Highland Park 54 Year Scotch Whisky review: an exquisite confection of flavours

Highland Park 54 Year Old whisky in presentation case

We didn’t travel to Orkney to experience Highland Park’s Oldest whisky to date, a 54 Year Old single malt produced to celebrate the distillery’s 225th anniversary. Orkney travelled to us.

Amazingly, Highland Park had recreated the sights, sounds and smells of the islands with an installation on the Thames, specifically at London’s only lighthouse, The Chainstore. It’s an elaborate, evocative launch for the rare liquid, complete with the sound of gulls and surf; a waterfall illuminated by a laser logo adds extra glitz.

What it lacks (thankfully) is Orkney wind. “Typically it hits around 60-70 miles an hour,” remarks Highland Park Master Whisky Maker, Gordon Motion. The environment is notoriously hostile to woodland, but apparently this perennial gale does result in very aromatic peat….

Orkney peat is very much part of the DNA of all Highland Park whiskies; subtle but omnipresent. It’s used to smoke the malting barley, and gives the liquid its unique flavour profile.

Understandably, the 54 Year Old anniversary release consists of 225 bottles, one for every year the distillery has been in production –  legally anyway (amusing tales of illicit production before that date abound!).

Orkney peat is very much part of the DNA of all Highland Park whiskies…

As part of our tasting experience, we’re invited to create our own Old Fashioned, crafting a block of ice into a rough hewn ball and then foraging for local ingredients in some faux Orkney gardens. Our novel ingredients will later be returned to us as a bespoke Highland Park Old Fashioned. 

Cocktail making class concluded, the Highland Park 54 Year Old is thus unveiled, complete with elaborate packaging, its embossed bottle nestled in a presentation case crafted from Scottish oak.

As each piece of wood is hand-blasted, every box is unique.

James Cochran, known to many from the BBC cookery show Great British Menu, has produced a tasting menu especially for the occasion, designed to celebrate the archipelago.

The starter is a seared Orkney scallop, with bottarga, sea herbs, compressed cucumber and truffle. It’s followed by a roast fillet of Orkney aged beef, brushed in charcoal mustard, with Tattie and Neep terrine and a Highland Park 18Yo & pink peppercorn sauce foam. 

That aforementioned freshly foraged Orkney Old Fashioned returns, as an accompaniment to a heather honey custard tart served with Highland Park 12 Year Old yoghurt sorbet.

I’m invited to savour four expressions: 20, 25, 30 and 54 Year Old respectively. All are about the same strength, between 45 to 47% ABV.  

Gordon Motion is my guide. “My job is to make sure that each batch is as consistent as possible,” he says modestly. “Next year’s 21 Year Old release doesn’t have to be the same as this year’s, you’d probably be disappointed if it was.”

The Highland Park 21 Year Old is a 2020 release, created from 55 casks, all dated November 1998. “It’s a mixture of first-fill European sherry casks, some refill and, something that’s more unusual for our special whiskies, a first-fill virgin cask,”  explains Motion.

The use of virgin casks is relatively new to the distillery.  Built as sherry casks but never seasoned, they bequeath a strong, rich, creamy vanilla.  “We balance this with first-fill European sherry casks, which gives spicy orange peel, and dry woody spices of cinnamon and nutmeg.”

The 25 Year Old is the 2022 release. “Remember, as we get older we have fewer casks to choose from,” says Motion. “This was created from 12 casks: five first-fill European sherry seasoned casks, two first-fill sherry American oak casks, and five unseasoned virgin American oak casks.”

The difference is immediately apparent, more intense and layered. Beside the obvious wow factor of the 54 Year Old, I note this down as a favourite.

The longer the maturation, the more whisky is lost to evaporation, the so-called Angels Share (“we have very greedy angels in Scotland”), and the flavour becomes ever more pointed, as evidenced by the 30 year old, which is next in line. 

A 2023 release, it’s from six casks: three European sherry casks, one Virgin American, one America sherry seasoned cask and one refill. It has an intensity and perfume that only really comes about as a whisky ages. 

Which brings us to the pièce de résistance, the Highland Park 54 Year Old. 

I hold my glass aloft, and drink in its rich, russet hue.

“When I took over as Master Whisky Maker in 2008, my previous boss gave me a piece of advice. He said ‘old whiskies don’t swim very well.’ In other words, don’t drink much water with them…” 

In 2008, Motion selected 10 refill casks laid down 40 years earlier. “They were all very light colour, but had developed a beautiful, delicate fragrance,” he says. “They hadn’t been overpowered by the wood.” These were duly tipped into first-fill sherry seasoned casks, and matured for 14 more years, bringing exceptional intensity.

It was time well spent. The 54 Year Old is an exquisite confection of flavours: jasmine and rose, with notes of nutty biscotti and honey, and zesty fruit. On the palate, it’s sweet yet spicy, with a lingering kiss of smoky peat.

This is a whisky to sip, and leave in your mouth to develop.

“We have a thing on Orkney that we call ‘Orkney time’,” muses Gordon Motion. “No matter what the weather’s like, you just feel your shoulders relaxing. When you’re busy doing something, you stop and take a mindful moment, Orkney time.”

The Highland Park 54 Year Old is that perfect ‘mindful moment.’ Captured in a bottle.  

Highland Park 54 Year Old Scotch whisky is priced at £39,000. It’s available in the UK from The Whisky Shop.

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