Saturday, June 29, 2013

Review: Highland Park 12 years Single Malt Scotch

25 yrs ago I had a conversation with my mentor in this building.
"Rex, do you have a moment?"

"Sure."  He pushed himself away from his expansive desk, and leaned back in his chair, a battered, cracked brown leather number that had seen better days.  Being vice-president, he could afford better, but his personal sense of frugality blinded him to such unimportant matters of aesthetics.  

"Take a look at this."  I handed him a typed letter.  He scanned it and looked up with a quizzical expression.

"See here."  I pointed out a spelling error.  "And here, and that one too.  I must bounce back a couple letters a day to Joan."  

Joan was a 60ish secretary, with alarmingly unnatural blonde, Marilyn Monroe hair, who transcribed my dictation at a breezy 20 words per minute.  She was forgetful at times, failing to photocopy correspondence too.

"Jason, I hear ya."  He scratched his balding head and searched for the right words, and then added "but, . . . everyone needs a job."  

. . . 

Do you climb the corporate ladder with integrity?
25 years ago, those words went straight over my head.  I was fixated on the fact that I had a dud of a secretary.  Me, an eager-beaver, know-it-all, newly minted university graduate. What did I know?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

Over the years, I have dealt with people who take liberties with the truth, twist facts and situations to their own advantage, and generally just plain lie.  Sadly, sometimes they have been coworkers, bosses and senior management.  Today, at 46 years of age, I can finally look a man in the eye and tell if he has good character.  Unfortunately, the last time I encountered moral courage to do the right thing in the workplace was a quarter of a century ago. And this thought brings to mind Highland Park 12 years.

Highland Park 12 years Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Unlike men, whisky cannot lie.  If it is thin, weak, unreliable, you will know from the first sip.  Cheap, dishonestly young malt and grain whiskies cannot hide their shortcomings behind slick packaging, much like corporate weasels and c-suite yes-men using opaque jargon and jingoism to obfuscate the truth.  The listener knows the truth behind words like downsizing, streamlining, change management, finding efficiencies and other corporate Orwellian gobbledygook that always means the same thing: loss of jobs that impacts not just the person in the position, but his/her family.  Strangely the suit delivering the message always finds these "efficiencies" in the lower strata of the organization, not at his or higher levels of management.  

Nose (undiluted)
Fine sherry, Florida oranges, majestic Orcadian peat, subtle wood smoke, and a handful of stones.

Palate (undiluted)
The finest Oloroso sherry, orange rind, raspberries, wild honey, and a thin layer of pomegranate. Underneath all that is heather and subtle Montecristo smoke.  Great and a very unique floral complexity for a 12 year old single malt.

Finish (undiluted)
Dry, tingling pomegranate, Australian red licorice and the distinctive heather of this distillery that cannot be replicated by any other distillery.

General Impressions
Highland Park 12 years is a solid drink.  A single malt whisky that cannot be ignored.  It exemplifies all that great malts aspire to be.  For example, a lot of single malts trumpet that they age in Oloroso sherry casks.  If there was ever a word consistently over-used in Scotch whisky marketing, it is "Oloroso."    Oloroso sherry is a dry sherry.  Tends to be very dry and you taste that arid quality on the mid-palate to finish of Highland Park 12.

The Oloroso sherry casks used by Highland Park are exceptional to my mind.  They deliver a fantastic sherried Scotch whisky experience that other distilleries can only dream about.

Scottish Heather (Calluna vulgaris
The other feature of Highland Park 12 that I take note of is 'heather.'  What is heather?

It is a low lying shrub that grows all over Scotland and typically is mauve, lavender and purple in color.  Orkney Islands where the Highland Park Distillery is located has plenty of heather too.

I seriously believe that heather of Orkney does impart unique and rare floral notes that make Highland Park 12 special. The mechanics of exactly how this shrub influences flavor, I will admit is sketchy at best.

". . . water flowing over heather moors picks up floral characteristics along its way to the distillery, and exerts an influence during the steeping or mashing.  However, using peat that includes  heather, certain types of yeast, a particular distillation method, and oak aging may all impart heather characteristics to whisky."

Those are the words of Ian Wisniewski, a whisky writer, whose above comments appeared on page 32 of Whiskey by Michael Jackson, 2005 edition, published by Dorling Kindersley Limited.

I subscribe to Mr. Wisniewski's explanation.  There is a fascinating floral experience going on in Highland Park 12 that I attribute to heather.

Fair Price
At one time Highland Park 12 was cheap.  It didn't have the cachet of say Macallan 12 and others.  So, the price was actually very good.

