Distillery Focus

Keeping It Real

Consistency, authenticity and Viking Soul
By Christopher Coates
It is with some trepidation that I arrive at Edrington's Great Western Road office, the hub of the company's whisky making operation. What could I possibly have to worry about? Well, about a year earlier I had sat down with Jason Craig, Highland Park's brand director, and been given the opportunity to look over some very early notes, sketches and mood boards that would form the basis of a new look and feel for the whisky. Like many others, I have always had a soft spot for Highland Park so, in principle, the thought of some new clothes for the liquid didn't alarm me. Surely a smarten-up couldn't hurt?

But then there was talk of a complete repack. New expressions. A big story. The phrase 'Viking Soul' cropped up a lot - what did that even mean? A breeze had carried a snatch of conversation through from an adjoining office and I could have sworn that I heard the word 'premiumisation'. My palms hadn't stopped sweating since.

Now Jason was ready to reveal the final result. Having seen the project in its infancy, I'd been invited to meet with him again, this time accompanied by master whisky maker Gordon Motion, to get a pre-release peek. In a few weeks there would be a media launch event in Denmark. Days after that it would appear on shelves. There was no turning back now.

Naturally, my first concern was for the whisky. Would we be seeing a reformulation of the existing expressions? After all, this is a distillery famously described by Michael Jackson as the 'greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky' - and balance doesn't grab headlines. Had the Highland Park team given in to temptation and set out to woo the cults of extreme peat, extreme sherry or both?

"It's true that when talking about Highland Park in the past we spent a lot of time saying things like 'sorry we're not quite as sweet as Macallan', or 'sorry we're not as smoky as Laphroaig', or 'sorry we're not quite as mild as some of the Lowland whiskies or the Speysides'. We were always kind of apologetic about not been extreme," begins Jason. In fact, he tells me that upon first starting with Highland Park, back in 2005, he'd worried that 'all-rounder' was code for 'not good at anything'. Thankfully those qualms had been quickly dispelled over a couple of drams at Whisky Live in Glasgow, shared with none other than Michael himself.

"After that conversation, I understood something important. Whisky is easy. Peated or unpeated. Bourbon or sherry casks. If you're unpeated and Bourbon, you're pretty much all of Speyside. If you're peated and Bourbon, you're pretty much all of Islay. If you're unpeated and sherry casks you're Glenfarclas, Macallan… just a couple, really. But if you're peated and sherry casks, that's different. There are one or two specials from some distilleries, but really it's Highland Park. It is easy to make an extreme whisky, but really hard to make a balanced one."

It's not just talk. This firm belief in the distillery's flavour profile is backed up by an assurance that, although packed in new bottles, the liquid for the 10, 12, and 18 Years Old expressions will remain consistent. "Ultimately, we're always aiming to produce expressions consistently and to still be able to produce them in 14 years time," adds Gordon, perhaps sensing that I'm still not convinced the danger has passed. "The recommended retail prices are staying the same too," adds Jason reassuringly. I tentatively consider a sigh of relief.

But wait, what about these new expressions I've been hearing about? If the stock strategy is geared towards consistency, where are they coming from? Thanks to some prudent planning, Gordon tells me, during the past 15 years or so about one per cent of the distillery's production has been filled into casks that don't fit the usual model - such as the port pipes used for the Fire Edition - and during the past decade there has even been occasional fully-peated runs, something that is now routinely practised about one week per year.

"That's my fault," Jason admits. It turns out that not long after starting at Highland Park, he had pushed for a few runs of this alternative style. "And now he has to deal with it!" adds Gordon with a grin. What interests me most, however, is how the stock has been used. It would have undoubtedly been easier to break completely with distillery style, release a heavily peated expression, and reap short-term PR gains by appealing to the smoke fanatics. Instead, the stock has been used with a gentle hand to create the latest limited expression, Valkyrie. This certainly seems to back up Jason's assertion that although the distillery profile will be occasionally 'bent' for special releases, it won't be broken.

So if consistency is the buzzword, where's this big change I've been losing sleep over? "In the past, Highland Park was just a whisky. It was a really good whisky and it had great stories surrounding it, but we hadn't told them! Our approach was effectively just 'here's a glass,'" says Jason frankly. "In a way, Highland Park has looked at itself in the mirror. We've decided that we're no longer going to apologise for not being this or that. From now on we'll say 'we are this or we are that', we're proud to be different, and proud to stand apart."

This means that rather than a dramatic revolution for the sake of being new, we can simply expect a change of tone - a development of the brand's 'self esteem', if you will. According to Jason, this means focussing on what makes Highland Park unique. That starts with its five 'keystones of production': Orkney peat (it's the only distillery to use the island's distinct variety, which is heather, rather than wood, based); the continued operation of the distillery's floor maltings, which aren't exactly an exercise in frugality; the distillery's use of quality Sherry oak, for which we can thank Edrington's famous wood policy; the 'extravagant' amount of time given over to the batch marrying process; and, finally, the unique qualities of the island itself.

"It's tough because today's consumers always want something new," continues Jason. "But it's a balancing act. It is true that brands like ours need to evolve, but it is also very important that we retain our core DNA, be true to our history and most importantly not be 'faddish'. As soon as you're faddish and follow fashions you're not being true to yourself."

Ok, so that sounds reasonable enough. But where does this 'Viking Soul' business come in? I'm still dubious. "When someone discovers Highland Park, I want them to be able to scratch the surface and find that there's more to learn," explains Jason. "The great liquid is almost a given."

And that, for Jason, is what Viking Soul is all about. An expression of the values, culture, and people that make Highland Park and Orkney tick. But is it authentic? My mind flashes to the numerous food and drink companies (some of them might even be whisky companies) that have launched what appeared to be very slick marketing campaigns that have turned out to be, at best, nothing but hot air or, at worst, downright fabrications.

"We've got 1000 years of Orcadian heritage and 220 years of whisky being made on the site," Jason reassures me. "To be successful these days, you'd better have depth, you'd better have a good story, you'd better not have skeletons in your cupboard, and you'd better be what you say you are. Because customers will find out way quicker than ever before, call you out, and pull the rug out from under you." It's strong talk. As I head back to my car I find myself almost convinced.

Arriving back home in Edinburgh, I realise that there's really only one way to settle it. I start looking at my diary, at maps and at ferry timetables. Sorry Jason, but I'm going to go see if there really is Viking Soul on Orkney.

Part two will follow in Issue #145.