It’s said that with age, one becomes more oneself. To which you might reply—sure, what other choice is there? The more intriguing idea is whether the same applies to Scotch.
The answer, in a dram, is yes. Highland Park’s 54-year-old single malt, the oldest and rarest whisky it has ever produced, manages to tell the distillery’s whole story in a sip, bringing its varied personalities together like clans at a feast. But to comprehend how master whisky maker Gordon Motion achieved such harmony, you first have to understand where Highland Park starts. And that means understanding Orcadian peat.
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Peat, the fuel that gives Scotch its smoke, is no more than thousands of years’ worth of compacted plant matter, which renders the character of any peat a reflection of the local flora. Highland Park, on the Orkney Islands, is Scotland’s northernmost major distillery, so weather-beaten and barren of trees that its Hobbister Moor peat is woodless, composed entirely of grasses and hearty plains flowers, making it burn with a floral, heathery smoke that tastes like nothing else. While sherry barrels are another hallmark of the label, it’s the peat that makes Highland Park unique.
With age, that singular essence takes divergent forms, like fraternal twins. Sometimes, as with the 12-year and the current release of the 25-year, fruit from the sherry barrels dominates, with notes of dried apricot and banana-flavored chewing gum. In others, such as the 18- and the current 30-year, peat and wood speak louder via hints of dark chocolate–covered raisins, cigar tobacco, and old leather. Both profiles are found throughout Highland Park’s portfolio, but individual bottles tend to favor one or the other.
The idea for this bottling was planted back in 2008, when Motion discovered a group of 10 casks in his aging house that retained unusual vibrancy and freshness despite being four decades old at that point. He married the spirits together into first-fill European sherry casks, then let the resulting liquid age another 14 years before introducing it to the world as Highland Park 54 Year Old.
Remarkably, this $54,000 whisky—of which only 225 bottles were made available globally—manages to showcase both profiles equally, with exceptional clarity and dynamism. The fruit arrives first and with startling force given the age, redolent of lychee, dried apricots, and peach before the peat announces itself in the mid-palate with earthy flavors of caramel, hazelnuts, and those unmistakable plains flowers.
It’s not unprecedented to fit this much flavor into a bottle. Old Scotch often has a lot to say, but rarely does it articulate itself so lucidly or so well. To be sure, this bottle might be Highland Park at its most complete.
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