Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Like Father, Like Son? Two versions of Highland Park 12

Western literature is replete with legends of father and son rivalries. These rivalries can symbolize the clash between old values and the new ones, between the stability of tradition and the excitement and growth that change promises. But stability does not always guarantee happiness, and change is not always synonymous with improvement. In Sophocles' The Theban Plays, perhaps the most well-known father-son rivalry, Oedipus inadvertently fulfills a prophecy by killing his father and marrying his mother, and bringing disaster to his city and family. Before his name was appropriated by Freud, Oedipus represented two common themes of Greek drama: humanity's inherent imperfection and the individual as a pawn of destiny in a harsh universe.

In Hildebrandslied, a Germanic tale, two warriors meet on a battlefield as the champions of their armies. The older man, Hildebrand asks his opponent to identify himself and his geneology. Hadubrand responds that he did not know his father but that he believes him to be dead. Hildebrand indirectly asserts his paternity, which Hadubrand believes to be a ruse. The two engage in a battle to the death, and....the outcome is not revealed.

Hollywood has gotten pretty good mileage out of father-son tension as well: Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Odin and Thor (Marvel Cinematic Universe), Marlin and Nemo (Finding Nemo), Vito and Michael Corleone (The Godfather).

We need not look only to myth either; real life has plenty of similar examples. Norse explorer Erik the Red (who has been somewhat mythologized) had a son, Leif Erikson, who felt it necessary to outdo his father by exploring beyond Greenland and becoming the first known European to set foot on North American soil. Allegedly. Of course, after a few skirmishes with Indigenous people, Leif decided he didn't want to stick around, but that's beyond the scope of a whisky article.

So what happens when an old whisky gets a rebranding, a rebirth of sorts? Can the new successfully replace the old?

A Viking Saga

In 2012, Highland Park started playing up its Viking roots, releasing some Viking-themed expressions. A Swedish importer apparently joked that Highland Park was the westernmost distillery in Sweden because the Orkney and Shetland Islands belonged to the Vikings until the islands were annexed by the Scots in 1469. Around 2017, Highland Park went full Viking, re-branding all their expressions with a theme that would make the All-Father proud.

I bought a bottle of the Highland Park 12 Year Old Viking Honour when it first came reaving, ransacking, and pillaging Ontario's shores. I had planned on getting one of the remaining non-Viking Highland Park 12 Year Old bottlings to do a head-to-head comparison, but alas, I was too late, so no older bottling of Highland Park 12 for me...until a friend got me a sample of the pre-Viking HP. Many thanks to him for the sample (from batch L0514W) whence comes the first part of this review.

Highland Park 12 (pre-Viking) Tasting Notes

The older bottlings were a bit more understated
  • Nose (undiluted): oloroso sherry is front and center, red fruit, orange zest, cocoa powder, soft peat smoke, floral notes, like little white spring flowers (hey, I'm not a botanist)
  • Palate (undiluted): gentle arrival, lots of red fruit, a touch of honey, floral peat, a bit of smoke, very rounded
  • Finish: medium length, somewhat drying, milk chocolate, roasted almonds, a pronounced minerality, a touch of dry smoke lingering
With water, there's a little brine on the nose. It gets peatier on the palate and finish with water added. More so than the new Viking 12, but it's really a subtle difference.

Whisky writer Michael Jackson (not the King of Pop) called this jack-of-all-trades whisky "the best all-around whisky in the world". The folks at Highland Park reportedly felt it was a mixed blessing as the "jack of all trades" whisky became synonymous (in some quarters) as a Master of None. For me, Highland Park 12 has always been pleasant and enjoyable, but it was not necessarily a whisky I craved often or dreamed about. This may seem like a negative description, but it's not. Highland Park 12 was (and maybe still is) the perfect whiksy to introduce someone to moderately peated whisky.

Rating: 85/100 points

Highland Park 12 Viking Honour Tasting Notes

This is part deux of my Highland Park head to head. The Viking motif has been jeered by some but I have to say it....the bottle actually looks pretty cool. We can poke fun at marketing all we want, but it would be boring if every whisky's marketing department branded themselves with the tagline "Buy our whisky; it tastes good." I admit it; I like the Viking theme, which overlaps with some Celtic symbolism. And Highland Park's combination of a quarter turn screw cap combined with a cork stopper is pretty neat too. So is this whisky significantly different than the non-Viking HP 12?

  • Nose (undiluted): subtle dry sherry, red fruit, soft peat smoke, dried flowers (chamomile?), and oh no, is it? Is it? Yes, there's definitely some sulphur here. Not the rotten eggs variety, but there's definitely some spent matches hiding in the background. It isn't overpowering, but it is present. (*edit: the sulphur became more pronounced as time went by, with a distinct smell of onions adding to the unpleasant spent match odour. I ended up giving most of this whisky to "sulphur blind" friends)
  • Palate (undiluted): slightly sharp arrival, lots of red fruit, honey, floral peat, just a whisp of smoke, a bit "grassy"
  • Finish: medium length, drying, red grapes giving way to milk chocolate, roasted almonds, a slight minerality, a touch of smoke lingering
Sipped neat, this is dryer than I expected it to be. Adding water brings out much more fruit on the nose while pushing the smoke back, but not mitigating the sulphur notes. The palate becomes creamy with more sweetness and the finish is peatier and smokier with water. Water improves this whisky slightly. Good (not great) both ways, but it's a shame about that subtle but present sulphur note on the nose. To the back of the cabinet with you! Maybe time will improve it. (edit: time did not improve it. It made it much worse.)

I didn't find any huge differences between these two bottlings, except for the sulphuric spent match aroma in the Viking edition. Maybe that's the smell of a burning funeral pyre. Nevertheless, any sherried whisky can occasionally present sulphur notes and I'm hoping this was a one-off occurance. Other than the sulphur, the differences between these two whiskies could basically be nothing more than packaging and standard batch variations. 

Initial rating: 80/100 points
Rating after 2 months of air exposure: 70/100 points

All the panic that surrounded Highland Park's re-branding seems to be a tempest in a teapot. Yes, my Highland Park 12 Viking Honour was sulphured. Yes, it's disappointing. But that's the chance you take these days with sherry-casked whiskies. I don't think this is a prevalent problem with Highland Park. It's the first time I've encountered sulphur taint in their 12 year old, and I hope it's the last time. Highland Park's expressions are always good to excellent (Highland Park 18 is truly outstanding) and the distillery does a lot of things right. But even the Vikings aren't perfect all the time. Here's to better experiences in the future! Skål !

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