The cynic in me tries to curb my enthusiasm for whisky with impressive age statements, “old doesn’t necessarily mean good,” I tell myself repeatedly. As we all know, it really doesn’t. Yet, despite this initial reaction, I admit to still getting a little bit excited when drinking whisky distilled before I was born. As for whisky produced before even my father was a twinkle in the eye of my grandfather…
Paradoxically, it’s frighteningly easy to become blasé about age. How many times have you heard a whisky drinker remark on an expression being ‘only 12 years old’? In any other arena, something that has been in development for a decade or more would command universal reverence and yet we’re so used to 10 or 12 years old being synonymous with ‘standard’ or ‘entry level’ when it comes to Scotch whisky that many have been blinded to what that actually means. Indeed, it seems as if it’s only now that the industry has threatened to take age statements away from some of our favourite expressions that many have begun to appreciate exactly what we’ve all taken for granted all along.
When one takes a moment to ask ‘what was I doing 15 or 20 years ago’, the timescales involved in the production of aged Scotch whisky really come into focus.
This mental tug-of-war was brought home for me most recently when learning about the upcoming re-release of Highland Park 50 Years Old. “Just another old whisky,” said the auto-responder in my brain. Yet, the news made something else stir in the back of my mind. You see, a few years ago I’d met Max McFarlane, the distillery’s longest-serving whisky maker, when visiting the sample room at Edrington’s Glasgow HQ to learn about their blending and bottling operations. He joined the business in 1974 and, working closely with the brand’s master whisky maker Gordon Motion, noses every cask sample sent from Orkney and every batch of Highland Park single malt produced. That’s more than 44 years of continuous service to the whisky industry. When the penny dropped that the liquid used to produced the new 50 Years Old expression predates his time with the company by a decade, cracks began to show in my initially cool response.
According to Max, the new release has been created using spirit from two Spanish oak sherry hogsheads that were filled in 1964 and ‘discovered’ in 2008.
By October 2009, he says that their respective ABVs had dropped to the low 40s, so the decision was taken to ship them to the mainland to be married together. They were united in January 2010 and the decision was taken to also add an undisclosed volume of the previous 50 Years Old expression, distilled 1960, that hit the shelves back in 2010. This vatting was then re-filled into the two original casks for a marriage period of eight years, before being bottled in 2018.
As with the rest of the Highland Park range, the new 50 Years Old expression has been treated to a makeover at the hands of Andy Bowman, creative director at Mountain Creative, a well-regarded Glasgow design agency. Like Max, Andy has worked with the brand for many years (actually, the best part of 30 years!) and he was also responsible for the distillery’s now-famous Nordic logo or ‘amulet’, as he refers to it, that’s adorned the bottles since 2005. It's worth noting that both the amulet and the new bottle design, introduced last year, were inspired by the intricate Norse carvings on the 11th century Urnes Stave Church at Ornes in Norway.
For the 50 Years Old's new outer packaging, Andy recruited John Galvin, an award winning, Glasgow-based craftsman and designer who is highly regarded for his sculpture and furniture design. To house the intricate decanter, John has rather fittingly used solid oak and chosen a minimalist aesthetic that he says was inspired as much by mid-20th century Scandinavian design as it was the luxurious, pared-down 1960s aesthetic of HBO’s show Mad Men
For those who’d like to admire John’s craftsmanship or pick up a bottle for themselves, the Highland Park 50 Years Old will hit the shelves in September 2018 and is limited to 274 bottles.
Each bottle has been individually numbered and signed by whisky maker Max MacFarlane
274 bottles available
On sale globally via specialist retailers from September 2018
Max at work in the blending room
Andy Bowman's bottle design was inspired by the Urnes Stave Church in Norway