Highland Park is one of the best-known and most respected of Scotch whiskies. The great, and sadly late, whisky writer, Michael Jackson, summed its status up in this way: "Highland Park is considered the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky." What this means in practice is that Highland Park Distillery has become a place of pilgrimage for whisky-lovers from around the world. It also means that it is a must-see destination for anyone visiting Orkney who wants to understand one of Scotland's great gifts to the world, Scotch whisky.
The distillery itself stands on relatively high ground on the southern edge of Kirkwall. It is neither shy nor retiring, nor especially modest in scale. The large site comprises attractive (if clearly industrial) stone buildings in the main working area of the distillery, surrounded by no fewer than 26 warehouses. The whole thing is topped off by two pagodas. Still better, these are working pagodas that regularly emit smoke from the kilns below. Highland Park is one of the few distilleries that malts some of its own barley on the premises, which means that tours take in elements that are usually absent elsewhere. The distillery dominates many views in the southern part of Kirkwall and the surrounding area. It is also very obvious in views from the top of St Magnus Cathedral, and even from the summit of Wideford Hill, three miles to the north west.
Highland Park used to be Scotland's most northerly whisky distillery, a distinction it held by a modest distance over the nearby Scapa Distillery at the head of Scapa Bay. Developments in Shetland have removed that title: but it remains Scotland's most northerly large whisky distillery. (Continues below image...)
The sign on the gate says that Highland Park was established in 1796. The founder was Magnus Eunson, who had set up an illicit still in a stone bothy in an area known as High Park. Folklore and history have become a little confused, but it seems Magnus Eunson was a local church officer who had on occasion escaped the attentions of the excisemen by hiding the whisky he produced under his pulpit or, according to one story, using barrels covered by a cloth to support a coffin which he claimed held the body of someone who had died of smallpox to deter searchers.
It is unclear how long this went on for, but it seems that in 1796 Magnus Eunson went legal and paid the first duty on the spirit he produced. Some sources claim the first time Highland Park Distillery itself formally obtained a licence was in 1826, following changes in legislation three years earlier, but sometimes folklore is just more fun than cold, hard history.
As suggested above, a tour of Highland Park Distillery is an essential part of any visit to Orkney. The experience starts in the attractive and welcoming visitor centre and moves on to 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. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
Highland Park's floor maltings are housed in a fascinating 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 and their distinctive pagodas that serve as more than mere decoration for their distilleries. Highland Park's two 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. As with some of the other distilleries that still have floor maltings, only a proportion of the malted barley used in the distillery is malted on the premises. It seems that this is the part of the operation that is most difficult to scale up as other areas of production increase in capacity.
You then move on the large stainless steel mash tun and then the twelve nearby washbacks in which the initial fermentation takes place. During the second world war Highland Park was, like other distilleries, silent. It is said that the washbacks were used as communal baths by some of the 40,000 service personnel stationed on Orkney during the war, though that may be another excursion into attractive folklore.
Highland Park's still house contains four stills, two wash stills and two spirit 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. The four condensers, one for each of the stills, are attached to the outside wall of the still house, just to your left as you enter the distillery.
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 Scotch 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.
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. There are also editions available that have been matured for 15 or 18 years. The 18 year old is slightly lighter in colour that the 12 year old, but otherwise does everything its younger relative does, only a little bit better.
There are a number of other versions on offer, including a 40 year old and occasional vintage malts, plus a range of whiskies that are marketed using the distillery's highly effective Viking-inspired branding.