By Richard Thomas
One of two distilleries located in The Orkneys, Highland Park has the distinction of being Scotland’s northernmost outpost for whisky-making. Highland Park is sometimes also described as the most remote distillery in Scotland as well, but in my opinion that title belongs to its neighbor Scapa, since Highland Park is found in Kirkwall, the largest town in Orkney.
One of the modern signatures of Highland Park is its Norse inspirations, with whiskies named for the same pagan gods that figure so prominently in The Vikings. The latest Highland Park core expression, Dark Origins, is a loose example, in that the name might easily come from some Scandinavian axe-swinging saga. However we are told the name actually refers back to the illicit, moonshining and bootlegging days of Highland Park founder Magnus Eunson.
Dark Origins is also an example of a growing trend in single malt whisky, that of the no age statement (NAS) expression. Given how easy (yet wrong) it is to equate a high age number with quality, many in whisky blogging circles make blanket condemnations of any and all new NAS single malts, but the picture is much more complicated that that.
Dark Origin points to why, since its four-fifths of its whisky is drawn from the first-fill sherry butts that so many Scotch enthusiasts crave. The idea is to compensate for lack of time in the cask by using superior casks.
Highland Park’s recent offerings show considerable emphasis on the design of the bottle and packaging, and Dark Origin is no exception. It might be a simple, opaque black bottle, but it’s styling sports an understated kind of sexy. So long as the room isn’t too dark, the bottle is an eye-catcher.
Dark Origin is bottled at 46.8% abv, and once in the glass it shows the richness of that very high proportion of first-fill wood, with a color that sits squarely in the space between gold and pale copper. The nose smacks of a fruity concoction of wine, plums and currants seasoned with cinnamon, rounded out with a note of leathery chocolate.
On the palate, the flavor follows in that dark, dried fruits with earthy, old chocolate and sweet spices vein. The peat comes forward with an ashy note that curls up and over towards the end of the experience. The texture is oily, but a light kind of oily.
The finish builds on the ashy end of the flavor, becoming a solid aftertaste. It delivers a current that is spicy, but only mildly warm.
Highland Park Dark Origins draws a lot of its character from the wood, and for a presumably youngish single malt shows considerable character and sophistication. It underscores a core truth in whisky-making: that time in the cask is just one trick in a basketful for turning out quality.
Expect to pay about $79.99 in the US and £65 in the UK. If that seems like a lot for an NAS single malt, keep in mind that first-fill sherry butts don’t come cheap.