Highland Park’s latest release, Dark Origins, is now available in the United States.
While Scotland’s most northern distillery isn’t new to no-age-statement expressions, Dark Origins is different for a variety of reasons. The most significant being its placement among the core range, rather than offered as a special edition.
Region: Islands – Orkney Style: Sherry/Smoky/Malty Class: Premium
Overall – Dark Origins is denser, smokier and more heavily sherried than other Highland Park. With prominent notes of Oloroso sherry from casks of European oak, it is reminiscent of traditional drams from Macallan and Glenfarclas, but with an extra peaty dimension. While different, Highland Park fans will find it worth trying and many will declare it a new favorite.
Nose – A big dose of dry sherry ignites a sulfurous kitchen match, and a certain burnt quality permeates the stewed stone fruit, woody spice, fatty chestnuts, dense botanicals, and earthy peat. Charred marshmallow, overripe banana, a leather tobacco pouch, and the leafy Orkney heather all have their turn, but very much under that umbrella of sherry and smoke. There is also caramel and toffee, but they come around the Highland Park carousel of revolving flavors less frequently than in other expressions. As with many traditional sherried whiskies, Dark Origins’ nose is notably larger than its palate.
Splash – Surprisingly sweet and fruity, but turns tart and quickly to gripping smoky oak.
Palate – Fruit jam and bitter greens vie atop sandalwood, baking chocolate, figs, and over-steeped black tea. The smoke increases over time, mainly in the form of that burnt characteristic.
Finish – Woody, fruity, stony and smoky.
Dry Nose – Bread dough and rainy woodlands populate the empty glass.
Water – Dark Origins loves water. From a little to a lot, it opens things up, taming the bitterness and releasing fragrant wood, juicier fruit, sweeter toffee and chocolate, changing all from dense and intense to lush and relaxing.
Remarks – Highland Park’s “gentle smoky finish” is moved up to the overture of this new expression, and remains a significant component of the overall performance. But as with all Highland Park, it comes nowhere near the levels of peat and smoke typically found in the Hebridean malts from Islay and Skye.
Compared to the rest of the core range, the increase in sherry, European oak, and peat enhance what is a less-complex Highland Park dram, while successfully masking any rough or raw edges that might have come from younger spirit. On the whole, the distillery character of a malty infusion with a tightly woven mélange of complementary flavors is present, under the broad brush strokes of Oloroso sherry and charred wood.
Out of the shadows and first fill sherry casks of European oak comes a mysterious no-age-statement expression, the first deemed worthy of Highland Park’s core range of classic single malt.
All of Highland Park’s traditional expressions have had age statements from 10 to 50 years old, with the current line up consisting of 12, 15, 18, 21, 25, 30, and 40 years of age. With Dark Origins, they are moving the core range to no-age-statement expressions, like so many other brands of single malt whisky.
This trend is aimed at circumventing the legal restrictions that say the oldest age allowed on the label must reflect the youngest whisky in the bottle. Since Dark Origins does not impose a lot of youthful burn, yet lacks some deeper complexity, it suggests younger single malt of good quality enhanced with some older spirit, but well managed to get the most out of the blending.
Dark Origins is priced just above the 15 year old expression. But it is quite different from that or any other offering in the core range. And yet, despite its black bottle, it resides suitably amongst them, more so than most other varieties of non-age-statement Highland Park, and for a very good reason.
At its core is satisfying malty spirit, enhanced with spice, fruit and mellow peat, like traditional Highland Park, only with more smoke and a good deal more sherry, something various independent bottlers have been offering for decades, at much higher prices.
The name Dark Origins refers to the high percentage of first fill sherry casks present in the expression. But it is also meant to harken back to the illicit still days of Highland Park’s eighteenth-century founder. Imagined on the box as a mysterious, intrepid character, his face is partially obscured so we see only his stubbly virile chin, ala Aragorn son of Arathorn.
