On a recent rainy evening in Portland, Oregon, an intrepid and disparate group of whisky lovers gathered for a tasting sponsored by Highland Park Scotch. Paired with Pacific Northwest beers, we sampled three of the storied Orkney whiskies at two local watering holes, There Be Monsters and Bit House Saloon. Stepping up their marketing to the Americas, Scottish distiller Highland Park is poised to challenge the leaders of the pack at a time when home-grown distilling is also reaching new heights. It’s a great time to be a whisky drinker!
Our tasting started at There Be Monsters with the Highland Park Single Malt 12 Year Old, accompanied by a Ninkasi stout. The 12 Year is clean and smooth, with notes of citrus and a slightly smoky aftertaste. The stout both cleansed the palate and freed the mind to think about the next wee dram. Had the night ended then and there, no one would have been the worse. But instead we were shuffled into limos for the five-minute ride to Bit House Saloon. Now, that’s good work if you can get it for the drivers, but the change of venue actually played an important role in rearranging the participants for the next tastes. FYI: the Highland Park 12 Year Old is also one of the least expensive single malt whiskies on the market. A bargain? From Scotland? It is a good time to be a whisky drinker.
As we settled in at the Bit House Saloon for the next phase, we started to learn more about one another and about whisky. We quickly discovered connections of the kind that continue to amaze in spite of their frequent appearance wherever new friends are made. There was more than a taste for whisky held in common by our 20-some-odd members. Our next taste was the 18 Year Old. Aged in sherry casks, the darker color and richer flavor spread a warm feeling among the gathered tasters. The Elysian stout back was bright and agile, and the two danced their way into our hearts. We were getting happy.
The final taste of the evening was a new entry to Highland Park’s repertoire: Dark Origins. The name is a reference to the fact that Highland Park’s founder was engaged in the illicit trade in spirits before becoming respectable. It’s both a clever and an appropriate metaphor for Dark Origins’ flavor profile. Here, the peaty smokiness and drier character depart from the typical balance treasured in most single malt Scotch, and in Highland Park’s other offerings in particular. A little wild and unpredictable, Dark Origins takes Scotch whisky in a potentially exciting direction, appealing to Bourbon drinkers, for example, who may have previously found Old World spirits too refined. Thank you, Highland Park. Thank you, Northwest Craft Beer. Thank you, lovely drinking holes in the city. Cheers!—Jeff Thomas, RFT Contributor and Spirits Expert, Photos courtesy Highland Park