A few years ago I was invited to a special event at one of Scotland’s most prominent distilleries and handed a glass of 74-year-old whisky for a toast. My excitement over tasting something so rare and so old was quickly muted the second I took a sip — it tasted like licking the inside of a barrel, and not in a positive way. Instead of savoring the dram all night, I instead started looking for a way to discreetly dispose of my glass.
Really old whisky is a challenge. Barrel aging can create vanilla and buttery flavors and add tannins and spice, giving the whisky that characteristic flavor we all know and love. The longer you leave a whisky in the barrel; however, the more whisky you end up giving to the “angels” through evaporation. Leave it in too long, and you can also get too much of that barrel flavor, which is what happened to that 74-year-old release I had to discreetly trash.
That’s why I was surprised — really surprised — by how fresh and flavorful Highland Park’s 54-Year-Old offering is.
“This whisky began life in ten refill casks,” Highland Park Master Whisky Maker, Gordon Motion told me over a dram. “They’ve probably come forward for development into the 18-year old and we thought No, too light, we won’t use them’
Since Highland Park doesn’t add coloring to whisky, there was concern that using the lighter whisky would impact the color of the 18-year-old and make it appear too light. The only issue is, the barrels in question never really got darker.
“After 40 years of that, you say ‘We’re going to have to use them at some point,’ says Motion. “They weren’t woody, they had just developed a really light ethereal character.”
“We took ten of these casks and put them together and then put them back in first-fill sherry casks, and they sat there for the last 14 years,” Motion says. “We have a small number of these sherry casks, and each one of them is going a different direction. This is a whisky out of one of those casks.”
As for how it tastes, there are fragrant notes of lychee and jasmine with a hint of Turkish Delight and rose in it as well. That gives way to a spicy undertone with notes of ground cumin and crushed coriander seeds and it has a smoky, spicy finish. It’s good — really good.
When I asked why the brand went for a 54-Year-Old vs a 53 or even a 60. The reasoning in part had to do with having a special bottle to celebrate the brand’s birthday. It turned 225 this year. It also had to do with how fast each cask was maturing.
“I didn’t want to go too far with that cask,” Motion says. “That one was developing slightly faster than the others.”
Motion says that if it had been left in the oak casks much longer it would have likely taken on a lot more oak and gotten a little bit more bitter, putting it more in the camp of that 74-year-old I had a few years ago.
“By using the first fill, which I think is a little more than clever, you bring it back to its youth,” he says.
“The 40 years of basically just slow oxidation gave you that real ethereal perfume character.” Martin Markvardsen, Global Senior Brand Ambassador for Highland Park says. “They were really nice whiskies, but Highland Park is natural color and people will expect the whisky to be darker.”
To get that color, the decision was made to continue aging them, but in different casks.
“European oak casks, they’re the ones that give you most of the color. Good American Oak Sherry casks will give you sort of the middle ground. Bourbon casks give you pretty much nothing in the way of color. They’re very light,” Motion says. “The choice was to put them in first-fill European sherry just to try and develop that color.”
When they did, they had no idea what the whisky would ultimately become.
“Fourteen years ago there wasn’t a 54-year-old. We didn’t know that,” Motion says. “It was probably going to be for 40-year-old or potentially 50 — we’re just lucky it was still there.”
Highland Park released 225 bottles of the whisky to represent the distillery’s 225th Anniversary. Each bottle is priced at $54,000, $1000 for each year it spent in the barrel at Highland Park’s Orkney distillery.