– written by Andy
This pair of Orcadian whiskies almost deserve a geographic classification in their own right, nestled beneath Kirkwall on Orkney’s main island, 40 miles north of John O’Groats. Highland Park is the most northerly distillery in Scotland and receives consistent high praise for its all round character. Just half a mile south lies Scapa, with its two stills and network of pipelines to keep its water free of peaty influence in pursuit of their unique honeyed flavour.
Orkney is not a place where much changes in a hurry. In 1801, three years after a distillery was founded at the site where a notorious smuggler once lived in the “High Park”, Orkney’s population in the census return that year was within a mere few hundred people of the population returned in 2011. However, one thing that has changed in a whisky sense is the ready and affordable availability of Highland Park and Scapa expressions, once upon a time about as rare as an Orcadian traffic jam.
In this review, I will be comparing Scapa Skirren, a NAS expression added to the range in 2015 and the famous (no Grouse pun intended…) Highland Park 12 adorned in its new “Viking Honour” packaging, in celebration of the Norse history associated with the islands.
Scapa Skirren – c.£40
First up, I will avoid the ongoing lament that this recent Skirren bottling is no match for Scapa 16 on account of the fact that a. it’s not trying to be and b. despite some searching on my part for the 16, I haven’t managed to find a dram of the bloody stuff yet so we’ll have to leave it there. Finished in first fill American oak casks, Scapa Skirren is also produced in one of the only two Lomond stills currently in operation, alongside Bruichladdich since 2010.
Nose: Sweet and creamy. Fruit Salad sweets and apple juice
Palate: A little slow to fire then citrus and oak join the sweeter fruit notes
Finish: Could perhaps be accused of leaving quietly before the party has really gotten going. The oak lingers though.
OVERALL: Roughly as good as you’d expect for the price range. It has character and a unique flavour.
Dram-a-long song: Brian Eno – The Big Ship
Both produce unique, sweet tones. You get the sense that this whisky, like Eno, isn’t trying to please the masses but just following its nose in pursuit of “that sound”.
Highland Park 12 Viking Honour – c.£32
It could have been curtains before bedtime for this whisky as far back as the 1860s when the distillery was briefly owned by a local Priest who contemplated halting production, filled with religious concerns over making the wrong kind of holy spirit. Luckily, new owners in 1876 stepped up production without any undue fear for their mortal souls and today Highland Park now outsells Islay big-hitter Lagavulin. I’m not particularly won over by all this Norse myth-waving stuff but the new bottle design is very nice.
Nose: Peat and heather and the wild north breeze fly up your nostrils
Palate: So well rounded. Just about every whisky attribute you can imagine in good measure. The guys at Highland Park seem to have mistaken a tasting wheel for a checklist.
Finish: While some of complexity fades off, the sweetness and spice stick around for the handshakes. A little menthol creeps in too.
OVERALL: Splendid stuff. Not a superstar, perhaps, but a solid grafter that fully deserves its reputation.
Dram-a-long song: James Brown – The Boss
The hardest working man in showbusiness for the hardest working dram in the whisky business.
Verdict: I like the Scapa, it’s a unique and tasty malt but the Highland Park edges it for complexity and flavour. Furthermore, Highland Park’s popularity and availability often sees it sail of the shelves in supermarkets and online stores for little more than the price of a cheap blend so you can’t really go wrong with this one.
What do you think? Is the Scapa more of a scrapper than I give it credit for? Is Highland Park the best value Scotch malt out there or do you know of something better? Get in touch on Twitter and let us know. Don’t forget to download our podcasts on whatever device and platform you use and look out for some exciting new features in Series 3 – coming soon!