The story of Highland Park dates back to 1798 when a local Church Officer, Magnus Eunson, began to operate an illegal still on this hillside location overlooking Kirkwall. He is said to have hidden his whisky under his pulpit.
Highland Park is Scotland's most northerly distillery, a distinction it holds by a clear half mile over the nearby Scapa Distillery at Scapa Bay. Its stone buildings, its twin pagodas, and its complex of 26 warehouses are an important feature on the southern Kirkwall skyline.
Today's Highland Park is doubly important to the Orkney economy. In 1986 it opened a visitor centre, now rated as one of the very best. As a result a visit to Highland Park is an essential part of the Orkney experience for most who come to these islands.
A tour of the distillery is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It starts with an excellent audio-visual presentation available in a number of languages. Then you move on to see for real what has been explained to you in the presentation.
Highland Park is one of a diminishing number of distilleries that have their own floor maltings, housed in an oddly Y-shaped building. Here you can get a real sense of the start of the process, and view the chariot used to spread the malt, and the shovels (and more recent less labour intensive machines) used to turn it at intervals during the week it will spend in the maltings. You may even meet one of the distillery cats guarding this essential raw material.
As floor maltings grow rarer, so do kilns that serve as more than mere decoration for their distilleries. Highland Park's kilns are fully functional so you can see a part of the process normally only carried out in industrial maltings. At Highland Park, locally-cut shallow peat is used for part of the drying process, with coke fuelling the remainder to keep the peatiness of the finished product in balance.
From here the process takes you to the large stainless steel mash tun and then the nearby washbacks in which the initial fermentation takes place. During the second world war Highland Park was, like other distilleries, silent. The washbacks were used as communal baths by some of the many servicemen stationed on Orkney.
Highland Park's still house contains four stills and a magnificent copper and brass spirit safe. The still house is small by some standards, but has a well organised air. The wash from the washbacks, containing about 7% alcohol, is pumped into the first pair of stills, from which it emerges as low wines with a strength of about 26%. This in turn goes into the second pair of stills, from which clear spirit with a strength of about 70% alcohol emerges.
This spirit is then placed in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks of 250 and 500 litre capacity, and these are taken to the bonded warehouses to spend the 12 (or more) years in which their content very very slowly becomes Highland Park single malt whisky.
The final stage of the distillery tour follows this part of the process to one of the bonded warehouses where you can look at and touch (unfilled) barrels before viewing the real thing stacked three high into the distance beyond a clear screen. This is always a good moment to reflect on the amount of up-front investment needed if you want to set up a distillery.
You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
The tour finishes back at the visitor centre and its well stocked and attractive shop. Here you can buy a wide range of souvenirs of your visit, books on whisky and whisky-making, and, of course, bottles of the product.
The "standard" Highland Park is a 12 year old single malt that is extremely highly rated by experts (and by us). It offers all the best features of Highland malts and Island malts. This is a whisky that will appeal to a very wide range of tastes. The "deluxe" Highland Park is the 18 year old, slightly lighter in colour that the 12 year old, but otherwise doing everything its younger relative does, only a little bit better.
There are a number of other versions on offer, including a 25 year old and occasional vintage malts. We are, sadly, unable to comment on their taste from personal experience, but experts say they are even better still.