My opinion on the packaging and marketing angle of Dark Origins can be read in the Blog. What matters most is the actual whisky in the glass.
And one thing Dark Origins definitely has in common with most every Highland Park expression is that each visit to the glass finds something different from the one before it and the one that follows.
The moment the nostrils are in range, a tincture of dry sherry leaps through them like sparks up a chimney, followed by macerated fruit. It is gone just as fast, and another involuntary sniff encounters ashen earthy peat and a burnt match, which becomes the sulfurous silver emulsion of a photographer’s darkroom.
In the next nosing, a drop of berry jam spatters fragrant sandalwood daubed with caraway seeds, just before the leafy forest undergrowth rises to dominance, partially obscuring the damp remnants of an old campfire. And never far away, the seaside wafts in, with its salted cliffs of granite, and its nearby wetlands of heather and sphagnum.
And that is all within the first ten seconds.
In time, a blackened banana mingles with the charred dripping skin of a toasted marshmallow, and the tobacco pouch sticking out of an old, leather boot. But ever and anon the sherried stone fruit, green weeds, and charcoal all wreath their way amongst each other. If left in the glass for a good ten minutes, brown baking sugar sneaks out.
The immediate sherry incursion validates the marketing claim of a higher percentage of first fill casks than is used for the standard 12 year old expression. The cooked down aspect of the unsweet fruit reminded me at once of Macallan, and younger Glenfarclas, with that dense prune extract cough syrup sort of effect, but here it appears at the start of each nosing along with a dollop of sweeter fruit jam, only to be chased off by the peaty botanicals and the notable smoke.
Dark Origins has the most out-front smoke of any Highland Park in the core range. Yet, it is not so much a smoky flavor as it is a burnt one. Even the fruit and sweeter notes are more like over-baked apples or the crusty torched sugar atop crème brûlée.
Given the savory nose, the juicy sweetness of the fruity malt splash is as surprising as its brevity. Within a moment, a bracing woody bite rises from the center of the palate to sink its talons all across the tongue, as if coarse grains of sea salt were triggering clusters of taste buds, like blinking points of light on an electronic map.
This is good quality whisky, and while the bite may be from younger wood, it comes without the burn of immature spirit plaguing many no-age-statement expressions from other distilleries.
The body is like most of the core range, Medium-weight with a little oil. But the usual Highland Park dryness is delayed by an urgent watering of the mouth. Then it shows up, and the waves of smoke roll in.
A repeated tide of malty sweetness and somber fruit is hurried away by prim priggish oak, baking chocolate, and tannins from over-brewed tea that build up over time – think English Breakfast rather than bergamot orange.
This is not as complex as typical Highland Park, and the orange zest is one of the things missing in action. Rather, any citrus is limey and well buried, as is the banana and other American oak qualities. It is the European oak notes of raisin and fig, and the cherry-berry sherry that command most of the attention when it comes to fruit and sweets. What is nutty on the nose becomes bitter dark chocolate in the mouth, with a faint cherry note. And all are well matched and perhaps a little overwhelmed by the sway of bold wood, stony earth, strident herbs, and decisive smoke. Each of these notes is experienced across the core range, but here the intensity is turned up.
The immediate finish is a tad bitter, with a good deal of tea tannins that smack of young casks rather than the deeper, sodden wood that comes with very old whisky. It is mingled with dark leafy greens and minerals, but there is an apparition of jammy fruit that hangs around, ethereal but always there. The smoke becomes even more noticeable over time, and builds with further drinking.
The long finish is stony, like wet gravel, a touch sour, like lingonberries, and a little ashy from all that dampened smoke. Yeast appears at the very end, as the empty glass smells like a walk in the woods past an old campsite after a brief rain shower, with loaves of warm fresh bread in the picnic basket.
This condensed, tightfisted dram relaxes its grip considerably with just a wee drop or three. As the bitter spine softens, heather crests the shadow of the peat bog, and the wreath of smoke, oak and vegetation unwinds to allow the sweeter prunes, pineapple, orange zest and banana peel to come forward, along with malted milk balls and vanilla beans. Yet all remains in good balance, reaching the surface in a tranquil fashion.
