for his birthday: three miniatures of scotch and three bottles of beer, all carefully paired. Finally, when I visited Orkney the distillery manager at Highland Park let us in on her favourite boilermaker pairing involving their whisky. I tried it that same night, and it was VERY good. I’ve included it below.

So what is a “boilermaker”? When referring to drinks and not people-who-make-boilers, the term boilermaker can mean a variety of different things and so a little explanation is in order. In parts of the UK a boilermaker means a mixture of half a pint of draught and half a pint of brown ale. By contrast, a traditional American boilermaker involves shotting a dram of whisky in a single gulp and then drinking a beer. An alternative boilermaker approach is to drop a dram of whisky (with or without shot glass) into a beer, and then drinking them both together.

Now I am a big proponent of each to their own when it comes to drinks. You want to add ice to your whisky? Go right ahead. A splash of coke? Not my style, but sure. Dropping your whisky into your beer? No worries. Life is simply too short to have others dictate to you how to enjoy your drink. That said, my own favourite way to enjoy a boilermaker is to drink a dram of whisky and a glass of beer side-by-side: no shotting or mixing, just alternating between sipping the two as and when I feel like it. This seems to be the current style of boilermaker in Australia at least.

The crucial part of putting together a good boilermaker in this style is the pairing of whisky and beer. To me, a perfect pairing involves;

  • A beer and a whisky you are happy to drink by themselves
  • Complementary flavor profiles, like a smoky dark beer and a smoky peated whisky. For example, you wouldn’t pair a stout and a light, floral whisky.
  • Trying to pair standout flavours. Spiced bacon notes in a bourbon are likely to match really well with similar notes in a dark craft beer, fruity notes in a Lowlands whisky are likely to match well with a light ale or a saison and so on.

Based on these criteria, and my own personal experience, here are a few favourites:

oogy and feral

Ardbeg Uigeadail + Feral Smoked Porter

The smoky porter with dark chocolate notes matches well with the peat in the whisky. Both have flavours of smoked bacon.

kaiju and caribbean cask

The Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask + Kaiju Crush! Tropical Pale

The pale has a bit of hoppy bitterness but mellows out with summery pineapple flavours. Their shared tropical fruit characteristics take you to an island paradise.

 

Highland Park 12 Year Old + Swanney Brewery Scapa Special

Light, easy to knock back, both have a lovely balanced sweetness with citrus notes.

Feel free to leave your suggested boilermaker pairings in the comments section. Happy drinking!

 

Visiting the great Brora

A lucky visit to a mothballed legend

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When you live far away but you’re a big whisky fan like I am, planning a trip to Scotland is no easy task. The biggest ‘problem’ is the range of choice. Of Scotland’s roughly 110 distilleries, with around a third having some kind of visitor’s centre or tour, how do you go about choosing the mere handful that you realistically have time to visit? As much as I wish I could somehow spin this into a job like the late, great Iain Banks and his search for the perfect  dram, when you live in Australia instead of the UK you don’t have the ability to visit numerous distilleries in a series of brief, casual weekend jaunts and instead must be very careful and selective. This results in some tough choices! Do you hit up the distilleries that produce your favourite whiskies? Or do you use the opportunity to discover those you’re not so familiar with and hope to discover a new favourite? Of course then there is the risk of being underwhelmed and possibly realising that there’s a good reason you have only tried a certain distillery’s core expression once.

On our recent trip we mixed it up and planned a combination of beloved familiar faces and those we knew but were keen to explore further. Love Glenmorangie and wouldn’t miss it. Enjoyed the Caribbean Cask but haven’t had much else from the Balvenie range, so it is definitely worth a visit. Aren’t Clynelish the one with a wildcat on their logo? Sounds good and they’re right on our driving route, so on the list it went.

“Clynelish emailed me back” I called out to my husband, some months out from our trip. “It’s closed for refurbishment so we can’t tour it, but apparently we can tour Brora instead?!” Exciting stuff. Although I didn’t really know much about Clynelish and had only been vaguely aware that there was some kind of connection between Clynelish and Brora, I had heard a little bit about Brora. It is spoken of within whisky circles in the same hushed tones as Port Ellen, has an almost a cult-like following and its whiskies sell for outrageous sums of money on the primary and secondary markets. I didn’t know too much about Clynelish/Brora beforehand but after the tour I now know a lot more.

The original distillery at this Highlands site was built in 1819. It was called “Clynelish” and operated from 1820 to 1967. In 1967 Clynelish closed its doors. A new distillery opened adjacent to the old one (just a few metres away) and was identical in structure and production but a bit more modernised. This new distillery was then named “Clynelish”. However, the old, closed distillery did not stay silent for long. In 1969 it was reopened and renamed ‘Brora’. Confused yet?