Times have changed.  HP 12 is now recognized as a great single malt and so I have noticed prices creeping up.  I have been told that the higher prices reflect increased demand in India and China.  In addition, I think it has become a trendy brand in North America.  It is the name dropped most by people who know little about Scotch whisky but want to appear otherwise.  In any case, the price for HP 12 is still more than fair, in spite of recent increases.

Back in 2009, I wrote an enthusiastic and maybe a bit over-the-top review of this single malt (click here).  I still agree with it.  HP 12 has great character!  The question is: do you and I?


Jason Debly
© Jason Debly, 2009-2013. All rights reserved except for one photograph.  The photograph of the bottle of Highland Park 12 with tumbler was taken by a member on Flickr Gary White who holds all world copyright.  The photo is used in this blog with his permission.  No reproduction permitted without Mr. White's express written permission.  All other photos taken by yours truly.


  1. Jason, Your column today reflects some real regret for an accumulation of body blows from a tough world. I feel for you. I appreciate your expression of appreciation for straightforwardness, and of the reliability of the HP12y. I join you in admiration for things and acts foursquare. Perhaps we can grant that much to the HP12y too. I fear for me however, this Scotch remains a bit too difficult to enjoy from my glass. It's that so very floral peat, one that challenges me so very much for some reason. I've never gotten past its aroma of Granny's hand soap, her face powder and her dresser drawers of sachet. It isn't something I want to drink much of it. I don't know why I can enjoy Laphroaig's seaweed, Ardbeg's soot, and Talisker's oyster shell so easily and not HP's distinctive style, but there it is. It's honest, and that is a good thing. BTW, the HP12y here is still a bargain here at $40 US (same as Macallan 12y); Talisker 10y and Cragganmore 12y are each $20 more. I wish I liked floral peat more. Cheers. JK

  2. Interesting read as always Jason. I'm just back from Orkney today and of course Highland Park, so perfect timing reading this. As you say the 12 year is a solid dependable dram and the general quality throughout their range is excellent. It is apt you mention the sherry casks as this does play an important part on the distillery tour. Highland Park, or the Edrington Group to be more specific, have bought their own Spanish forests and have arrangements with local sherry producers ensuring a stream of quality for Highland Park and Macallan.

    Going forward with whisky demand continuing to increase across the world and the issue of quality sherry casks becoming more significant, anything that can be done to ensure the sustainability of this natural resource is a must.

    I had the pleasure of tasting the entire Highland Park range. While I walked away with some new make spirit, I was tempted by the 10 year old (bottled specifically for the Dutch market) in a 35cl bottling. However the 2 stars for me were the 30 year old and the 21 year old (47% strength), which features some 30 and 40 year old Highland Park. The 40 year old I felt was starting to lose the battle with the cask. The 15 year old is the oddity in the core range with bourbon taking over the mix.

    Whenever I'm out, you can guarantee seeing a 12 year or 18 year Highland Park behind the bar and you know the reliability will be intact. The 12 year is often heavily discounted here and while you have looked back at your 2009 verdict; we continue to grow as whisky drinkers and the experiences and tastes develop as well.

    Orkney is a wonderful place to visit and Highland Park still uses it's own malting floor and it is only 1 of a handful of distilleries where its water source is hard water. These characteristics along with the rugged terrain all adds to the signature taste. I'd go back again in an instant!

  3. Nice one, Jason! Exactly the reason I still check in from time to time! I don't keep up with many whisky blogs anymore. I haven't bought any Highland Park 12 since the price went up, but now you made it tickle my fancy. It is on sale this month...


  4. Hi JK! I am surprised you are not a fan of HP 12, but to each his own, eh? I really marvel at the floral qualities of this malt that are so unique.

    Hello Raith! I envy your trip to Orkney. Eventually I will travel to Scotland and this is the number one distillery on my list. As for the 15 year old, yes bourbon casks dominate, and I must say I find it to be a delight. I am certainly in the minority as most people rave about the 18.

    Hello Ryan! Always nice to hear from you and I trust all is well. Yes, you should pick up some HP12 when it is on sale.

    As I write this, I am in New Hampshire and on a bit of a buying spree. With Bunnahabin 12 for $41 and and Laphroaig 18 for $71, I am pulled and torn. Picked up some George Dickel and more Old Grand-Dad bonded 100 proof for the grand old price of $14.99!!

    Thanks everyone for commenting!

  5. Great article. Allways a pleasure to read you.

  6. Yup, I feel the same way. It was a favorite of mine when I knew relatively little about whisky, and now that I know a hell of a lot more (and still relatively little), it remains one of my favorites. It's pretty much always my recommendation to some looking to spend $40 on Scotch, but not knowing quite what they want. I think it's slipped in a little over the years, but that's quibbling, it's still a fantastically high-quality whisky, especially for the money.

