Highland Park is one of Scotland's oldest distilleries and one of the few remaining from the 18th century. The brand has become one of the best selling Scotch single malts and plays on the Nordic heritage and history of its Orkney home. The islands were historically a Viking stronghold with branding and marketing reflecting this. Highland Park skillfully marries everyday supermarket whiskies with collectable gems and rare old vintages, all with a twist of Viking inspiration.
Highland Park is known for a lightly smoky style of single malt. The soft, gentle and sweet smoke is generated by peat from the distillery's native Orkney islands. Orcadian peat is constructed primarily of moss and heather. This differs from Highland or Islay peat in that it lacks wood, seaweed or other vegetation due Orkney's harsher conditions. They only use ex-sherry casks for maturation since changing strategy in 2004. These are both American and European oak, with first-fill and re-fill casks being used.
The diverse and extensive core range consists of the no age statement Cask Strength, Dragon Legend and Viking Tribe, plus aged whiskies at 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 30, 40 and 50 years old. There is also the Warrior Series for travel retail plus numerous limited editions, other expressions and single casks bottled for selected retailers.
The distillery is one of the few in Scotland to still practice traditional floor malting. The process sees barley soaked in water and laid across a concrete floor to germinate. Over a week-long period the structure of the grain changes. Starch becomes sugar and this sugar is needed to produce alcohol. Highland Park produces around 30% of its malt requirement. The remainder is purchased from commercial maltsters. Their own malt is peated to a level of 35ppm (Phenol Parts per Million), while the commercial malt is unpeated. They are blended together to give a lightly peated mix.
The distillery is very traditional and equipped with a large 12 tonne mash tun, which feeds 12 fermentation washbacks. The current operation is 22 mashes per week. The washbacks are made of Oregon pine and fermentation times fluctuate between 50 and 80 hours depending on time of year. Two pairs of stills work together to distil 2.5 million litres of spirit each year. Water for production and cooling is taken from the Crantit Spring.
Highland Park was officially founded in 1798 by David Robertson in Kirkwall, the Orkney islands capital. Illegal distilling took place on the same site for decades with one famous character from that time particularly prominent. His name was Magnus Eunson, who was known as 'The Whisky Priest'. He was a priest in Kirkwall by day and an illicit distiller and smuggler by night. Rumour says that he concealed whisky in the crypt of his church to avoid being caught by the authorities.
Numerous individuals are credited with Highland Park's early ownership during the distillery's first century. One included John Robertson, an Excise officer who ended Magnus Eunson's reign as an illegal distiller by arresting him. He owned the distillery for 10 years between 1816 and 1826. It then passed to Robert Borthwick and remained in his family until the 1890s. The current owners are The Edrington Group.
In the early 20th century, Highland Park became increasingly popular with blenders. It was a significant ingredient in popular blends such as Cutty Sark and Famous Grouse. This remained the case well into the 21st century. The whisky was not promoted as a single malt brand until the late 1970s. Highland Park has become one of the world's most recognisable and highly awarded Scotch whiskies with 75% of production now being allocated to single malt releases.
Highland Park is also a popular destination for whisky pilgrims and attracts 15,000 visitors per year. This is despite being Scotland's most northerly single malt distillery and its island location.