I am a whisky woman: I absolutely love the amber nectar. I have vlogged about it, I’m in the process of resurrecting my podcast about it, and I drink quite a bit of it.
I also used to run a dining club matching foods and whiskies, and that is my real passion. Moving to Orkney was about many things for me but, right up there at the top of the list was being near at least one rather special whisky distillery. Being on a group of islands that is home to two famous whisky brands, with two more soon coming into production, is just heaven for me. The oldest and best known of the Orcadian whiskies is Highland Park.
Highland Park was established in 1798, just two years after Robert Burns' premature death at the age of thirty-seven. Only six distilleries older than Highland Park are still in production although most have been silent from time to time. I think that to be pedantic the first couple of decades of distilling on the site - High Park - were making illegal spirit, but 1798 is the date above the gate at the distillery. To learn more about founder Magnus Eunson you will need to visit. A licence to distill on the High Park was taken in 1826.
I drive past Highland Park on my way into the city of Kirkwall and it makes me very happy to see smoke coming from the two pagoda-like chimneys and to smell the production in progress. I often see men rolling barrels of spirit onto trucks to be taken from the production side of the road to the bonded warehouses on the other side. I love seeing the barrels and imagining how the spirit inside them will mature, resting quietly in our temperate climate which means that Highland Park has one of the smallest losses of spirit, the angel's share, in the country.
I well remember the first time that I tasted a Highland Park whisky. I was writing the history of the famous London store Fortnum & Mason and, unsurprisingly, got on very well with the head of their wine and spirits department. She too was a whisky woman and delighted in showing me the then current bottle with a map of the Islands in its base. I still have (an empty) one on my shelf, although many a bottle design has come and gone since then.
The dram itself? Well, it was everything that is still core to Highland Park today: smooth, subtle, mellow, easy to drink but with just enough peat/smoke on the finish to make it satisfying. It’s an easy and complete dram: that’s the 12yo. There are plenty of other expressions too and here are some notes from a whisky and food matching session that I was involved in last year in the glorious tasting room in the Highland Park Visitor Centre.
I took along four dishes that I have used many times before for tastings:
- A humus made with a pinch of dried oregano and a chopped-up orange as well as garlic and tahini. That was all whizzed together before olive oil was added and salt and pepper. The humus was served on Orkney oatcakes with black pepper.
- Red wine cured beef from Donaldsons butchers.
- Chocolate brownies
- Winter fruit salad of prunes, dried apricots, fresh oranges and canned grapefruit, all cooked with star anise and a cinnamon stick, with chopped crystallised ginger added at the end of cooking while still warm.
John, our Highland Park tour guide and host for the afternoon, had selected four whiskies:
- 10yo, a younger, brighter style of Highland Park and one of my perfect summertime whiskies.
- Twisted Tattoo, a 16yo made from whiskies matured in Bourbon casks. Once blended together, one third of the resulting whisky was added to Rioja casks before the whiskies were married back together and matured for a further 3 years. A very unusual whisky for Highland Park.
- 18yo, a classic richly sherried Highland Park.
- Valfather, again a noteworthy whisky from the distillery as it is made with 100% peated grain. It is however surprisingly subtle and all the peatiness is in the finish with none of the medicinal notes often associated with heavily peated whiskies.
And then it was down to each of us at the tasting to see which matches we liked best. There are no rights and wrongs on such occasions as we all have different tastes and like a variety of flavour combinations. My favourites were:
- The 10yo and the orange humus on black pepper oatcakes - light, fruity and summery.
- Twisted Tattoo with the cured beef, although John also liked that with the 10yo and said it found extra spiciness in the whisky.
- 18yo and Valfather both worked with the chocolate brownies for me.
- 18yo was the favourite with the fruit salad.
A whisky and food matching session is a great way of getting in the mood for some ceilidh dancing for Burns Night. You can make it as complicated or as easy as you like. You could try some Orkney Cheddar, salmon or crab, all of which are widely available wherever you are and try them with the whiskies that you have.
But you’ll need to come to Orkney to get our extra mature Orkney Cheddar, Donaldson’s award-winning cured beef, and to be certain of getting all the whiskies that we tasted you should either take a tour at the Distillery or visit the Highland Park shop in Albert Street, near St Magnus Cathedral.
Rosemary Moon ‘retired’ to Orkney after a long association with the salmon industry in the islands. The author of 19 cookery books and countless more recipes, including writing for Waitrose and Lakeland, she has brought journalists and food writers to Orkney in the past to show off our diverse and delicious food and drink. After several holidays here Rosemary and her husband Nick have settled in South Ronaldsay but, once a cookery writer always a cookery writer, Rosemary is finding it impossible to stop jotting down the new recipes that she is creating with the island produce.