Monday, May 24, 2010

Review: Highland Park 15 year old Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Lately, I have been encountering a number of disappointing blended and single malt scotches.  The suspects:  Glenkinchie 12Auchentoshan 12Dewar's 12 and Whyte & Mackay.  In addition to being disappointing, they were a waste of money.  I gave away most of the bottles to friends who aren't that picky about what they drink.  I guess that's one of the hazards of operating a whisky blog.  You can waste good money on poor whisky or scotch.  With this review, I needed a scotch that would remind me of the romance between drinker and scotch that can take place when great spirits are involved.  So, I picked up a bottle of Highland Park 15 years.  I am familiar with Highland Park 12 and 18 years and was confident that the 15 would be a delight also.  I had tried it at a scotch tasting that featured a range of Highland Park bottlings.

Nose (undiluted)
Vanilla, rich peat, slight heather, sherry, lawn grass clippings, damp leaves. The aromas convey a clear message: A rich, luxuriant treat awaits!

Palate (undiluted)
Starts sweet. I can taste the sherry flavors imparted as a result of the time this spirit spent in sherry casks. It must have been good sherry in those casks because I do not taste the spoiled sherry flavors that I encounter in cheap blends like Whyte & Mackay or Dewar’s 12 years. This is choice/top shelf single malt scotch.

Besides the sherry, I am detecting spiced honey that would make Winnie the Pooh swoon with delight. Velvety smooth, yet with texture and an aromatic flavor profile that goes on and on and on like the Energizer Bunny. There is also a citrus component to the flavor profile that appears on the finish. Mid-palate is very aromatic.

Finish (undiluted)
Some fresh navel oranges and smoked salmon dry on the palate. Ohh! This is good! These smokey flavors last a long time, like an echo at the Grand Canyon.

Add Water?
Yes, please do!  A teaspoon to 1 and a half ounces will cause the scotch to become more sweet, marzipan and baklava like in terms of flavor.  I prefer this single malt with a little water.  Tasted neat there is a little hint of alcohol that disappears with water.

General Impressions

I asked Gerry Tosh of Highland Park Distillery for basic information on the 15.  Here is the email exchange:

From: Jason Debly
Country: Canada (Eastern)
Comment: I operate a scotch whisky review blog
( and I intend to conduct a review of Highland Park 15 year old. Accordingly, I am seeking any information with respect to aging, distillation details and images concerning this bottling. Please note, I am not seeking a sample, as I conduct an independent review of various whiskies that I profile. If you have any information that you could provide, I may use some of it in my review. Certainly, if this is not a request that you wish to entertain, please disregard this email and do not trouble yourself to respond.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.


Jason Debly

. . .

Here’s the response I received from Highland Park:

Always happy to help a whisky lover.
All you need to know is this.
Youngest whisky is 15 years old
30% of the casks used are first fill sherry cask
70% of the casks used are refill sherry casks
The big flavour difference is that we are using predominantly using
American oak sherry casks in the 15 where the 12,18 we are mainly using
Spanish oak.

Hope this helps.


Gerry Tosh
Head of Brand Education
Highland Park single malt scotch whisky
West Kinfauns Perth Scotland PH2 7XZ
Tel: +44 (0)1738 493611
Fax: +44 (0)1738 493838
. . .

So, first fill sherry casks obviously impart a stronger taste of sherry on the spirit in the casks than say a refill cask. Mr. Tosh also attributes the difference in taste from the 12 and 18 yrs bottlings to the different wood used. American oak!  Here's a link to his video tasting of the 15.

On the web, I have read that the Highland Park 12 and 18 yrs are aged in 90% ex-sherry casks and the remaining 10% in ex-bourbon casks. The Highland Park 15yrs is supposedly aged 50/50 in ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks.  Judging from Mr. Tosh's email the use of ex-bourbon casks would be inaccurate.  So, in order to clarify this point I posed that question to Mr. Tosh.  Here is his prompt reply:

No worries about the extra question.

Highland park use NO bourbon barrels at all, we only use sherry casks.
We use American oak sherry casks to give it the citrus flavour we are looking for.



Well, just goes to show that you cannot believe everything you read on the web!

In any event, the bottom line is that the 15 year old is less sherried than the 12 and 18 year old editions of this great distillery. And guess what? I like it! For my taste preference, I find the 12 and 18 a little more sherried than I would like. The 15 is more balanced and the vanilla flavor is a delight. It should be noted that most critics would disagree with my opinion. In fact, I think most scotch drinkers prefer the 12 and 18 to the 15.

