Monday, January 6, 2014

Review: Highland Park 10 years Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Will you do me a really big favor?  I want you to click on the above link and just listen while you read the rest of this post.

What do you hear?

A strong, toe tapping, knee slapping, R&B song with powerfully suggestive guttural vocals, simple, but effective horn work, coupled with torso grinding drums, bass, and an irrepressible guitar?  Me too!

No matter how much the vocals try to dominate, the singer is outshined by the guitarist.  In fact, the vocals on this track are not the original.  This original recording was made in 1966 and before the song was released (sometime after 1970), a decision was made to overdub the original singer with the one you hear today: Billy Lamont.  Why would they do that?  The artist and producer who released this recording felt the original vocals were too weak.

In spite of the well done vocals overdub, when I listen to this track, I can't help but fixate and groove on the guitar work.  For me, the singer is just another background instrument.  The guitarist's talent is undeniable and can't be ignored.  There is genius beneath the off-handed style of play that serves up those rough hewn, raw, bluesy chords and staccato notes.  This genius and magical talent is not fully mature, but holds great promise for the future.

Listening to Sweet Thang brought to mind my recent tasting of Highland Park, aged 10 years.


Nose (undiluted)
Salty sea air, peaty, and some muted sherry.  Very pleasant.

Palate (undiluted)
Light, thin taste of green grapes, wide planks of American oak, Granny Smith green apples, very muted sherry notes, salted honey, and then the faint unmistakable aromatic peat and heather that are the signature taste of Highland Park.  The unique taste of the distillery is here, but it is faint, or more aptly put: weak and immature.

Finish (undiluted)
Minty, malty, wee red licorice, pencil shavings, oak, all enveloped in the mildest of pleasant cigar smoke.  Think White Owl or Century Sam.  $1 cigars that are your guilty pleasure.  And, then comes some stale oak and wasabi that leaves you disappointed.

General Impressions
What do Sweet Thang and Highland Park 10 have in common?  Why does listening to one harken the other?  There is undeniable and riveting genius in both.  In the former there is fascinating guitar playing that was unheard of anywhere else in 1966.  In the latter there is that signature aromatic peat and heather that makes nearly all offerings from Highland Park magical.  The guitarist has near total mastery of his stringed instrument and similarly there is unquestionable magnificence and beauty lurking beneath the surface of Highland Park 10.  The problem for both is that their respective brilliance is youthful and in need of further development.  The guitarist and the malt need to age a little more.  In the case of Highland Park 10, two more years in the cask is what is needed to unleash the malt splendor that lurks in the form of the great Highland Park 12.  With respect to the guitarist, he would only need one more year of musical journeyman maturation before erupting upon the world music scene at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival.

Jimi Hendrix performing in 1967 at Monterey 

Highland Park make beautiful whiskies.  In the past I have enjoyed them all.  It was and remains one of my favorite Scotch distilleries.  That said, Highland Park 10 years disappoints.  It is thin in taste (40% ABV!) and falls far short of the usual high standards that all whisky offerings from this distillery typically exhibit.  It hints at greatness that it fails to deliver.  You taste some great sherry notes, but they are faint and out of focus.  There is nothing offensive in drinking this single malt, as there is nothing particularly flavorful.  It suffers from mediocrity.  Dare I say Highland Park has truly gone mainstream with this new release?  It seems to be an attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator.  This malt only reaches for the low hanging fruit.

I am unsure why they would launch a ten year old having such a great stable of landmark single malts like the 12 and the 18.  Maybe they are trying to provide a very gentle introduction for whisky newbies to the distillery.  If so, I would hardly call the price point "entry level."  In Canada, it is $60.  For an entry level single malt of this quality, it should be priced at $40.

There is a disturbing trend lately among single malt and blended Scotch whisky producers to lower or even drop age statements entirely.  Macallan has done so and on the blended side of the business, Johnnie Walker brand no longer carries an age statement for the Gold label.  Some industry observers chock this development up to scarcity of wood, casks and giant demand outstripping the ability to supply.  I suspect that those are factors coupled with the desire to enhance profits too.  I will never know what caused the owners of the Highland Park brand to launch a 10 year old this year, but what I do know is that it does not deserve the hard won reputation of other releases from this great distillery.


