Distillery Focus

The past, present and future of Highland Park

Dave Broom visits Orkney, the home of Highland Park, and discovers that there is more to this timeless island than exceptional whisky
By Dave Broom
Orkney is mystical and beautiful. Made up of distinctive flat discs of green, the islands sit in a watery silver light to form a northern floating world - a magical place where the past almost encroaches on the present.It is simultaneously familiar and strange: you can stand at a Neolithic burial mound and read Viking graffiti, wander round a cathedral and feel it is closer in spirit to a stone circle. You are no longer in Britain but on a group of islands which are closer to Oslo than they are to London. Orkney has its own rules and its greatest whisky, Highland Park, fits into that scenario perfectly. For years, Highland Park has been sold as the world’s most northerly malt whisky distillery. It’s also the distillery which is
closest to the Norse countries and, were it not for a king with a cashflow problem, could well be Scandinavia’s most westerly. If you wish to get into the Orcadian psyche you have to believe that they are still Norse.Orkney has been populated since 8000 BC and became part of the Norse Western Empire in the latter part of the 8th century. Over the next 700 years the Vikings began to create the first great European seafaring empire. By the 10th century they had conquered Normandy, colonised Iceland and Greenland, and landed in North America. Orkney was the perfect base for them to launch forays across the north and west coasts of Scotland and down England’s east coast. It was strategically important as a stopping-off point and later as a power base for the western fringe of the Empire, which stretched down the Hebrides to the Isle of Man.The Hebridean islands stayed nominally loyal to Norway throughout the 13th century. A notable example is Angus Mor, Lord of Islay, who fought on the Viking side at the Battle of Largs in 1262 - a fight which ended with the Norse kings leasing the Hebrides to Scotland for the payment of an annual rent.By now Norse power was on the wane and by the mid-1400s Scotland hadn’t paid the Norse kingdoms (now ruled by Denmark) the lease for the western islands for decades, thus owing King Christian I a huge sum. Christian, wanting closer ties to Scotland, married his daughter Margaret to King James III and, as a dowry, promised to write off the debt and pay 60,000 florins. Only 2,000 florins were paid up front so he gave Orkney to Scotland as a guarantee, with the intention of redeeming it at a later date (Shetland was added to the deal two years later). The Danes then spent the next 300 years trying, without success, to redeem their islands but the Scots were having none of it. Orkney had become part of Scotland - or at least that’s what the Scots thought. The Orcadians had other ideas.You can’t help being transported deep into the past when you arrive on Orkney. The stories come at you thick and fast - there is so much on display that you lose any historical reference point. Author Will Self talked about how staying on the island of Rousay led him to consider ‘temporal simultaneity’ (the idea that all events are happening at the same time) and you can understand where he is coming from. The Picts and Vikings aren’t shadowy figures from some distant half forgotten past, but are alive now. The 4,000 year old settlement at Skara Brae with its larders and fireplaces looks modern, the runes at Maeshowe could have been carved yesterday, the Ring of Brogar still acts as an uncanny astronomical clock, St Magnus’ cathedral may not have the graceful lines of the great English cathedrals, but is somehow more powerful - owned and built by the people it rises from the land hewn from red and yellow sandstone. This strange individuality, this mixing of Pict, Norse and Scot, this vivid awareness of the precious and mythic power of their land
means not only are Orcadians a people apart but that this sense of belonging is somehow captured in their spirit. Drinking is part of the culture. The greatest excuse I have ever come across for a drink driving charge (if there is such a thing as a great excuse for this offence) was reported in The Orcadian. The accused, who was arrested well over the limit, pleaded not guilty offering as a defence the
argument that he was a recovering alcoholic and had ‘found’ a half bottle of whisky in his house. After drinking it he was “filled with remorse” and had driven into Kirkwall to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. Creative thinkers the Orcadians. It would have been an argument which would have appealed to Magnus Eunson, Highland Park’s founder. Magnus was one of many Orcadian moonshiners and smugglers in the late 18th century. A church officer by day he used his position as a pillar of the community to foil the excisemen by hiding his hooch beneath the pulpit - even under a coffin if necessary. It’s not that unusual a tale. At that time, Kirkwall was a centre for smuggled alcohol due to the extensive Dutch fishing fleets which operated out of the port and churches were often used as deposits for the smugglers stashed hooch. Local councillors were in the habit of laying on lavish banquets for visiting excisemen, not to thank them for ridding the islands of immoral moonshiners but to find out what their plans were! Magnus’ farm was on the ‘Whisky Road’ which ran from Kirkwall to Holm and he used water from two springs that rose in the High (or Highland) Park. It was pretty clear that he was onto something good for when he was finally brought to book in 1813 the case never went to court. Though his arresting officer, John Robertson, promptly bought the High Park estate and the distillery and made it legal. By Barnard’s time Highland Park had already been sold by Robertson to his partner Robert Borwick. It was Borwick who in 1826, with a £1,000 bond, secured