Value for Money?
I think so. Some may disagree. This is by no means cheap in terms of price. For me, I have no problem paying a steep price if I am getting good quality. I believe that the price is commensurate with the high quality single malt scotch whisky I will taste.

One Problem

I have encountered one ‘problem’ with this single malt scotch. It is incredibly drinkable, so easy to sip that the bottle is disappearing too fast! We all have our crosses to bear, and so I will just steel myself in regards to overcoming this seemingly insurmountable problem!

Bottom Line
Highland Park 15 years is a high quality single malt.  The price is high but reasonable in light of the quality.  This scotch would make an excellent gift for the serious scotch fan.

Jason Debly

Photo credits:  Close up of Highland Park Label by Let Ideas Compete;
Photo of Highland Park Distillery entrance by J_
Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Whyte & Mackay "Special" Blended Scotch Whisky

On a wickedly cold February night, in my hometown, somewhere in Canada, I went to a scotch tasting.  After sampling many fine and some not so fine single malts, the bar owner tossed an inebriated me and my friend, George, tiny 50ml bottles of Whyte & Mackay Special Blended Scotch Whisky.  Now you thought the previous sentence would end differently like: "the bar owner tossed an inebriated me and my friend, George, on to the street."  Not! 

As I was saying, we sampled quite a few drams and by the time the Whyte & Mackay was proffered we were well on our way.  We drank the tiny bottles (ya know, those airplane minis) and thought they were very good.  Matter of fact, I scribbled a tasting note and made a mental note to investigate this blend further when I had some semblance of sobriety.

I am now returning to Whyte & Mackay with a clearer head and can now provide you with a tasting note that has not been clouded by a steady succession of other malts traversing my palate and besotted brain.

Strong whiff of sherry and nutmeg.  Very malty too.  Smells cheap and simple.

The body is rounded but not in a good way . . . kinda like Roseanne Barr in a thong.  Plenty of sherry to start.  This is sweet though it tapers off a little, but not to the point of drying.

Cocoa turning a little green to the point of ginger; over ripe tangerine sherry oakiness with black pepper linger like a stray cat on your doorstep.

General Impressions
I was not expecting this to be incredible.  I mean this is bottom shelf blended scotch whisky.  However, I did expect more.  Big disappointment is what this is.  This blend is totally devoid of peat and what the distiller calls "smoke" is actually (in my opinion) poor quality whisky that has spent too much time in refill sherry casks.  In the same price point, Teacher's Highland Cream is clearly superior to Whyte and Mackay.

What astonishes me is that if you visit the International Wine and Spirit Competition website and do a search of Whyte & Mackay Special (just use the search term "Whyte") it scored a silver medal in the no age stated blended scotch category.  How?  If they are giving silver for this, then I would imagine Hawkeye Pierce from MASH would get a bronze for his enema bag distillate in his musty army tent.  Such a ranking draws into question the reliability of the International Wine and Spirit Competition ratings.  From my visit to the site and Wikipedia's write-up on it (click here), it appears to be an organization populated by whisky industry types.  Much is made of blind tastings but doesn't seem to translate into accurate reviews.  In fact they handed out ten (10) silver medals in the no age statement blended scotch category!  What kind of a competition has ten second place winners other than in kindergarden?  Don't believe me?  Click here.  Anyway, the problems with the IWSC is a subject for another discussion or rant in the learned tradition of Dennis Miller.

Now what can I say about Whyte & Mackay Special that is positive?  Well, if I really stretch the bounds of my imagination and abandon my personal moral compass I could point out possible attributes that some scotch novices might find attractive:  (1)  There is no bite.  (2)  For those who dislike peaty or smoke flavors, this blended scotch will get points.  (3)  You will taste smooth sherry and a maltiness that is ok.  (4)  It's simple but that's ok I suppose if you just want to put your mind in neutral and watch TV.  (5)  Not offensive but that spoiled tangerine flavor on the finish does border on the repulsive.  (6)  It is very cheap and I would imagine would make a good ingredient in a mixed drink that called for blended scotch.

Bottom Line
Would I buy this again?  No.  Never.  Under no circumstances could I, in good conscience, recommend it.  When I am shopping for a bargain basement blended scotch, I would first reach for Teacher's Highland Cream or Johnnie Walker Red Label.  Stay away from Whyte & Mackay "Special" Blended Scotch Whisky because there is nothing 'special' about it.


Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2010. All rights reserved.