The other side of Kirkwall
TL; DR: The second day on Orkney was dedicated to visiting historical sites like the Ring of Brodgar and the incredible village of Skara Brae. On the third day, we finally managed to visit Highland Park distillery. It was a very interesting and in-depth tour (mostly thanks to the outstanding guide, James), however followed by a disappointing tasting, which made the overall experience mostly a tourist trap.
(missed Part 1?)
On the second day on Orkney, we decided to put on hold our whisky curiosity and focus on the history of the island instead. After a brief run to the foot of Wideford hill, shower and breakfast, we left the camping westward. First, we visited the quite spectacular standing stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. Fortunately, it was a sunny day, albeit very windy, we even spotted a sunbathing seal!
Around lunch, we moved on to Skara Brae. This is one of the sites we liked the most in Scotland, so far. Reading about the discovery of this 5,000-year old village was very interesting, as well as finding out about all the insights on the life of our ancestors. Being a nice day, we also took advantage of the splendid view on the beach just behind the site. After our visit, we drove first to the nearby Orkney brewery, not in time to enjoy a beer there but still in time to buy some for dinner. This was after a stop at Birsay beach, where the splendid landscape was saddened by the presence of a half-dozen dead seabirds: avian flu striking again. Back at the camping, it was grilling time! The only thing we did not account for was the number of midges assaulting us: the food intake was barely enough to compensate for the blood loss (sorry, we like to be dramatic…)!
On the third day, it was finally Highland Park time. Our friends Roberto and Cecilia are not whisky nerds, but they enjoy a dram once in a while, so they were very keen to visit the distillery. Because kids below a certain age are not allowed, we had to do the tour in two shifts so that there’d always be someone with the wee one: first, Teresa and Gianluigi, later Roberto and Cecilia. Our friends opted for the basic (but not cheap) one: Honour and Pride (and prejudice?) experience (30 quid, 3 drams). After excluding the two high-end offers (eye-watering price of 125 and 325 quid), we chose the upgraded Wild Harmony Experience, 75 quid with 5 drams, placing it as one of the most expensive tours we ever did… actually THE most expensive (unfortunately, the price jumped from 60 to 75 around May). Because of this, and of the history of the distillery, we had great expectations.
They picked us up at the St. Magnus cathedral, in Kirkwall centre, saving us the 15-20 mins walk to the distillery’s gate. Our tour guide was James, a true whisky geek and expert, who didn’t limit himself to answering all the questions, but went above and beyond to provide more context and deeper explanations. The tour started with a short video, during which we tasted their most basic expression, the HP 10y (40%, chill filtered, but according to them not artificially coloured, available in supermarkets). After that, we moved on to the distillery, starting with the malting floor: similar to other distilleries we visited (so far Laphroaig, Kilchoman, Glen Garioch, Benriach and Balvenie), they malt some of their barley in house (about 20%), using peat from Orkney, resulting in a quite distinctive flavour compared to Islay or Highland peat.
The distillery has a very interesting history, and a curious layout, almost like a tiny village. It was founded in 1798 and now it belongs to the Edrington group, with a production of 2.5 millions litre per annum. They used to fill almost exclusively ex-sherry cask, although now they have several ex-bourbon cask expressions (the 10y, 15y and the Full Volume).
The tasting took place in the Eunson room, named after the founder, above the visitor centre. To our surprise, the line-up was actually the core range: the widely available 12y (40% abv), the new 15y in the ceramic bottle (44% abv), the 18y (43% abv), and the 21y (2019 bottling, 46% abv). Except for the 21y, which was really good (but unfortunately overpriced at 240 pound), the others were OK drams: not dislikeable, but quite inoffensive as well. At the end, they gave us a bunch of (quite unnecessary) gifts: other than the usual glass, a booklet about the distillery (OK as well we guess…but what are we going to do with two of these?), the (n-th) tote bag and a postcard-size frame with a tour attendance certificate (probably more of a gullibility certificate for having spent 75 quid each on this tour).
