Monday, 9 February 2015

Meeting a Legend: the Highland Park 18

This week we’re looking at one of the most anticipated experiences in my drinking life so far; trying the Highland Park 18. A single malt that has been described elsewhere in the following glowing terms:

“the tears of a God.” – Master of Malt

“the only downside of this whiskey is that having tasted it my love of all others has declined. Its rather like meeting cheryl cole.Simply the best.” The Whisky Exchange

Will it – can it – can anything – live up to a billing like that? Let’s find out…

The Highland Park 18 (43% ABV) seems to be a pertinent example of the oft stated recent(ish) rise in scotch prices. I hadn’t noticed it before, but I paid £70.09 + P&P for my bottle from The Drink Shop, and this was significantly cheaper than at the other major online retailers (like £30 cheaper). However, a comparative online review of the HP18 against the Talisker 18 from 2012 revealed that they paid a mere £57.95 for the HP18. While it is possible now, that the HP18 contains a good deal of Highland Park’s older stocks, I feel this is an unreasonable increase – it has almost doubled in two years. But what do I know about economies and market forces?

What I do know is that this is in fact the most I have ever paid for a bottle of spirits, and marks the first time I’ve paid more than £1 per centilitre of product.

On first taste

Not immediately superior to the 12, nor does it go all out to impress – which you might feel entitled to expect when you’ve dropped 75 (or potentially 100+) notes on its purchase, however… being a bit more experienced now, I expect to have to wait a couple of weeks for a whisky’s true quality to be revealed, and with the HP18… there are encouraging signs. Such as, while I may not be smacking my lips, going “mmmmmmm!”, it is obviously dangerously drinkable – though its extravagant price tag is likely to discourage any temptation to go back for a second glass. I may not be bowled over by an obvious complexity, but I am hopeful as regards its pleasant subtlety.

No, for £75 I won’t be satisfied with “pleasant” and “subtle”, but I am confident this is going to turn out to be so much more.

Further visits

A few days later the HP18 seemed more ready to show itself, but what it shows is not perhaps what I’m looking for. I am interested to recall at this point that Jim Murray’s 2013Whisky Bible appraisal includes a comment to the extent that he often uses HP18 to introduce ladies to the world of whisky … because what strikes me at this point is that ladies might like this whisky. To use a word that I often mock in describing spirits… this one is very smooth, very smooth. In fact, there are no rough edges at all. And therein lies the cause of my – albeit very slight – disappointment. I like rough edges. I want my senses to be challenged. Could it be… that this whisky is too nice ­– both physically and figuratively?

As the weeks passed, and I delved deeper into the bottle, my opinions weren’t changing too much, though I was starting to notice a slightly sour,  woody note coming through. It is easy to put that down to the extra 6 years aging, but not so easy to accept that the spirit is better as a result.

It always smells great when I uncork that chunky bottle though, and I think the body is superior to the 12, but my thoughts on the palate are mixed. On certain parts of the tongue, the pleasant mouthfeel is all you get – there’s none of those explosions of delight that the HP12 brings and indeed that all my favourite whiskies do – but there is one area, when I press the liquid between my tongue and the rear of the upper part of my mouth, that produces a unique and beguiling reaction as the sweetness spreads its love outwards. What am I talking about? I don’t know; how are you supposed to describe this shit?


The ultimate verdict for this one can only rest on whether it is better than the HP12, and by how much.  At 3 times the price, you’ve got to hope it delivers but really… is it even possible that something could be three times better than the HP12? I don’t think so.

Well, the results are in, and my feelings are mixed. On the one hand I’m disappointed that it wasn’t the all-consuming, life changing pinnacle of whisky experience that I was hoping for, while on the other I’m pleased I don’t have to pay £70-100 for the absolute best – I can still get that for £25 to £45. It did show some high levels of class by the time I came to finishing the bottle, but not the complexity that I was both hoping for and expecting.

I think if anything, I’ve learned where my fiscal boundaries are in relation to whisky; in my world I don’t think it is possible for a whisky to be actually worth £70 and up, so while I might gamble on buying a pricey bottle again, it won’t be the HP18.  I fully expect I’ll come to try the other HP expressions – but I’ll definitely continue buying the HP12 and espousing its particular virtues.

Expectations can confound and then ruin an experience merely by their weight, but when you have a cheaper, younger mistress whose company you can enjoy more and even more frequently… I think it’s fair to say that expectations are not the whole story.

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