whisky High­land Park

Is there such a thing as a whisky ter­roir? steve reels vis­its High­land Park in Orkney to find out

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"Ilike it best when it’s stormy, but with breaks in the clouds,” says Jim Black­burn, my guide on a tour of Orkney’s Main­land and its ac­claimed whisky dis­tillery, High­land Park. From where I stand, look­ing out over the Cliffs of Yesnaby, it’s not so hard to imag­ine crash­ing stormy weather, spume and howl­ing winds, but to­day it’s calm and sunny and, look­ing around me, I think I’ve sel­dom seen a land so ruggedly beau­ti­ful.

Orkney is an ar­chi­pel­ago of some 70 is­lands off the north­east coast of Scot­land (“Main­land” is sim­ply the name of the largest is­land) ly­ing on a lat­i­tude com­pa­ra­ble to An­chor­age, Hud­son Bay and the stem of Kam­chatka, yet it sel­dom falls be­low 2 de­grees c in win­ter or rises above 16 in sum­mer. It’s this mild cli­mate, says Black­burn, that’s one of the fac­tors con­tribut­ing to High­land Park’s pre-em­i­nence in the spirit world. “We call it cool mat­u­ra­tion,” he says. “We’re al­most in the Arc­tic cir­cle here, but it’s never too hot, never too cold, so we get a nice long, even mat­u­ra­tion in the casks.”

There are prac­ti­cally no trees on the is­land. It’s buf­feted by winds blow­ing in from the north Sea and the At­lantic Ocean, and where the land isn’t given over to cat­tle, sheep and other un­gu­lates it’s dom­i­nated by peat moor and heather. All these seem­ingly in­ci­den­tal phys­i­cal el­e­ments – a sort of ter­roir, if you like – con­trib­ute to the dis­tinc­tive traits of High­land Park whisky.

The first record of High­land Park dates to 1798 when Mag­nus Eun­son, a smug­gler who worked in a church by day, set up a still at High Park in Orkney’s cap­i­tal, Kirk­wall – though Orkney lore has it that he was op­er­at­ing il­licit stills long be­fore then. The dis­tillery now, with its grey­brown stonework, an­cient raftered rooms and cob­bled al­leys, re­sem­bles some­thing out of Dick­ens – and it’s true that High­land Park is one of just a hand­ful of Scot­tish whisky-mak­ers that still does tra­di­tional malt­ings, in which the dry­ing bar­ley is turned by hand on the malt­ing floor. “We do two days in steep tanks,” says Dis­tillery Man­ager Marie Stan­ton when I visit one of the two malt­ing floors, “and five to seven days on the malt­ing floor.”

As we watch, two men are clear­ing the malted bar­ley from the floor, us­ing broom-like wooden push­ers and some­thing that re­sem­bles an in­verted steel cow-catcher. I’m too late to see the ac­tual turn­ing of the bar­ley, a labour-in­ten­sive chore done ev­ery eight hours with a large wooden shovel, but I am al­lowed to open the fur­nace door un­der­neath the malt­ing floor and to han­dle the peat which, when burnt to dry the bar­ley above, im­parts to High­land Park whisky its char­ac­ter­is­tic mel­low smok­i­ness.

I’m amazed and at the same time in­or­di­nately pleased to see the fur­nace in­struc­tions – “peat 9 hours, coke 20:00” – chalked roughly on the black­painted metal door of the peat store­room next to the fur­nace. no high­tech, com­puter-con­trolled so­phis­ti­ca­tion here, at this most awarded of dis­til­leries. The “Hon­ours” sec­tion of the High­land Park web­site sim­ply

“We’re lim­ited by the amount of peat we can cut. We’re the only peo­ple on Orkney who can still cut peat”

shows a list of awards in re­v­erse chronol­ogy – all lin­early set out, run­ning from one line to the next – so pre­pos­ter­ously long that the reader con­tin­ues scrolling only to see if it ends (it does, in 2005).

How does the dis­tillery han­dle the in­crease in de­mand for Scotch whisky in re­cent years, and are there any plans to ex­pand, I ask. “The lim­it­ing fac­tor is the peat,” replies Stan­ton. “We’re lim­ited by the amount of peat we can cut. We’re the only peo­ple on Orkney who can still cut peat, and we keep our peat for High­land Park. There are no plans for ex­pan­sion.”

That peat, a sort of time cap­sule of com­pacted veg­e­ta­tive mat­ter and mud that de­vel­ops at the rate of a me­tre ev­ery thou­sand years, is cut from Hob­bis­ter Moor, just a few kilo­me­tres from the dis­tillery. Why is High­land Park so much smoother and more aro­matic than other peated whiskies, par­tic­u­larly some of those from Is­lay?

Is­lay peat is gorse-based,” Stan­ton ex­plains. “Ours is heather, which forms a peat with a unique pro­file, quite un­like Is­lay.” She goes on to ex­plain that the other ma­jor peats used in mak­ing scotch whisky, Saint Fer­gus in north­east­ern Scot­land (wood) and Tom­intoul in Spey­side (sphag­num moss), are dom­i­nated by plant ma­te­rial that pro­duces a dif­fer­ent smoke and thus a dif­fer­ent malt.

Later, as the tour moves from the dis­tillery to­ward the Cliffs of Yesnaby, we stop off at Hob­bis­ter Moor. I ex­am­ine the clods of cut peat dry­ing in the sun. There’s a shovel nearby. I take it and turn the clods, grin­ning. I feel close to the soul of whisky.


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