    Interestingly, I've led a few tastings where I was fairly sure HP12 would be everyone's favorite, and instead it was the least liked. That surprised me, but I think when you put it next to a simpler, sweetly sherried or bourbon-y Speysider, and a peaty Islay malt, it's subtler complexity actually works against it. Oh well...more for me, I guess.

    Great write-up as usual!

    1. Thank you for your comments. Always great to hear from you. I always enjoy your blog!

  7. As I suspected, fewer than half the comments so far are not entirely positive, and some are out-and-out negative about HP12. I must say I side with them...with so much diversity in scotch, I am bewildered why one might reach for HP12 over so many other comparably priced single malts. HP12 is tantamount to reaching for a ballpark it shares the same flavour profile. I tried it and tried it again...and kept coming back to the same dog...with character, but still...(I'm not at all offended by the 18 yr. old, well, except for the price), I usually steer away from Highland Park altogether... Recently picked up a Dun Bheagan 2003 for $40...smoke, mint, surf & turf and black jelly beans...together at last. Goes well with a real hot dog, too. Just my opinion. Really enjoy reading your blog, Jason. Keep it up.

    1. Hello Black Medallion!

      Some readers complain that Highland Park is not what it used to be. Me? All I notice is that a few years ago it seemed spicier than it is now, but as you can surmise, I am still clearly a big fan.

      But, you are finding this malt to be simply boring, ordinary as a ballpark frank. Wow! Never thought I would ever hear HP 12 described as ordinary. But hey, a lot of readers have chimed in with criticisms. Interesting.

      Thanks for your comments and welcome to the blog!

  8. Probably out of your reach Jason, but indie bottler Cadenheads has just released a 25 year old Highland Park, sherry butt at 55%. I felt press-ganged in the Cadenhead store but once I had tasted it, I knew I had to leave with some or else! I don't think this came as any surprise to the staff themselves either. Trumped any of the core expressions from the Magnus Eunson tour at the distillery. In fact the best dram I've had so far this year. £90 for a bottle or £28.50 for a third sized bottle.

    How is availability of indie bottlers in Canada or do you have to stick with official bottlings?

    1. Indie bottlers are not well distributed in Canada. About the only one I can get in some regularity is Gordon & MacPhail.

      I need a job where I frequent duty free shops. Maybe Highland Park needs a snarky global brand ambassador. . .

  9. Unfortunately, the last time I encountered moral courage to do the right thing in the workplace was a quarter of a century ago.

    what does it mean?...when you want to fired the secretary?

    1. As a young fool, all I could think of was my own advancement and I linked that to productivity. If I had a more efficient secretary, I could pump out more correspondence without having to check it. In that company, I billed for all time spent dictating correspondence. So there was a cost attached to correcting the errors of the secretary. That time could be spent billing more time.

      My boss was a man who could see the big picture and more importantly was not prepared to sacrifice minor inefficiencies in furtherance of the almighty dollar. Joan needed a job just as much as I did. Maybe in the course of a year, the inefficiencies she presented might add up to a few dollars, but he pointed out that everyone needs a job. It takes a certain kind of courage to put people first in the business world that I haven't seen since I worked for him.

      Another type of manager/vice-president might have tossed Joan to the unemployment lines while trumpeting that s/he saved the company 'x' dollars a year. These type of executives lack the courage to do the right thing on small issues like a secretary's livelihood and in turn lack the courage to do the right thing on larger issues (ie. while a merger might be profitable in terms of a golden parachute for him or her, it will result in massive lay-offs, that he or she could avert by not going ahead with the merger).

      Let me tell you another story about Rex. I think this will sum up what I am trying to get at.

      There was an employee who was not performing well in an outlying office. Some members of senior management felt the solution was to simply fire him. Rex's solution was to invite the employee to come to Toronto temporarily where he or someone qualified would retrain and give guidance to this guy so he would do a better job.

      You have no idea what kind of affect Rex's solution had on the morale of the few of us who knew what he proposed.

      Everyone needs a job. Nobody is perfect or will do it exactly how you want. The question is whether or not they do a decent job that overall is a benefit to the company.

      A great business person is someone who can do cost-cutting without cutting jobs, and can maybe create revenue from different areas.

      A good gesture by a guy like Rex can increase productivity much more than the short sighted decision of a lesser executive.

      My post is rather opaque on this point. Very good question. Thanks for asking!

  10. Well said. When you take out the disguise, in this world there are only three things the good ones (humans), the bad ones (lacras) and in the middle the assholes (people that doesn´t care what is wrong and what is right, cowards, weaks, indifferents). Thank you for choosing to be the good ones.

