Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Comparison Tasting: Highland Park - 70s v Today

Hello, Hello,

Lots to get through on this post so settle down please. Today we’re looking at a comparative tasting. First up look at this picture;

The 12 yo is from a tasting pack that I was given as a present recently. But the other one... just look at that. I picked up that bottle of Highland Park from an “antique” fair for £2 (along with some other gems – including an old bottling Bruichladdich mini - I couldn’t believe my luck).

To me there are 3 things of interest here;

1 – A old bottle gives the chance to compare to more recent whisky from the same distillery (albeit not the same standard bottling)

2 - A bit of detective work (well, googling) required to establish how old the whisky is.

3 – You will have spotted that the old HP bottle has a lower neck-fill, so it’s interesting to see what effect that has. Although that does mean that the comparison isn’t totally fair.

Taking the 2nd point first. How old is the old bottling? Well by my reckoning I think it must be pre-1980 given that it’s listed as 70 Proof rather than 40% ABV (when that change in labeling took place). It has a 70s styling and it seems to be an imperial measure (i.e. I couldn’t see 5cl). Plus looking on google images other whisky sites seem to place this in the 1970s. So this is probably pushing 35 at least since it was bottled and may have been distilled at the end of the 60s. 

So how will it compare against a modern Highland Park. I poured out the two HPs side by side. Here are my notes.

Highland Park 8 Year Old (Gordon & McPhail 70s Bottle)
The 8 year old is much darker, more orange-y looking. It seems a bit odd at first but definitely whisky - sweet but damp to smell. At this point I was wondering what effect the low-level fill had. It seemed a tiny bit flat – not too much coming off the nose.
Giving it a few minutes before going in for a second sniff it certainly seemed old-fashioned – I was getting a strong smell of sherry or even navy rum. Basically it smells a bit like your Nan’s house. Or an old hotel. Or maybe a church. There was damp, stone and wood. But at the same time it was a comforting smell, from a place where people have enjoyed themselves in the past.
Other thoughts scribbled down - Christmas Pudding. Cold Ash. Old leather. A stone room on a winters night.
There was so much going on. It’s difficult to tell now how the aeration (leakage?) has affected it. I noticed the finish was a little… fuzzy. I mean that as opposed to definable as crisp or lingering. There was all this woody-Christmas cake going on but then it kind of turned a bit funny and died (sorry I'm not exactly painting tastes with words). The feeling I was left with was it was like watching a classic black and white film but a poor recording of it. The tracking goes a bit off now and again or you lose the sound ocassionally but there is still plenty to enjoy. The essence still seemed to remain.

Highland Park 12 Year Old (recent distillery bottling)
So how does it compare to Highland Park of today? This is hardly a direct comparison since it’s not the same distillery bottling. 
Just as well since this is really different. I found it difficult to draw a direct line between the two. Now, as far as I’m concerned HP12 is a great bottle. It’s difficult to beat as an all-rounder and I’m A Fan.  Side by side though these two are totally different. 
The colour is much lighter and straw-like. And the smell is a bit of sweet vegetation and rubbery. I got a little bit of sweet grain smell (I know it doesn’t have grain in it obviously). Egg noodles on the nose too, strangely.
It’s much lighter than the old HP and more zesty. It seems younger even though it’s the older of the two in terms of years (if you get what I mean). Tiny bit of smoke. Smooth and toasty. 
But it didn’t seem quite the whisky of my memory when up against this old bottle. I think in the interests of balance that I should have tried this one first since it is much lighter.

Well, using this slightly indirect comparison it seems that the signature taste of HP has definitely changed. It’s gone from stodgy 70s trifle to a light salad. Both have their merits and I found it very interesting to see the difference between eras.
It was also interesting to see what possible effect the low-fill level has. To explore that properly I guess I’d need to two bottles from the same era – one with a low-fill and one without. But from this tasting the low-fill wasn't the total ruination I had feared.

Happily for my interest in whisky (but sadly for my wallet) this now means that my interest has been piqued not just far and wide but also back in time. 
Look out for future comparative tastings to come – 90s Bruichladdich 10, 90s Glenliet 12 and 90s Chivas 12.


08/10/14 - Just a note to add that I recently tried a distillery bottling of Highland Park 30, presumably going back to the early 80s. It tasted very much like the G&M reviewed above. I also tried a 25 year old Highland Park and it was quite different to the 30yo, more akin to the rest of the HP range. Can we deduce from that at some point in the last 30 years Highland Park has changed its signature style?

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