whisky Highland Park
Is there such a thing as a whisky terroir? steve reels visits Highland Park in Orkney to find out
"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.
FrOM LEFT: DrIED PEaT CLOD; TurnInG BarLEy By HanD On THE MaLTInG FLOOr; rOLLInG CaSKS aT THE DISTILLEry