Break from reality

Posted 02 November 2020 by Matt / In Highland Park
The Dramble reviews Highland Park 2003 16 year old TWE Exclusive

Bottle Name: Highland Park 2003 TWE Exclusive

ABV: 58.9%
Distillery: Highland Park
Region: Islands Age: 16

No one enjoys feeling ill. And believe me - no one gets to enjoy much of anything if they’re around me and *I’m* the one who’s under the weather. I’m the absolute worst at it. There’s something particularly potent (and unenjoyable to friends and family) about an amalgamation of underlying grumpiness, innate hypochondria and a dose of the flu. Over the past week, nosing glasses have been left empty, pens have been downed and whisky musing has been replaced by a new daily routine of Lemsip tastings. You’ll likely be uninterested to note that honey and ginger flavour has come out on top.

Normal service has now been resumed – and indeed the wife unit was quite correct when she maintained that I wasn’t actually dying (mid last week I wasn’t quite so sure – see hypochondria in para 1). And retrospectively, now my sense of smell and taste have returned renewed, as interruptions go – there is actually something to be said for taking a break.

Whisky tasting is a near daily activity around here. Supporting my role with Bimber Distillery, providing the basis for the content on this website, making selections for future (now sadly all back to online once more) whisky club gatherings. And whilst this all might just sound like little more than persistent drinking – there’s actually a very defined rhythm to it. A time, a place and a set way of analysing and then writing about whisky.

But as can be the case with all patterns – it’s all too easy for this to become overly entrenched. And with entrenchment can come fatigue….and boredom.

The nth all too similarly composed Speysider. The next in a near endless line of analogous expressions – only with a slightly differently composed label layout, which necessitates its purchase to ‘complete the collection’. All of these things can be a blueprint for over-favouring (and conversely under-favouring) whiskies from particular distilleries or of different styles. There’s so much new and interesting whisky out there – it’s perhaps quite remarkable that many of us still end up walking down the same similar streets over and over.

One such Rue de la Familiar is that of the Highland Park Single Cask Series. Between 2016-19, distillery owners Edrington recognised the money generating potential that existed in producing an exclusive cask bottling for every local aerodrome and provincial whisky shop the world over. And for a time, the market lapped them up. Another week, another brown canvas bag to hunt out.

Not all that long ago I saw a photo of what was billed as a complete collection (at the time). The endeavour had not only required the acquisition of somewhere in the region of 175 bottles, but also the provision of an entirely separate room of a house in order to store it all in. I wonder how many HP fans would have considered that end point (?) when they first purchased one of the early Single Cask Series bottlings?..... “Honey, how much do we *really* need that spare bedroom?”. “I’m going in the loft – we’re going to need to find a new home for all of your family heirlooms.”

Given the sheer number of releases, the type of persistence required to continually be maintaining a collection of this type is a real rarity. As is the amassing of any long running, and/or extensive series of frankly expensive products. 4 bottles, sign me up. 175 bottles…..yeah…..I’m going to have to pass on that.

Regardless of the overall costs of acquisition, the difficulties in physically obtaining bottles produced across a highly disparate array of territories (Ruislip airstrip sadly has not yet received its single cask release – complaints will need to be made) is not to be underestimated. As such, even the most ardent of Highland Park fans have at some point vocalised their fatigue with the vastness of the Single Cask Series.

Then came 2020. Weird for a whole host of reasons. But notable for the near absence of HP Single Cask releases. I think it shows how exhausted the market has become with the never-ending HP sausage factory, that many (myself included) seemed genuinely surprised by the announcement of a TWE exclusive HP Single Cask. The point of no return had already been reached – we’d got beyond caring to notice that the sea of single cask releases had actually abated late last year.

Highland Park had seemingly taken something of a break from reality.

As I stated from the outset – breaks can be a good thing. They result in different emotions. And I find myself actually welcoming this new release rather than rolling my eyes at yet another brown canvas bag. And that’s a realisation that something which was seemingly so overdone and tired out can still be of interest and relevance. It’s the absence that has made the heart grow fonder.

And indeed, not only is my interest now re-piqued, but my high expectations for all TWE cask picks necessiates that this latest sighting will, I hope, present as being a notable bottling, rather than simply the next in a never-ending saga that has gone on what might only be a temporary (but nevertheless welcome) hiatus.

So, renewed, refreshed and thankfully now unplagued……

TWE’s Single Cask Highland Park was laid down in 2003 in a first fill European oak sherry butt (#1885). It was matured for 16 years before being bottled at a cask strength of 58.9%. 585 bottles were disgorged from the butt – they’ll set you back a not inconsiderable £199 each from The Whisky Exchange.

Nose: Treacle sauce drenched chocolate cake sits alongside an assortment of red and black berries (strawberry liqueurs, blackcurrant roly-poly) whilst spent coffee beans and wild honey are joined by intensely charred cask staves, pine needles and umami notes of stock and demi-glace. Running throughout – chilli chocolate bon bons, olive oil and pronounced baking spices. Reduction adds a sense of brightness with cherries and berries cordial alongside dates, fig rolls and over-caramelised honeycomb.

Taste: An enormous, no-messing arrival of penetratingly strong, dry sherry. Over-caramelised sugars and spent pan fats mingle with heavily reduced plums and dried hedgerow berries. Sooty cask char feels almost akin to peat smoke (it might well be), whilst singed pastry and burnt toffee are joined by savoury notes of soy sauce, mulled wine (cinnamon, clove, star anise, black peppercorns) and resinous tree sap. The addition of water interplays sweet and savoury notes with the addition of Christmas cake and meat extract together with tobacco and hessian cloth.

Finish: Long and dry. Steeped black tea and rich caramel sit with persistent pepperiness and sherried spice.

The bomb bay doors are fully opened for this powerfully composed and resonantly sherried TWE Highland Park Single Cask. Whilst the precursor liquid and cask influences are both exceedingly high, there’s a not inconsiderable amount of distillery character remaining. The result is an expansive, but at the same time expensive trip down HP single cask memory lane. Big and bomb-bastic. 

Review sample provided by The Whisky Exchange

Score: 87/100


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