Last week we were invited to the launch of a new series of whiskies from the award-winning Highland Park distillery. The distillery is located on the Orkney islands, which sit just off the northernmost tip of the Scottish mainland, and the islands are rich in Nordic heritage dating back to ancient times. It is this heritage that the brand are increasingly tapping in to. Following on from previous releases, such as Thor and the travel retail exclusives of Leif Eriksson and Drakkar, comes this new range of six single malts - the Warrior Series.
Highland Park is the most northern whisky distillery in Scotland. It is found close to the Orkneys' capital of Kirkwall and is one of only two distilleries on the islands (Scapa being the other). Highland Park has grown to be one of the best selling and most highly awarded single malt whisky ranges in the world. It is currently owned by the Edrington Group and has an annual production capacity of 2.5 million litres. Highland Park is also one of the oldest whisky distilleries in Scotland and was established in 1798 by Magnus Eunson, who was known as the 'whisky priest' because he was allegedly a priest by day and an illegal whisky distiller by night.
The launch for the Warriors Series was held in the cold and slightly eerie surroundings of the crypt under St. Andrews Holborn church in the City of London. The reason for this was that Magnus Eunson apparently used to hide his illegally made whisky in the crypt of Kirkwall cathedral to escape the prying eyes of visiting Customs & Excise men. The crypt was set with red lighting, which silhouetted the brooding figures of the six statuesque Viking warriors after which the whiskies were named. These figures came to life as their respective whisky was introduced.
The evening was hosted by Gerry Tosh, Highland Park's Global Marketing Manager, and he explained that the Warrior Series was designed to showcase the distillery at its best,
“The Warrior Series is a natural progression for Highland Park, both in brand terms and in global travel retail. By continuing the celebration of our rich and distinctive Norse heritage we are able to tell stories which bring the brand and its products to life. To further this evolution, the whisky maker has crafted six individual whiskies which collectively offer drinkers a new style of taste journey, still classically Highland Park from start to finish, but giving them a different and holistic experience.”
The six whiskies will be exclusive to the European travel retail market initially, with the first three expressions - named Svein, Harald and Einar - released very shortly and three further expressions appearing later in 2013. These are named Sigurd, Ragnvald and Thorfinn. All are named after real figures from Nordic history with connections to Orkney, with each being depicted by a characteristic icon which is featured on their respective bottle labels.
All of the Warriors Series carry no age statements or vintages, but clearly contain more older components as you progress through the range. This is reflected in the prices, which start at €40 for Svein and finish at €1000 for Thorfinn. The range begins with a heavy influence of ex-American oak casks at the lower price range, and this changes to include higher percentages of ex-European and Spanish oak casks as you progress through the series. But what do they taste like? ...
This whisky kicks off the series and is scheduled to cost €40 for a one litre bottle at 40% ABV. It is approximately 90% ex-American oak and 10% ex-European oak, and is named after Svein, one of the central characters mentioned in the legendary Nordic book Orkneyinga Saga. This book charts the journeys and innovations of the Nordic people and warriors in and around Orkney. Svein was a great adventurer and his whisky is symbolised by a drinking horn given to him at birth.
The colour is golden yellow and the nose is full of soft earthy smoke and vanilla and honey aromas. There are also hints of wood spice, cereals and orange oil. The palate is delicious - a mix of woody, spicy notes (think of cinnamon, nutmeg and freshly sawn oak) along with honey, vanilla, burnt caramel and some dried fruits, particularly sultana and tangy candied orange. The soft earthy smokiness is again prominent and knits everything together. The finish is long with the sweeter notes fading to leave the oaky and smoky notes. This turned out to be the smokiest of the range and seems a bargain.
This whisky is named after a particularly nasty character called Einar. He was the joint Earl of Orkney in 1014 and was well known for going on long exploratory journeys and not being very nice to those that he came in to contact with on his travels. He also killed his younger brother to obtain some land using an axe, which is depicted on his whisky label. Einar is bottled at 40% ABV and will retail for €53 for a one litre bottle.
The whisky is again golden yellow and is immediately a little feistier on the nose - there is a mix of aromatic wood spices (think of cinnamon, cedarwood and oak), vanilla, malty cereals, golden syrup and a whiff of earthy smoke. On the palate, these elements are replicated with notes of syrup and wood spice prominent. There is a note of fruitiness that develops - it begins with a tropical edge (think of dried pineapple) but moves to be more citrus-like and made us think of candied lemon zest. The smoke also lingers around in to the finish which again has the syrupy sweet notes, along with some nutmeg and vanilla.
This will be retailing at €75 for a 70cl bottle at a strength of 40% ABV. It is named after Harald Fairhair, the King of Norway, who set up the Orkney earldom and was one of the founding pioneers of spreading the Vikings and their heritage around the northern hemisphere and developing their army. His whisky carries a shield motif to reflect this.
The whisky is golden yellow with an orangey amber tint and the nose is instantly fruitier than the previous two. There are aromas of raisins, candied orange and fresh red berries, along with some vanilla, soft baking spices, warming earthy ginger and a whiff of very gentle peat smoke. On the palate, this feels viscous and rich with the elements from the nose combining to give a lovely depth and complexity. It feels like all of those elements have been mixed up in a cake and then presented to you in a glass, although the baking spices do seem a little more prominent. The finish is long and lingering with a particularly woody and spicy edge to proceedings, with the earthy ginger and delicate peat smoke putting in one last appearance.
The three whiskies that are to be released later in 2013 - Sigurd, Ragnvald and Thorfinn - have been made but are currently undergoing a marrying process up in Scotland. To this end, there are no bottles, packaging or final details for us to pass on as yet. However we were lucky enough to get to taste a few sips of each of the three which Gerry and the team had siphoned off for us. The prices are still hazy but it looks like the top of the range Thorfinn will retail around the €1000 mark. We have discovered that Sigurd will be bottled at 43% ABV, Ragnvald at 44.6% ABV and Thorfinn at 45.1% ABV.
The Warrior Series is a lovely range of whiskies and one which shows the complexity, depth and nuances of Highland Park. The six whiskies are of high quality and are well positioned to cater for a variety of tastes and wallet size. If we had to pick a favourite then it would be difficult, but probably between the entry-level Svein and the little sip of the Sigurd that we had later on.