While a few drops will do, it actually stands up well to a good dousing, and gains in complexity and pleasure what it loses in density and intensity. Water releases the smoke so the ashen embers turn into a warming, fragrant fire of freshly-cut sandalwood and pine. And it releases the sugars so that sweeter chocolates and toffee increase, as the macerated Macallan fruits move over toward the ripe berries and rose bushes of Glenfarclas.
Different But Enjoyable
Traditional Highland Park shares things in common with many peaty islanders, spicy highlanders, and sherried Speysiders, while keeping such facets subtle and well-balanced. But I have often wondered what Highland Park would be like if the distillery gave it the kind of European sherry cask treatment associated with Glenfarclas and Macallan. Dark Origins provides the answer very nicely, without being quite so drenched in Oloroso.
The impact of the sherry is piquant and not at all the syrupy Christmas cake sort of sherry monster one finds in a bottle of GlenDronach, or even the Glenlivet. It may be more heavily sherried by Highland Park standards, but the judicious and delicious presence of Orkney peat, along with that charcoal taste (re-charred casks?) makes sure this isn’t just about the conspicuous sherry flavoring.
It is certainly moreish, as the drinker is enticed to see what else new and different awaits them in the next glass.
Opinions, Varied But Favorable
At the uncorking of the first bottle of Dark Origins, 100% of the drinkers were surprised by the tart and sooty fist gripping the expected Highland Park malty-fruity-spicy profile. But a full two-thirds came around to the new expression, once they stopped focusing on how it was different, and its subtler charms began to come through.
A few nights later, I hosted a blind tasting for people who are not regular drinkers of Highland Park. They took to it immediately. When they then compared it to the anonymous 12 year old and 15 year old expressions, just as many preferred Dark Origins as those who chose either of the others.
A Return to Sherry
Highland Park was one of the few modern distilleries to use only sherry casks for aging its single malt whisky. Along with mixing peated and unpeated malt, and a deliberately slow distilling process, the primary focus was on ratios of first fill and refill sherry casks, as well as blending together sherry casks made from American oak along with others made from European oak.
That changed with the introduction of the Warrior Series and Valhalla Series, no-age-statement expressions with names like Leif Eriksson, and Loki that offer Highland Park with little or no sherry influence, aged in only American oak, and in some cases bourbon barrels, and even virgin oak, which had not previously held any wine or spirit.
Dark Origins takes things in the opposite direction. It is very much about sherry and how first fill casks quickly enrich younger whisky, while also employing a more traditional use of European oak as the primary source of age-based flavoring.
Dark Origins will likely be priced at about $80 in the U.S. and fits the core range by virtue of being created from sherried single malt, only more so.
The closest expression in terms of price point is the 15 year old Highland Park, made from a higher percentage of American oak casks than the other core expressions. It is lighter in weight and hue, and sweeter in taste, with much more in the way of tropical notes, white pepper, vanilla taffy, and that “gentle smoky finish” developing late.
But now we have Dark Origins, which is denser, smokier and heavily sherried, relatively speaking, with a more traditional European profile of stone fruit, both dried and stewed, wood spices, vanilla beans, and earthy peat.
I have often said Highland Park had something for everyone among their core range. Dark Origins only expands the options that much further. While it may not be for every Highland Park fan, most will find it well worth trying, and it may very well win new fans among drinkers of traditional sherried whiskies from Macallan, Glenfarclas, and Aberlour, thanks to the extra dimensions that come from the peat smoke and Highland Park’s singular Orcadian character, with or without the hooded cloak.
And that is one man’s world on…
Highland Park Dark Origins
Dark Origins has been discontinued and is being replaced with one of several new HP expressions.
Other Highland Park Reviews
More coming soon
Reading of Interest
Mortlach Old Rare – the new no age statement Mortlach