Highland Park despite the name is actually located on Orkney, which is a group of islands to the North East of the Scottish mainland. It does come under the Highland region in whisky terms, but like many of the locals (known as Orcadians), it’s fiercely proud of its Scandinavian heritage and ability to persevere in harsh conditions compared to their mainland counterparts. This independence and Viking-influence runs deep at the distillery, which was originally founded in 1798 (dates vary) making it one of the oldest in Scotland.
It’s well documented that across Scotland illicit distilleries were producing whisky for local consumption and the practice was evident across Orkney as well. The origins of the Highland Park site itself do have roots with local smuggler Magnus Eunson that predate the legal distillery, with him running an illegal operation within his bothy on the site. By day he was an official of the Church and a butcher, but by night an altogether different role was performed. For a glimpse of the character it’s worth referring to Alfred Barnard’s opus for a dramatic tale. Magnus it seemed often used a space underneath the church pulpit to store his whisky barrels and having advance warning of an excise men visit, moved these to his bothy. Organising a decoy frontage with help from friends, the excise men believed they had stumbled onto a funeral service and when they heard the cause of death was the dreaded small, chose to leave empty handed. However, the excise men had the last laugh and the law eventually caught up with Eunson, and the distillery became legal in 1826 with the arrival of the Excise Act and new ownership.
Since the establishment of the distillery, the nearby town of Kirkwall has slowly over the passage of time crept up and surrounded the site. However Highland Park remains a very impressive distillery to visit with its traditional looks and rugged stone buildings echoing a bygone period and structures that were built to endure. Most of what exists today dates from the 1890’s when the distillery was expanded by the then owner James Grant (of Glenlivet fame) who doubled the number of stills to 4. These distinctive onion shaped stills have not increased in number since with the annual capacity set around 2.5 million litres. The Grant’s retained ownership until 1937 when Highland Distillers acquired the distillery.
Highland Park even during its early lifespan enjoyed a reputation for high quality amongst the public and blenders. This was despite not being officially marketed as a single malt until 1979 when Highland Distillers began to appreciate the value in their distillery asset and public awareness resulted in additional sales. Today the site has over 20 warehouses and the majority of these are the traditional dunnage variety. Whilst the distillery has embraced modern methods it does try to retain some authenticity. As with most aspects in life and distilling, it’s all about a balance and ensuring the final product delivers.
Highland Park is one of the few distilleries left in Scotland that has working malting floors, with the five areas accounting for around 20-30% of its annual needs. It would be easy to completely modernise the process and rely on external maltsters, the Edrington Group value its contribution to the character profile of the whisky. The floor is included on the excellent tour, as is the ferocious kiln that burns peat from the nearby Hobbister moor and this contributes to the lightly peated aspect of the spirit coming in at around 15ppm.
The distillery offers an excellent selection of tours and a welcoming visitor centre. It’s very popular with tourists to Orkney whether they are exploring the region on holiday, or passing through via one of the many ocean liners that frequent the area. A particular highlight is the ability to experience a vertical tasting through the age expressions of Highland Park. Commencing with the youthful 8-year-old right up to the 40-year-old, you can truly appreciate the emphasis on maturation and the influence of ex-bourbon and sherry casks.
In recent years Edrington have placed greater emphasis on the Viking heritage of Orkney and its ancient sites through a series of limited or themed expressions. Whether it’s paying homage to local legends or the Norse gods, Highland Park continues to enjoy widespread appeal thanks to the Highland flavours it offers including heather, honey, a strong malt basis and a hint of smoke.