One of my most picture perfect whisky memories dates to some 10 years ago. The setting was Shamwari at sunset, the awe of bushveld at its most inspiring. I wish I could claim to be a regular visitor to this magnificent game reserve, but alas my sheckles are too few in number, and my distribution thereof too retrained. I was there on the company dime, and alert to the knowledge that I might not be returning in a hurry, so I was particularly intent on savouring the experience. We had finished a game drive, and had stopped in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, surrounded by big sky, bush to the horizons, the quiet noise of the wild, and the biting cold of the veld at evening. I sipped on a dram of Chivas next to a roaring fire, contemplated Africa, and wondered if this was how Livingstone must have felt. Ok, admittedly the adjacent Land Rovers and the proximity of a 5-star lodge probably separated our perspectives somewhat. Some may also contend that the Eastern Cape hardly qualifies – can an area so close to Slummies really be considered to be genuine African bushveld? But still, the moment felt huge, and the whisky tasted sweeter than ever.
I’m reminded of it whenever I enjoy a whisky by the fire, which is a bit of a stretch I grant you, but that’s just how the mind works…well mine anyhow. Recently, on a glacial peninsula evening, having put my fireplace to good use, I decided to unleash a bottle of Highland Park 12yo. This wasn’t done lightly, not because it’s expensive or rare, but rather because it’s a whisky that deserves to be shown respect. In my opinion it should only be drunk in the right setting, and if you’re in the right frame of mind – unrushed, relaxed – to appreciate it fully, otherwise it would be a waste. I sat myself down, the toasty glow of the fire at my back and the spirit of the bush in my heart, and I put the golden liquid to my lips.
I should declare at this point that I’m a big fan of the Edrington Group, owners of Highland Park and also of Macallan and Famous Grouse. I like their whisky making ethic – I’m particularly partial to a strong sherry wood influence and these guys are the doyens of sherried whisky. I also fondly remember tasting Highland Park for the first time with good friends in London some 5 years ago, so the brand has a certain sentimental value for me. My review as a result may be somewhat emotive, and so it should be I think. Whisky is beyond the purely clinical.
Highland Park is a bit of an iconic brand of whisky, holding the somewhat romantic status of being the northern-most distillery in Scotland. It is located on the Orkney Islands, and the local peat has a pronounced influence on the flavour of this whisky. I’ve mentioned before that whilst I can appreciate an Islay malt I’m not peat-freak. The gentler, honeyed smoke of the Orkney variety as evidenced in Highland Park is more to my taste. Intermingled with the smoke are elements of wispy heather, oaky malt, sweet honey, and, whilst I believe recent bottlings have been upweighted with American wood, a prevailing dense, dried fruit, sherry presence nonetheless. These elements are all beautifully balanced – picture identical twins on a see-saw, one giving way to the other but returning in between to a perfect equilibrium (btw, for best effect imagine twins that look like Scarlett Johanssen, that’s what I’m doing).
I don’t believe in quantitative ratings, and I’ll never make claim to a “favourite” whisky, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out, nay emphasise, that this is one damned good whisky. As Jim Morrisson said (sort of) – get some and it’ll do the rest.