the land, the distillery, malt barn and buildings. By 1840 Highland Park was at full production strength. Yet Borwick’s son and grandson didn’t share his enthusiasm and by 1869 Highland Park was up for sale at £450 as a potential poorhouse. It was saved by whisky brokers Stuart & Mackay who started selling fillings to the leading blending houses of the day: Chivas Bros, Gilbey, Haig, Ballantine and Dewar all bought stocks and by the turn of the 20th century Highland Park (now owned by the Grant family) was being sold across the world. The Grants then sold it to Highland Distillers in 1936.The whisky it produced was different, even in the 1870s. After Alfred Barnard struggled there, suffering a 36-hour train journey and a five-hour, storm-lashed sea crossing, he was instantly charmed. The midsummer sun was still shining when he docked at midnight and by 2a.m. he was being served a welcoming dram and a piece of ginger cake - like every visitor before and since he was immediately put under Orkney’s spell. “The Orkneys appear to we Cockneys to be quite out of the world,” he wrote perceptively. Highland Park, he discovered, was still using bere, the archaic strain of barley native to Scotland which had been phased out by distillers on the mainland - he noted that it hadn’t been used for 20 years in Campbeltown. These days bere is only used for making bannocks, butHighland Park has retained a number of unique characteristics which set it apart. The water from the Cattie Maggie springs is hard, while the peat (cut from the distillery’s own holdings on the Tolkeinesque sounding
Hobbister Moor) is peculiar to Orkney. Peat, after all, has regional differences dependent on the main type of vegetation of the area. Islay peat is layered with seaweed, the Highlands’ has more moss and wood, while Orcadian peat is almost totally composed of heather and heather root. The distillery burns a higher percentage of the aromatic middle cut which is filled with fibrous rootlets and decayed heather plants than the ‘blue peat’ from the deepest layer which is so solid it makes a ringing sound when you rap your knuckles on it. From the outside, Highland Park is a neat Victorian style distillery that looks as if it has been squeezed onto its site. It has not been prettified for the visitor, this is a working place filled with guys who have been making the stuff for years - they are beating heart and soul of the place. It’s a strange mix of the ancient and ultra-modern - there’s that temporal simultaneity at work again - with high-tech monitors on the stills while up in the strange, dark Y-shaped malt barn men like Jimmy Shearer are still turning the malted barley by hand. Speak to him and you tap into an ancient craft that has been perfected over generations. The first distiller, Norn-speaking and using bere from his own fields and peat from his own moor, was doing much the same as Jimmy has been for his 30 years at Highland Park. When you next take a sip of the marvel that is Highland Park 25-year-old think of his face and consider the skill and care that he and the other members of the crew took in making that dram.No instruments are needed in the malt barns or at the kiln, the men know by smell, touch and appearance when the malt is ready to be turned or dried. While I am touring part of the distillery Jimmy picks up a grain and splits it with his thumbnail to point out a tiny spike of white
growing through the grain. “That wee spike must be three-quarters the way along and its ready. That’s all you need to know to tell how it’s doing. But if you don’t get the growth right you won’t get good malt and without good malt you won’t get good whisky.” That means knowing how deep the bed of malt should be, how the ambient temperature will affect growth, how frequently it should be turned. The more you think of the parameters, the more complicated it becomes. This must be exceptionally difficult. “There’s no use worrying about it,” Jimmy says with a grin. Mind you, he has got a 30 year start on most of us.All the peated component of Highland Park is malted and kilned at the distillery, the rest is brought in from Highland Distiller’s maltings at Tamdhu. “We like to think that we make it best here,” says Jimmy. “Once we got in some peated malt from somewhere else and didna like it, it just didna work like our peated malt, it was coarser. We should stick with our own.” There’s no talk of ppm’s (phenolic parts per million) here, but of how many shovelfuls of peat are needed to produce the right sort of heathery smoke that will wreathe around the malt for 18 hours before the coke goes on for the final drying. It comes as a surprise after all this ancient technology to find flow meters on the stills and talk of automatic cut control to give greater efficiency. When you consider that Highland Park 12, 18 and 25-year-old are all close to being the perfect dram and were made by hands-on craftsmen using intuitive skills passed down through the generations it is almost an insult to infer (as automatic cut controls do) that the stillman doesn’t know the right moment to come on and off the spirit run. “There’s few enough of us as it is,” said one of the men to me. “Now, it’s only the aulder fellows who know exactly what’s going on. You must know when to go on and off the spirit, you must know what’s happening in the whole process and why. If you lose that, then the whole business will be in trouble.” It was a thought that stuck with me as I stood on the roof of the malt barns looking out into the silvery light to where Hoy was breaching out of the Ocean, the smoke curling out of the pagoda as a cat snaked round my ankles. You can’t extract Highland Park from Orkney and its people, nor can you say that this is what makes it different. Like any great dram it is a complex amalgam of ingredients. Nowhere else could make a whisky quite like Highland Park but then nowhere else is quite like Orkney.