ABV: 48.3% Distillery: Highland Park Region: Islands
1978 was a particularly good year. The world’s first IVF baby was conceived, the original (and still best) Superman and Halloween movies were released, Ipswich won the FA Cup, and, most significantly, I was born. It was also seemingly a vintage year for other whisky writers – both Billy Abbott (http://spiritedmatters.com/) and Steve Prentice (https://www.somersetwhisky.com/) hail from 78 – and as such have probably been competing with me for 1978 bottles for years.
I’ve been planning my whisky-related 40th birthday activities for quite some time now – collecting bottles and samples (many thanks to those of you who have assisted over the years) of expressions either harking from 1978 or being 40 years of age. Some are unusual, some are historic and some are frankly legendary. Every day for the remainder of August, The Dramble will be bringing you reviews of all these little pieces of history. So, sit back and strap-in – this is going to be quite the ride.
Any 40 year old whisky is a true piece of history. Highland Park is one of very few distilleries who possess enough aged stock to include a 40 year old expression within their core range. It’s a little staggering to think that whilst this whisky has been slumbering, two generations have passed – when the spirit was being distilled to produce this expressions I was not even a twinkle in my parents eyes. The bottling is created from a combination of refill casks – both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry. It’s delivered at an impressive ABV of 48.3% and unsurprisingly doesn’t come cheap – or anything close to being remotely affordable for the mere mortal. A bottle will currently set you back a little under £2,500 – the prices of all whiskies has risen over the past two decades, but at the upper end of the market consumer-fuelled inflation is even more marked. I vaguely remember this costing around £800 back in 2008 – I obviously should have done more paper rounds and lawn mowing as a kid.
It’s with some trepidation that I approach this review. Highland Park 40 year old is so far above my bottle budget as to be a frankly laughable. Its been on my ‘dream dram’ list as long as that list has existed, but has to date, completely eluded me. Fortunately, I’m married to a particularly lovely woman, who had the foresight to acquire me a sample (years ago apparently!) and hide it away in a cool dark cupboard awaiting my 40th Birthday – thank you so much Claire!
Nose: Exquisitely rich and expressive, but given the hefty age statement, you’ll not be surprised when I suggest that some substantial resting time (over 30 minutes) is required here. Once fully opened, there’s nothing shy about this nose – wonderful maturity and remarkable aroma development – it’s hauntingly sexy and an experience you’re unlikely to want to end….ever. Pronounced leather, mahogany polish and musty bone dry paper conjure up images of a wood-panelled Victoria library packed to the rafters with ancient leather-bound tomes. The traditional Highland Park profile is still extraordinarily strong here – dried highland grasses, heathery honey and sweet wispy smoke – but everything is richer, deeper and altogether more refined. Orange peels, Peruvian dark chocolate and liquorice merge with luxuriant dark berry fruits, prune juice and dusty aged spices – cinnamon and nutmeg. The level of smoke here is surprising, it’s still a wafting background aroma, packed full of burnt hays, stubbed out cigars and tinder boxes – but it’s much more pronounced that one might expect from 40 years of maturation – this results in a peat that seeming both ancient and refined and yet lively and spry at the same time. Woodiness levels are unsurprisingly high – and yet still somehow restrained – highly polished dark old wood – not a trace of young sappy vanilla and with plenty of beeswax and lacquered furniture. Beautiful, captivating and lingering. I could nose this forever.
Taste: Unctuous, slightly oily and with a perfectly judged arrival that delivers a surge of refined flavour with almost no perceptible alcohol despite the 48.3% ABV. Yes, friends, if you’re judging whisky on its ‘smoothness’ this is as smooth as they come. The front palate offers up a stunning balance of mouth-coating burnt sweet heather and cinder toffee, sitting alongside raisins, orange and dried citrus peels. This develops (slowly) into perfectly judged bitterness – from both spices and wood. Cinnamon, nutmeg, a sprinkle of white pepper and then a wave of tanned leather, ancient saddle hides, dusty books, teak oil, mahogany and ebony woods. The development continues into the back palate where sweetness returns to balance the deeper, spicier wood-led flavours – a harvest of juicy, reduced red and black fruit jams and preserves alongside chocolate and burnt honeycomb. Smoke runs throughout, but is most discernible in the back palate – it’s an intriguing and subtle combination of sun-scorched hays, burnt sugars and coastalness. Glorious.
Finish: Almost never ending – ever decreasing little lapping waves of chocolate, berries, ancient wood and aromatic spices. It dries superbly without any perceptible tannic influence.
Highland Park 40 year is simply stunning and the finest whisky I’ve sampled during my time writing for The Dramble. The flavour delivery is precise, the balance is perfect, and the development and finish offer almost endless depth and complexity.
Cleary this warrants a huge score – but not full marks. I’ll elucidate….despite being utterly superlative, there are no actual surprises here – every flavour and tiny nuance does exactly as the distiller and blender intended, and exactly what one might expect as the drinker. This is a £2,500 whisky and it tastes and behaves like a £2,500 whisky. There’s just something magical about the unexpected and the left-field that, just once in a while, truly knocks you back with surprise – that is the only thing missing from this glorious whisky – and perhaps, that’s a pipe-dr(e)am of impossibility?!
Maybe this is the closest to perfection my particular palate will ever experience? Regardless to any level of taste, this is an utterly masterclass single malt. Happy Birthday to me.
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