Regular readers will be aware that I've been looking forward to my trip to Orkney and in particular Highland Park. I had the privilege of visiting the distillery last week - it seems like an eternity ago. There are 4 types of tour on offer at Highland park and essentially these are one and the same with the main difference being the whisky tasting at the end. The exception to this rule is the very special Magnus Eunson Tour which at £75 is more in-depth, taken by a senior guide and finishes in the tasting room with a huge range of whiskies. More on this later as I am specifically dealing with the tasting in part 2.
The standard tour is extremely popular with various visitors who mainly seem to come from the cruise ships that visit Orkney on a frequent basis. This tour for £6 involves a brief guide around the distillery followed by a dram of the 12 year old. The Connoisseur tour at £35 includes a tasting of the 12, 15, 18 and 25 year old malts, while the Viking tour at £45 instead offers a sampling of the limited editions i.e. Sword, Leif Eriksson, St Magnus and Thor. Each I'm sure is very tempting and offers a broad range of options to all whisky enthusiasts or a curious newcomer.
The Magnus Eunson Tour in addition to the tasting also includes the above pictured items. When you consider that the tasting features the complete Highland Park core editions (all those in the Connoisseur Tour plus the 30 and 40 year olds) it more than pays for the price on whisky alone. However the tour also includes:
- A travel exclusive nosing glass
- The 'A Good Foundation' book
- A framed and personalised certificate confirming you've done the tour and tasting
- £5 off a 70cl bottle from the distillery shop
So overall a fine deal and a warm welcome from the team and senior guide. For the afternoon our senior guide was a lovely 80 year old called James, with a real knowledge and passion for whisky. No question was too difficult and after the 7 minute introductionary film, he started by asking our small group how many tours we'd been upon and about our interest in whisky. The other half of the group were also seasoned in distillery tours yet had met their match!
Highland Park is on the outskirts of Kirkwall. An interesting comparison is to look at the old photographs within 'A Good Foundation' to appreciate how the town has grown up to and around this whisky paradise. Despite all this upheaval and modern influence, an atmosphere of calmness and perfection exists within Highland Park. Not much has changed here and remnants of the past are all around. I felt that our tour follows the main stopping points of the other tours including the classic version. This means the team have timed it so you can spend a great deal longer in each area listening to your guide and asking a series of questions. Rather than being propelled through the various points of the tour in a production line fashion (yes I'm thinking of Glenmorangie and Glenfiddich here), this makes for a relaxed and informative experience.
One area of the tour I was looking forward to were the malting floors. Sadly we had missed these in action for the day however I can look back on my Laphroaig and Bowmore experiences instead; so some comfort. From memory roughly 15-20% of the malt Highland Park utilises is done in this traditional fashion. This balance between old and new works and will be maintained.
After the maltings we moved onto the first of the two kilns, with the one above having done it's work for the day. A peat kiln in action is a wonderful sight and a powerful aroma fills the air. The setting is also home to a local bird - again bringing back memories of Laphroaig were local birds fly in and enjoy the rich pickings on the malting floor. After the 1st kiln we moved on the washbacks that were mainly made from Oregon pine however a couple were of the Siberian equivalent.
I'm always a fan of wooden washbacks. I know some distilleries prefer the sterile feature of metal, which is easier to clean however there is something far more natural and fulfilling with the use of wood. I often recall that Bowmore tried metal and then reverted back to pine. The second kiln was in use and the heat from this raging inferno was spectacular as you can see from above.
After leaving the flames behind, the still house was our next stop. This is the only room in the tour where no photographs are allowed, but you can stand outside and zoom in. It is a sensible and welcome approach compared to other distilleries that refuse any photographs, or even taking a phone with you - yes Dalmore, that's your unique restriction. A still room is the heart of a distillery and the most striking aspect for me were the small number of stills. If you've journeyed across the Highlands, then you'll realise how epic a still room can be in terms of numbers. Highland Park is perfectly formed and understated.
After the still room, the next destination on the tour is a warehouse. On the way our guide took time to talk about the importance of the cask and their ownership of Spanish forests and partners in Spain. This ensures a constant supply of quality casks - a vital component to any distillery. The exhibits were interesting and I was saddened to hear there are no coopers on site. Then around the corner this:
From the enclosed viewing area we could take in a wonderful sight and discuss the warehouses at the distillery. I would have preferred the option to go beyond the viewing enclosure and walk amongst the casks. While the Highland Park tour is good value you are paying for the tasting more than anything else. The best tour I've experienced remains the Bowmore Craftman's tour which takes you into every corner of the distillery. It is more hands on and comes in at half the price. Yes, Highland Park does not feature a famous warehouse however little touches like this would lift up the tour. Meanwhile, our excellent guide led us onto the Tasting Room for a session that I'll always remember. That's for the next instalment!
In the meantime I have uploaded around 130 photographs taken during our visit to Highland Park right here.
Labels: distillery tour, highland park, Magnus Eunson Tour, orkney, whisky