Jason Debly

P.S.  A word about the recording at the top of this post.  Like most musicians, Jimi Hendrix spent his early career playing as a guitarist in backing bands of well known and some not so well known R&B artists like:  Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, Wilson Picket, Curtis Knight, Chuck Berry and many others.  A complete list is here.

There is some debate as to whether or not the above studio recording was a Curtis Knight or Lonnie Youngblood composition and release.  One site claims the recording was done in a studio in 1966 in NYC.  Lonnie Youngblood is identified as the composer and playing the horns and the artist in charge of the recording.  Hendrix was at that time playing with anyone whether as a studio session guitarist or otherwise.  I have no doubt that it is him playing guitar.  After Hendrix died (1970) the recording was released by Youngblood and his producer who decided to overdub the vocals with those of Billy Lamont.

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This post may contain copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my artistic, social commentary, educational and entertainment efforts. I know that my use of any such copyrighted material constitutes a 'fair use' as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this post is made without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest.

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2014. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission with the exception of the photograph of Jimi Hendrix or the Sweet Thang composition appearing at the beginning of this post. I do not know own the rights to the photograph or song and unfortunately do not know who is the photographer or the rights holder of Sweet Thang. The photograph and song is used here purely for entertainment and educational purposes. No attempt is made to profit from it.


  1. Thanks Jason,
    It sounds similar to a Aus whiskey I just bought and sampled on the weekend I'll give it a week or two and have another go... Starward is the name of this Victorian youngster and your comments could be made for this one. I could have bought a nice older drop for the same price...nearly $80 (AU). Give it a few more years and it will be good. And thanks to your advise last year I would stick with the HP12 in a heartbeat and over $10 less to boot. Maybe they were trying smaller casks... who knows...
    Keep the word coming mate ... Oh, and Happy New Year !!

    AL (from Aus)

  2. Bloody hell Edrington, hope we don't see this with Highland Park on our side of the pond. Mind you, it would follow form, given what they've done with the lower level Macallan.
    I agree with you about this type of new release. Scotch trades heavily on reputation, and these excuses about production shortfalls and wood shortages are trying to mask a drive for profit in newer markets in which reputation has been sacrificed in the name of extra production capacity.
    Looks like you took one for the team Jason!

    1. At times like these, I really wish I had a friend, a source, a rogue who would tell me the real deal as to how and why these decisions are made.

      As you have pointed out, Edrington also own the Macallan brand and have discontinued the age statement releases in favor of a color code labeling along the lines of what Diageo do with the Johnnie Walker brand.

      As with all businesses, I suspect there are real tensions between the craftsman and the suits. While the short sighted bean counters may prevail in the short term, if they do enough damage to a brand's reputation, it is the craftsman (blenders, master distillers, coopers, etc) who are left to resurrect the brand.

    2. If I ever get on the inside, I'll pass you the lot. Incidentally, don't know if you've ever seen the film Defence of The Realm? Not a bad low budget film, and one of my favourites. Something for a winter evening, maybe to help one finish a bland whisky.

      God knows I wish I had something that would help with this blasted Mac!

    3. Thanks for the film suggestion. I will look it up. Currently, I am working my way through many of Steve McQueen's films like Bullitt, The Getaway, Sand Pebbles, The Great Escape and others. Also saw Lemans which I thoroughly enjoyed for its minimalist dialogue.

      But, tonight I am watching The Deep from I think 1976. I am sure Jacqueline Bisset can distract me from the pain of Highland Park 10!

  3. Jason, Clever review, well done sir ! The surprise comes at the end when the whisky is seen a little dull. I'll have to ask the HP fans in our group to hand carry this into the US again, as it's not been imported for retail just yet, Heard previously it was a nice HP (with less sherry and a more evident floral peat note), one attractively priced in Belgium (24 euros). Cheers, JK

    1. HP 10 is a disappointment and I fear that they are test marketing it with a view to maybe discontinuing the 12.

    2. Jason, I suspect that the pressure (sales targets, profit margins) to sell more whisky in this growing market is very high, and will lead to many decisions like the one you fear is coming at HP. It's comforting though that many producers are releasing young whiskies of very high quality: Glendronach 8 Octarine, Talisker Storm, Benromach Traditional, Caol Ila Moch, Ardbeg Ten, Arran 10, Laphroaig An Cuan Mor and Quarter Cask - to name several. The production costs and price point seems the thing: the best examples I names ain't cheap.

