The 5 Keystones
There are five keystones in the production process at Highland Park that make all the difference.
1. HAND-TURNED MALT - Highland Park is one of only a handful of distilleries where the expensive and physically demanding custom of turning malt by hand still takes place. Highland Park malt costs two and a half times as much as industrially processed malt. Some 20% of the malt used to make Highland Park comes from Orkney.
The remainder comes from Simpsons, a high quality malt producer located in the Scottish Borders. The Orcadian malt is 40 phenol parts per million whereas that from Simpsons is only 1-2ppm. Together they create the balance for which Highland Park is renowned.
Ean Tait, maltman, has been at Highland Park for over 35 years, giving essential continuity to this practice that has been undertaken at Highland Park for over 200 years. Ean recently visited some of the distilleries on Islay while on holiday; he enjoyed the sunshine but the midges came close to spoiling it for him. His favourite Highland Park is the 18 year old but he enjoys the 15 year old too.
“You have to be careful here on the malting floor, you find it can get a wee bit slippery underneath. I have to turn the malt every eight hours to prevent the roots getting tangled and to get it all aerated properly. The airing also helps it to grow. The malt will be on the floor for seven days and I’m running five floors at the moment.”
If malt solely from Highland Park were used the resultant whisky would share characteristics with the peatier whiskies of Islay. That is not the objective as the preferred profile for Highland Park balances aromatic peat-infused smokiness with heather honey sweetness.
Hand-turned malt adds to the deliciously succulent, balanced layers of aromatic character found in Highland Park single malt Scotch whisky.
2. AROMATIC PEAT - Peat is an organic compound formed under waterlogged conditions; that description does not explain the fascination peat holds for whisky enthusiasts, nor its powerfully emotive nature.
Its general composition is 90% water, 10% dry material (of which typically 92% is organic). Peat includes lignin and polyphenolic derivatives (which are smoky and medicinal when they burn), carbohydrate derivatives and a small amount of nitrogenated compounds. Research shows that island region peat is different from mainland peat and, further, that Orkney peat is significantly different from Islay peat.
Samples of Orkney peat have relatively more carbohydrate derivatives whereas those from Islay have lignin derivatives more prevalent. Overall the conclusion is that there is a different chemical fingerprint in the peat which will probably make a difference to the overall flavour of the whisky.
The smoky notes of Highland Park come from this degenerating plant material that is prevalent on the islands of Scotland. The peats of Orkney are some 9,000 years old (younger than those of Islay) and the deepest bogs are at most four metres deep. Highland Park takes its peat from selected banks on Hobbister Moor, combining cuttings taken from three distinct levels to create the required character.
Fogg; the top layer, approximately 1,800 years old is taken from just below the surface is rich in heather and rootlets. Yarphie; the darker, more compacted second layer generates less smoke and more heat. Moss; the deepest and, therefore, oldest layer (approx 9,000 years) is lumpen and almost coal-like.
Highland Park’s peat is so crucial that it comes as no surprise the company owns Hobbister Moor; peat is cut in April and dried over the summer months prior to storage. The distillery works closely with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to renew and maintain a thriving bird sanctuary on the moor; often seen on the moor are hen harriers, grouse, pheasants, hawks, red-throated divers and curlews.
Orkney peat has a subtle and additive impact on the final flavour profile of Highland Park. For Distillery Manager, Russell Anderson, the peat is the key to understanding and appreciating Highland Park; he describes its role as being “absolutely fundamental.” Aromatic peat gives a delectably seductive, luxuriant floral smokiness to Highland Park which is unlike any other single malt whisky.
Hobbister Moor, seven miles from the distillery, is the sole peat source. The peat is usually cut during late April or early May. The top layers contain virtually no tree root matter as strong winds and sea salt spray have combined to ensure that Orkney has been virtually devoid of trees for thousands of years. The heathery moorland contributes to the flavour of the peat giving it an attractive honey sweetness.
