I’ve seen a few discussion articles/threads on the merits of single cask whisky over the past week. On the one hand, enthusiasts are accused of ‘fetishising’, and holding SCs in much higher esteem than the true art of whisky: the blending, marrying and balancing of single casks into expressions that are greater than the sum of their parts . On the other – the suggestion that SCs are whisky’s purest (and therefore greatest) form – the individual cask idiosyncrasies offering the maximum experience, true distillery/spirit character to the drinker. To my mind both these approaches are wrong.
It is certainly true that fetishing and coveting of bottles both exists and is growing. But, this isn’t a trait that is solely the purview of single cask releases – you only have to look at recent auction results to see that desirability and collectability extend well beyond the kind of rarity that is inherent in a single cask release. Likewise, anyone who has explored single cask expression – particularly from the same distillery, or via a wide range of independent bottlers, will know that quality and character is rather the moveable feast. In essence you win some, you lose some. In that sense, the experience is arguably not whisky’s purest form – rather, it is potentially the most diverse – and dividing.
Nevertheless, it is certainly true, that to enthusiasts, single casks are held in high regard – especially when said enthusiast is a fan of a particular distillery. Since 2016 Highland Park themselves have realised the desirability (and therefore profitability) of single cask expressions, with more releases than many people have had hot dinners – 57 in less than three years according to Whiskybase. So many, that even the most ardent of HP fetishist will have struggled to keep up. It’s nigh on impossible to play Pokemon with Highland Park SC releases (though there’s still a fair few folks who can’t resist it).
My personal preference - rather than chasing bottles for completeness is to treat single cask releases for what there are – the ‘one shot’ of the whisky world. All with their own merits, only some with more merits than others. As such, I like to explore as wide range as possible of official and independently bottled whiskies. In essence, I’m hunting for gems – trying to find the best of the best (to my personal taste) from an ever growing range that in reality I’m barely going to scratch the surface of. Nevertheless, today’s review is of one such gem – a recently released Highland Park from Gordon & MacPhail.
Three Highland Park’s were added to the newly restyled G&M Connoisseurs Choice range back in May – two 18 year old first fill ex-bourbon casks (#4262 & #4265) from 1999, and a 13 year old first sherry cask (#3812) distilled in 2004. We’re taking a look at the latter – and it’s a punchy one, bottled at 60% ABV. Not cheap by any means with an RRP of £90, but slightly more affordable than Highland Park’s own single cask bottlings in a similar age bracket.
Nose: Intriguing, inviting, but most of all, coastal. Salinity, seaweed and a ton of minerality to start things off – then sweetness from trademark heathery honey, caramel (salted), toffee and touches of peach and apricot. Peat smoke is light, but surprisingly pervasive across the whole nose...it’s an interesting mix of camphor, lamp oil, burning grass and light medicinalness. The addition of water further ups the mineral content here with chalkiness and a steely maritime breeze.
Taste: Viscous and quite sharp on arrival, but stunningly drinkable (did they use the hydrometer correctly?!). An incredibly balanced mix of cinder toffee, burnt honeycomb, bitter spice (cinnamon and pepper) and maritime minerality. The sherry influence is more noticeable here – but still restrained – raisins, milk chocolate and tanned leather. It interplays with pronounced steeliness – granite, slate and coal dust. Reduced, this is sweeter and with a more syrupy mouthfeel – honey, peaches and berry fruit added alongside just a touch of chalkiness.
Finish: Quite long with chocolate and toffee playing off against pepper, menthol and a slight tang of heathery peat.
This Connoisseurs Choice is the real deal – there’s an abundance of coastal character (much more than in most OBs), and despite being quite bold, flavours are precise, balance is first-rate and drinkability is exceedingly high. Unlike a lot of first fill sherry expressions, including Highland Parks own ever growing series, this Gordon & MacPhail variant shows restraint – allowing the cask to add flavour and maturity without dominating and reducing the characteristics of the underlying spirit. Sold out at all of the bigger retailers, but still available in the UK and Europe if you look hard enough. Quite excellent.