  4. I am disappointed in HP for floating substandard whisky out there. I am happy I bought several cases of the 12 YO several years ago for $25 per bottle. Distilleries may never see another dollar from me again if this trend to release NAS and young garbage continues.

  5. Dear Jason, this is exactly why I like your blog so much. Very refreshing piece. Happy New Year & greetings from Prague!

    1. I can read the Malt Advocate or Whisky Magazine and be bored or read Jason's blog and be entertained. The decision is easy.

  6. Great read, the music reference I really enjoyed. Highland Park 10 is my first introduction with Highland and I bought it togheter with a Talisker 10 and Caol Ila 12. Well... HP10 will be my 'weekday' malt, not bad, not good, just alright.

    1. When you get the chance, try to pick up a bottle of Highland Park 12. A great classic single malt with a unique delivery of toffee, smoke and caramel flavors.

  7. I find this sort of thing strangely disturbing. I love Highland Park, and the 12 yr old is my typical evening scotch and the 15 yr old on the good days. What bugs me about this is that once you start a downward trend it tends to pull everything down. I would hate to see the distillery, in some misguided attempt to gain market share, to compromise it's name, reputation and most important the quality of it's whiskey overall. Plus it would mean I would have to start searching again for a go to scotch all over again. I still curse JW for the loss of the green label line, not sure I could take this as well...

  8. Hi Jason! Have you tried the 1990/1991 retail editions? What's your take on them? Are they worth shelling out USD160?

    1. I have tried the 1991 Highland Park that I think came from Duty Free. It was excellent. Amazing. Not sure if that is the same thing you are referring to.

      $160USD is very steep though. For that price you could have almost two HP 18yr olds. From a value for money proposition, I would spend the same amount of money on two HP 18s or maybe one 15yr and one 18yrs.

    2. Yes. Here in OZ a 1990/1991 duty free retail edition is retailing at about 145 AUD, while the HP18 is about 10 AUD more, at 159 AUD (although they're having a discount now at 125AUD).

    3. Say no more! You know which one I would buy!

  9. I've dropped HP totally with the huge price increases over the last two years. The 12 went from $35 to $55, the 15 from $55 to $75, and 18 from $85 to $105. I really like the 15 and 18, but not at these prices, so they've lost my money. And don't get me started on Macallan! Good luck with your high-priced NAS color scheme, but I'll NEVER buy any of it. In fact, my dollars have been going to bourbon lately, which has really good prices for very good quality whiskies.

    1. Robert, I agree that the jumps in price are painful to the point that you have to question whether or not you are getting value for money.

      Macallan has always been over priced as far as I am concerned and therefore I never buy it.

      Highland Park in the 5-7 yrs has experienced tremendous demand in India and the Far East. Demand far outstrips supply and so prices have soared. Where I live the 18 is around $125, a jump from $85 to $125 in one year. Needless to say, I never buy HP18 where I live anymore.

      Distribution of HP15 has been dramatically restricted. It has been pulled from the Canadian market entirely and distribution in the US is limited to a few states.

      Last year the distillery launched HP10 years which I think is a huge disappointment given the price. It is thin and lacking the signature toffee and heather notes.

      On the Highland Park website I see more and more no age statement expressions like: Dark Origins and the Warrior Series.

      Years ago, there was no great marketing push behind HP. You just had a great, magical Scotch at a reasonable price. While all the show-offs were paying too much for Macallan, I and others in the know were getting HP. But over time others caught on and so what was once almost a secret pleasure became the latest in vogue whisky.

      Now, every new release is accompanied by some ridiculous panel board story of Vikings and what not. and the price is sharper than any Norseman's sword.

      As for bourbon, I agree that it is one category of great quality whiskies at reasonable prices. The other for you to consider is Canadian whisky. Canadian whiskies have a come a long way from Segrams 7 and Crown Royal (I like the latter). A lot of powerful and attractive whiskies are being produced in Canada that are headed for the US market. Even Whistle Pig is produced in Canada, but bottled in Vermont. A great Canadian whisky. Highly recommended!

      Anyhow, Robert, I feel your pain. Hang in there.