The malt is spread evenly on the kiln floor and the fire is lit with the peat. It is essential that the surface of the grain is wet in order to pick up the smoky peat aroma and flavour. The peat should smoulder to produce a thick smoke, the reek. Any flaring of the peat changes the smoke character and thus the flavour of the malt. The peating process takes 16-20 hours and after this the malt will cease to absorb any more flavour. It will not yet be dry enough to store so coke is burned on the fire to reduce the moisture content to below 5% (this takes approximately 20 hours).The malt is then kept for a minimum of three weeks in malt bins to allow the malt to recover and the phenol levels to stabilise before milling.
3. COOL MATURATION - There are 23 warehouses on site, of which 19 of the very traditional ‘dunnage’ style. These feature cool, damp earth floors and stone walls which combine to give the casks as natural an environment as possible for maturation. The remaining four warehouses are of a more modern ‘racked’ variety. During maturation the clear spirit absorbs colours and flavours from the oak cask. Although spirit carries with it flavours from the peat and water, it is at this stage that between 60% and 80% of the character of the whisky is created.
The cask allows a certain amount of evaporation and around 2% per year is lost from each cask. This is known as the Angels’ Share. The rate of evaporation is likely to be less in Orkney (where the climate is moist) than in drier areas on the mainland. Spirit must be kept in casks for at least three years before it can be called Scotch whisky. It will take at least 12 years before the spirit in the casks can be called Highland Park single malt Scotch whisky. The mature spirit is transported to Glasgow for bottling and distribution.
Location is another critical factor in maximising distillery character in whisky. As with many other aspects of Highland Park single malt, it is matured on site because it always has been. Highland Park enjoys a specific climate which promotes gentle maturation because it is decidedly temperate.
The lack of extremes (of hot or cold) results in even maturation. Of course, not all casks spend their entire maturation period on-site; this is for two reasons. First, a disaster that wiped out all the warehouse stock at Highland Park would become a tragedy were that stock to be all the Highland Park in the world. Secondly, there simply isn’t enough space at the distillery. Cool maturation enhances the smooth character of Highland Park single malt whisky.
4. SHERRY OAK CASKS - The type of wood from which the cask is made is the most important element in encouraging specific flavours which give this single malt its own distinctive character. Spanish oak and American oak are both used to make casks for maturing Highland Park and each of these types of oak impart specific flavours to the spirit.
Most of the Scotch whisky industry uses Bourbon barrels for maturation. At Highland Park Bourbon barrels are not routinely filled. Traditional oak casks are used; butts, puncheons or hogsheads – no barrels – seasoned with dry Oloroso sherry.
The oak source (American or Spanish) is of greater importance than the wine type. Spanish oak sherry casks give colour and dried fruit character whereas American oak sherry casks give vanilla and butterscotch flavours. Sherry casks are far more expensive but the view at Highland Park is that they are worth it for the character they give the maturing spirit. Typically, a sherry cask will cost 10 times as much as a Bourbon barrel.
The Edrington Group, proprietor of Highland Park, is the leading proponent of wood management within the Scotch whisky industry. It is estimated that up to 80% of the final flavours in bottled whisky can come from the wood. Sherry oak casks contribute to the distinctive richness and multi-dimensional complexity of Highland Park single malt Scotch whisky and are certainly a justifiable expenditure.
5: CASK HARMONISATION - To ensure every bottle of Highland Park reaches you in perfect condition, the whisky is harmonised in casks prior to bottling. The impact the different types of cask and wood make on the whisky is nothing short of stunning so, to ensure consistency, the whiskies are brought together to enable the intricate nuances to interweave thus adding complexity.
For each batch of Highland Park single malt Scotch whisky, a combination of cask types is selected and vatted together. The whisky is filled back into casks for a period of around six months prior to bottling. Older expressions of Highland Park enjoy longer periods of cask harmonisation. As well as marrying together all the flavours, this process ensures a perfect synthesis flavour and colour – all Highland Park is naturally coloured – and an overall sense of balance.
For many distillers, this stage is not seen as being strictly necessary and incurs additional costs but, once again, it’s the way things are done at Highland Park. Cask harmonisation firstly ensures consistency and balance in Highland Park single malt Scotch whisky. Secondly, it allows filtration to take place at temperatures above 0°c, which insures that maximum mouthfeel is retained.