From 1969 Brora produced a heavily peated whisky for blending purposes in order to make up for a shortfall in the parent company’s portfolio, apparently as a result of Islay’s Caol Ila closing and being rebuilt from scratch. Brora was only supposed to reopen for a year or so but it continued to produce whisky, albeit on a small scale, for the locals for another 12 years. It then finally closed again in 1983, never to reopen. Because of the limited production time and amounts, there is only a small, finite quantity of Brora whisky. It is now hard to get and highly sought after as every release is very much a limited edition!

brora stencils

When the day of our tour finally came around, we set off driving from Tain that morning with great anticipation. An ominous grey pall hung over the Dornoch Firth as we drove past but the mood was lightened by a cute sign warning of “otters crossing”! We pressed on through the picturesque ‘blink and you’ve driven through it’ town of Golspie and along the winding roads at the slopes of Beinn Bhragaidh. “Is that a statue up there on that hill?” I wondered as I took our lives in my hands and craned my neck out of my driver’s side window, only later learning (courtesy of our Clynelish/Brora tour guide) that what I was looking at was a hundred-foot statue of George Leveson-Gower. He was the first Duke of Sutherland and was an infamous historical figure for his role in the Highland clearances, something which rather overshadowed the fact that he also had a role in founding the original Clynelish distillery. Finally, we passed the turreted, Disney-esque Dunrobin Castle (well worth a stop) and got to the town of Brora. The sharp turn-off to the distillery leads down a short single-track road. Emerging from behind a grassy bank, we could see a construction site enrobing the new Clynelish distillery to the left and, just metres away, old Brora rising from the mist to the right. We were booked on the Brora Experience Tour and therefore fortunate enough to be on a private tour with our young guide. There were apologies again for not being able to tour a working distillery due to the ongoing maintenance of Clynelish but we quickly reassured our guide that we were very excited to tour Brora instead.

brora fillbrora washback

First stop, the warehouse. As soon as the wooden doors are unlocked and thrown open a musty, pungent smell hits you. A chthonic combination of damp, dirt, wood and the beautiful ‘angels share’, which tickles your nostrils with with a hundred years of history. Like most distilleries, the precious cargo contained in the warehouses on-site is not the entire stock of the distillery. Clynelish and Brora whiskies are stored in many warehouses around Scotland – better to spread around the risk just in case something catastrophic happens to one location, like a fire or an explosion. In fact, there were only two remaining casks of Brora on site. Two beautiful bourbon barrels with red ends, located in pride of place right at the entry point of the warehouse. A quick rap of the knuckles on the side of one of them and the hollow noise that rang out indicated the steadily decreasing amount of liquid gold inside. Our tour guide told us that contents of just one of these casks was probably worth about one million pounds!

brora casks

The tour continued into the other Brora buildings, no less imposing for their advancing decrepitude. A huge filling room, complete with an empty tun, cobwebs, cracked windows, archaic rusted tools and the original stencils used to paint the ends of the Brora casks. The still room: two tarnished copper vessels, adorned in bird poop and out of commission longer than I’ve been alive, but still breathtaking in their size and presence. Their dull metal in sharp is in contrast to the gleaming stills of, say, nearby Glenmorangie or Balblair down the road, but remains magnificent nonetheless. They haven’t been taken for repurposing or scrapped but instead remain preserved, trapped in time without a job to do.

brora still 2

The yards of Brora were quiet but not still. A few burly blokes loaded casks into the back of a lorry. A colony of baby rabbits compromised an embankment with their burrows and peered skittishly out at us. No wildcats were to be seen, unfortunately, except on the postcards in the visitors’ centre (proceeds of the sale of which go to the conservation of these strange-looking felines).

We went inside to one of the newer Clynelish building for a tasting. We started with some very nice Clynelish expressions but I am going to skip straight to the much anticipated highlights of the tasting, a Brora 35yo (2014 release) and a Brora 37yo (2015 release). Both bottled at cask strength. Utterly sublime. Both drams, particularly the 37yo, lived up to very high expectations. The 37yo had slight touch of peat and a soft mouthfeel, with a waxiness that complemented flavours of light caramel, vanilla and lemon curd. It was warming but not spicy, peppery nor overpowering on the palate, and lingered long after swallowing. It was a whisky that I would be thinking about for days afterwards.

brora drams

We left Clynelish/Brora feeling as though we had spent the morning travelling through history. Many distilleries in Scotland still operate much as they did in the last century. It is an industry very much based on tradition, determination and patience, and where a vision for the future will not bear fruit until ten, twenty, thirty years hence. I have often felt the weight of time when visiting distilleries but nowhere did I feel at as clearly as standing in the abandoned still room of Brora just metres from its shiny, new copy in Clynelish. It is a place where an obsolete distillery produced, for all too short a time, one of the world’s great single malts. And it did it within the shadow of its own replacement, within the shadow of the future.