HIS­TORY IN A BOT­TLE

SARAH ENGSTRAND heads to one of Scot­land’s most historic isles to find out what re­ally goes into each bot­tle of High­land Park whisky

#Legend - - DRINK -

WHEN IT COMES to travel, we im­merse our­selves in a new cul­ture through food – eat­ing what the lo­cals eat, seek­ing out that elu­sive “au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ence” and all that. But we so of­ten over­look the im­por­tance of drink. Af­ter all, what could be more Ital­ian than a cold Aperol Spritz on a sum­mer’s day, or more quintessen­tially Bri­tish than a pint down at the lo­cal pub? And if you think shar­ing a paella is so­cial, try shar­ing a bot­tle of te­quila.

To the north of Eng­land lies a coun­try syn­ony­mous with drink, a beau­ti­ful land that’s rich in his­tory, tra­di­tion – and whisky. There are more than 120 ac­tive dis­til­leries in Scot­land, and un­doubt­edly one of the most well-known is High­land Park, part of the Edring­ton fam­ily. Play­fully ir­rev­er­ent, High­land Park stands apart for many rea­sons, es­pe­cially their creative in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Vik­ing his­tory. Just look the blood-red Fire and the cyan Ice – a colour­ful two-part bot­tling of High­land Park that cel­e­brates the great sagas of the Vik­ing age.

The Ice edi­tion, a pale sin­gle malt with in­tense trop­i­cal aro­mas in­clud­ing pineap­ple and mango sor­bet, rep­re­sents Ni­fl­heim, the frozen world in Norse mythol­ogy. It’s the home of the great ice gi­ant Ymir, and the birth­place of fog

and frost and all things cold. A key fig­ure in Norse mythol­ogy, the lit­tle-known Ymir is ac­tu­ally the foun­da­tion of our very ex­is­tence – from his flesh came the earth; from his blood came the sea, and so on.

The Fire edi­tion tells the story of Rag­narok, the apoc­a­lyp­tic bat­tle be­tween the gods and the gi­ants of fire and ice that burned the old world and birthed the new. High­land Park cap­tures the spirit of the tale with this vi­brant, crim­son ex­pres­sion that siz­zles with cin­na­mon, damsons and dried fruit.

Both sto­ries come to us from the Po­etic Edda, an an­cient col­lec­tion of

Old Norse po­ems that tell the sto­ries of the Vik­ing world. It speaks of the leg­ends, lore and he­roes the Vik­ings held dear. But why does a Scot­tish whisky cel­e­brate a Scan­di­na­vian past? Be­cause High­land Park prides them­selves on its Vik­ing spirit.

Just a short flight away from the Scot­tish main­land is the ar­chi­pel­ago of Orkney. The col­lec­tion of windswept is­lands have been in­hab­ited for more than 8,500 years; they’ve been home to Mesolithic and Ne­olithic tribes, the Picts and, of course, the Vik­ings. Har­ald “Fairhair” Hárfa­gri, the first king of Nor­way, an­nexed Orkney in 875 and turned it into an out­post for Vik­ing ex­plor­ers. The is­lands didn’t re­turn to Bri­tain un­til 1468, but you’d be for­given for think­ing they were still Scan­di­na­vian. To­day, one in three Or­ca­di­ans has Vik­ing DNA, and they main­tain a strong sense of an­ces­tral pride and in­de­pen­dence.

Driv­ing down the quiet roads, Scan­di­na­vian flags fly with pride, and there’s a cer­tain lilt to the ac­cent that sep­a­rates the lo­cals from their main­land kin. Rem­nants of stand­ing stones can be seen in fields and front gar­dens. Their names have been lost to time and you won’t find them listed in any guide­book. They’re just a part of the ev­ery­day fab­ric that binds Orkney to its Vik­ing past.

It’s here that High­land Park has built a rep­u­ta­tion of do­ing things a lit­tle dif­fer­ently. The dis­tillery, made from strik­ing lo­cal stone, is one of just a few re­main­ing in the world that floor-malts is a part of their bar­ley. It’s an ex­pen­sive, time-con­sum­ing process that the brand be­lieves makes a dif­fer­ence in the fi­nal prod­uct. “High­land Park wouldn’t be High­land Park if we didn’t have that,” ex­plained dis­tillery man­ager Marie Stan­ton as we toured the grounds.

Every sin­gle bot­tle of High­land Park whisky was made here. Un­der the watch­ful eye of the mas­ters, it’s im­bued with the “Vik­ing spirit”. Even the casks are built with

Vik­ing tech­nol­ogy; the staves are quar­ter-cut to al­low for air­tight­ness and max­i­mum in­ter­ac­tion with the whisky.

Dur­ing our visit, we were able to catch a glimpse of the floor-mal­ters turn­ing the grain and the roar­ing fur­nace burn­ing the lo­cal Hob­bis­ter Moor peat that gives High­land Park its dis­tinct flavour. We walked through the dis­tillery, where bar­ley and wa­ter are trans­formed into uisge beatha, the wa­ter of life. Each step is an in­te­gral el­e­ment of cre­ation, cul­mi­nat­ing in per­haps the most ex­cit­ing process: the age­ing. It’s here that the science of whisky suc­cumbs to the art. In­side an old stone build­ing, the am­ber liq­uid rests for years, of­ten decades. Sea­son af­ter sea­son, the bar­rels sleep pa­tiently un­til they’re ready to be tapped.

It wasn’t even noon when we toured the rows of metic­u­lously ar­ranged casks, mar­vel­ling at the crafts­man­ship. When we came to the front of the stone ware­house, one cask was set apart from the rest: num­ber 6282. An ex­cep­tional ex­pres­sion of High­land Park, a leak pre­vented it from go­ing to market. But the dis­tillery keeps it on hand for spe­cial oc­ca­sions – and we didn’t hes­i­tate to try a dram straight from the bar­rel when the op­por­tu­nity arose.

At a din­ner hosted by High­land Park later that night, I met a new mem­ber of the dis­tillery. Around his gold wed­ding ring were runes – an­cient and mys­te­ri­ous sym­bols of power. His, he told me solemnly, brought love and pro­tec­tion. And his rev­er­ence for the mys­te­ri­ous carv­ings wasn’t an af­fec­ta­tion. Like so many oth­ers on the is­land, he truly be­lieves in their liv­ing power and their magic, long for­got­ten by the rest of the world. Up here, time is dif­fer­ent. It’s not lin­ear, but palimpses­tu­ous. Lay­ers of his­tory, span­ning cen­turies, ex­ist si­mul­ta­ne­ously. An­cient wis­dom is revered along­side mod­ern in­ven­tion and the old gods are as known as the new.

We said good­bye with one last dram of High­land

Park on the dra­matic Cliffs of Yesnaby. Stand­ing there, sur­rounded by the crisp Scot­tish air and clean wa­ter, the peat moor just out of sight – it be­came abun­dantly clear that whisky is so much more than a drink. It’s the cul­mi­na­tion of cen­turies of pas­sion, as con­nected to the land as it is to those who dis­til it.

You don’t have to like the taste of whisky to love it (though it helps, of course). You can fall for the story, for the peo­ple who built the dis­til­leries and malt the bar­ley, for the men in the peat bogs and the mas­ter blenders in the ware­house. You can fall for the land, the his­tory, the pas­sion and val­ues. As a drink, whisky is as much about com­mu­nity and their sto­ries as it is about tast­ing notes – in fact, maybe even more so.

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