We were hopeful until the end, but nope: no distillery exclusive or limited bottling in the tasting. Back to the shop, we spotted a couple of interesting expressions that we thought could be a good buy: a 10y bottled at 46% (ambassador choice) and a cask strength bottled to raise money for a local rowing club, both around the £60 mark. We didn’t even bother to ask for the distillery exclusive: 170 quid for a 14y cask strength seemed a bit ridiculous (at the SMWS you can them for less than half of this), while the Full Volume at £80 was definitely overpriced for a non-age statement whisky (probably you pay for the Marshall amplifier shaped box…Gianlugi always preferred Orange and Fender). We asked if we could purchase a dram of the two. We were told it was not allowed because they are an off-sale only (so…what about the 5 drams they had just given us? Mystery), but we could try them at the shop in Kirkwall. Once down at the shop, they said the same, but that we could try at the Kirkwall Hotel’s bar. At the hotel, of course, they did not have those 2 drams. We went back to the shop, asking them again, but no chance we could try.
(rant mode: on)
We like to be positive in our posts, but seriously: how detached from reality do you have to be to think that whisky enthusiasts would prefer the bag of cra…ehm, unnecessary gifts to, for example, some more limited/special drams?
We usually like vertical tastings, but in this case it was very poor value for money. We were OK with getting the 12y, as it is their flagship, but the inclusion of the 10y as well was not great, as it is a mostly supermarket release (please don’t misinterpret us: the single malt selection in most supermarkets in Scotland is far better than some liquor shops in other countries, we just found strange to get that after travelling all the way to distillery). Not only the tour was super-expensive for no apparent reason (no samples from the cask, or distillery bottling, or some limited-edition release) but the fact that you couldn’t try try any other drams at the distillery nor at the shop was almost ridiculous. We believe that the only reason they can get away with it is the hordes of tourists from the cruise ships, which guarantee them some cash flow no-matter-what.
Ironically, the more basic tour was definitely better value for money: our friends did a very similar tour (albeit, not with James), and they still got to try the 12y and 18y, but instead of the 10y they got the Full Volume release. So, if you want to tick off Highland Park from the distillery list, the Honour and Pride tour is the one to go for.
As for the whisky itself, thanks to the SMWS, Cadenhead’s, Watt Whisky and other independent bottlers, we know how good Highland Park can be, so the offer at the distillery was a bit disappointing. This is a shame for all the nice people working there, first and foremost the guide James, which was one of the best ones we ever had.
(rant mode: off)
Anyway, not being able to buy a bottle at Highland Park left us with a problem: no Orcadian whisky for the rest of the trip! Gianluigi solved the situation by getting a Douglas Laing blended malt Rock Island form the local CoOp: not only very tasty (and not-chill filtered and bottled at 46%), but also with some Highland Park in it, so 2 birds with one stone and a great value for money!
The day after we explored the east: a wee coffee break at the Deerness gin distillery (soon to produce single malt), a stroll in the Gloup reserve, and a stop at the J Gow rum distillery, on our way to the Italian Chapel. We went to the shop, and guess what: they let us try their (quite delicious) rums before buying!
We really liked Orkney: we expected a quieter and eerie place, more similar to some areas in the north of the Highlands with mosses and peat bogs. Instead, it turned out to be a lovely, very rural landscape. Next time we’ll definitely try to cross to the other islands as well, but for a first taste it was a great visit!
Until next time, slainte!
Highland Park: A Wild Harmony Experience
Price: £75.00 pp (August 2022)
Tasting: 5 drams from the core range, 10y (40% abv) 12y (40% abv), 15y (44% abv), 18y (43% abv), and 21y (2019 bottling, 46% abv), probably all chill-filtered (but according to our guide, no artificial colour added)
Target: Gullible whisky enthusiasts
Value for money: Quite bad
Highlights: our guide James was outstanding, chapeu!
Things we did not like: see rant above
Distillery exclusive: 14y single cask (£170)
Bonus: Highland Park Honour and Pride Experience (thanks to Roberto and Cecilia)
Price: £30 (August 2022)
Duration: 1h 15m
Tasting: 3 drams, Full Volume (48% abv NAS), 12y (40% abv) and 18y (43% abv)
Value for money: Acceptable
Recommended: Only if you want to visit the distillery really badly