  11. Jason,

    I fall into the camp of HP12 fans. It wasn't the first whisky I ever liked, but it was the first I loved. Today, it's my go-to dram that I'm always happy to drink. I know that tastes differ (it's what makes whisky fun), but I can't think of another whisky I'd prefer for the money (around $43 where I live).

    By the way, your 2009 review was what originally turned me on to HP12. So it was great to read your re-review and see that you are still a big fan.

    - Josh

    1. Hi Josh!

      $43 a bottle! Ahh yeah! At that price it would be my go-to malt also. HP12 has got a lot going on that other 12yr olds dont.

      Thanks for commenting!

  12. Hi Jason,
    Finally had the chance to buy a bottle of the HP12... Lucky for me price went down to $60.
    Now... Having come from Laph QC and Aberlour a'bunadh territory down to Talisker & now the HP12... It's nice but... Maybe I was expecting more to it. It's hard to explain. Nose was great, Palate didn't hit the mark. A bit 'light'. But it had a nice long inoffensive finish.
    I look at my tastes as being towards the big Smokies and big Sherry Bombs. Hard to split those two.
    Back to the HP12. Sorry guys, but for me it'll be one to share with the brother-in-law & nephew. Gee.. Hope I'm not becomming too snobish over this...
    AL from OZ

    1. Hi Al,

      I think if you are very accustomed to Laph QC and Aberlour a'bendah, which are really big and robust single malts, almost anything else will taste lesser in an obvious sense.

      But try this experiment.

      Go a month with no whisky, and then try HP 12 and I think you will no longer be conditioned to expect the big ABV malt you were conditioned to enjoy, and you will be able to appreciate HP 12 better. And, I think you will really gain a better appreciation of HP.

      It's an experiment for a worthy cause!

  13. Funny you should say that Jason... That's exactly what I was think about. You must have ESP !! Ha Ha !! I don't want to give up on it on the back of a couple 'quick tastes' so I'll definitely do it and let you know. Hey... it'll take me a while to build up funds for the next bottle of goodness knows what, so perfect timing. Any suggestions ?
    thanks again.


  14. Well the experiment worked Jason. I also started using a different glass for tasting... I sat nosing the HP 12 for ages. I won't say no to drinking it again, but there are others I want to try first.

    1. Glad to hear a little experimentation worked out. What a noble endeavour eh?

  15. Indeed mate....indeed... much apreciated.
    And if I don't speak to you beforehand Have a very merry christmas !!

  16. Hi Jason, been a couple years since I commented here (we talked about Irish whiskey a bit a few years ago in the comments). Just wanted to say I picked this up today and am really enjoying it so far. I had it on a Christmas wish list including the 18 after seeing your reviews of both. I ended up buying the 12 for myself today since the price was right. Oh, in case you're curious, I actually ended up receiving the Lagavulin 16 from my wife for Christmas which I really like.

  17. At the time, Joan probably needed her job a bit more than you did, Jason. Good on ya for coming around to see the bigger picture. Re-reading this review (and your expansion in the 4/15/13 follow-up comment) makes me a little misty eyed. You have a big heart - and that seems to be an increasingly rare quality these days.

    Anyway, on to the whisky!
    There are two big chain stores fighting for market share in the Houston area right now, and lately the prices of spirits have been falling across the board. HP 12 is now going for $33-35.00 and not having sampled it for a while (it had averaged $50+ just a few months ago) I picked up a bottle from each chain to see if the quality is consistent - I've noticed some variability in past years. Sure enough, the two bottles are not the same. Neither one is "bad", but one is noticeably superior to the other, with a more floral nose and better overall complexity. Both show the same 43% ABV on the label, so it has to be something else. Not putting this fault with Highland Park necessarily, as it's entirely possible the lesser bottle might have sat in a metal shipping container at the Port of Houston for a few days last summer in 100++ degree temps. Come to think of it, that might explain some of the inconsistent quality I've noticed in other brands of Scotch. Hmm...

    In any case, at $35.00 this is a good buy. Incidentally, Glenmorangie 10 is now priced at $30.00 and Laphroaig 10 at $33.00. Even Springbank has dropped @ $10.00 or so. Time to stock up!

    - Paul M.

    1. Hi Paul!

      Your comments are very timely. I have a bottle of Highland Park 12 on the go for the purposes of a youtube review and I still find it to be an excellent single malt. I am particularly impressed with that signature heather/floral complexity that this bottle delivers.

      Thanks for the kind words!

      Hope you had a great Thanksgiving!


  18. Likewise! Looking forward to the review.

    - Paul M.

    1. Here's the you tube review:

  19. Jason,coming back to this post accidentally in 2018, I think it's still one of your best. Cheers from your fervent reader from CzechRep!

    1. Thanks! I will try to post something soon. Just been so busy!