The Grape & The Grain: ‘Scotch and Scotch’ on Orkney


On Orkney, it’s all about being self-sufficient. When it comes to living on an island, if the boat doesn’t come in or if the weather turns bad then you’ve got to be able to look after yourself and your neighbours.

That spirit of self-sufficiency is definitely in evidence at the Highland Park whisky distillery on the hill above Kirkwall. Here, the distillers still malt their own barley, as opposed to buying in malted barley from one of the larger maltings as most distilleries do nowadays. Malting their own barley means they can use sweet Orcadian peat, which gives Highland Park its famous smoky flavours.

Self-sufficiency for the distillery also means being in control of the oak casks it uses to mature its whiskies. While many distilleries will import ex-bourbon barrels from the United States, Highland Park instead opts for traditionally-shaped casks – like butts, puncheons and hogsheads – which it seasons with dry olosoro sherry.

Some of its casks are made from Spanish oak, which gives the whiskies their dried fruit and spicy characteristics, while the others are constructed from American oak, which imparts sweeter vanilla and butterscotch flavours.

The influence of the different types of wood was highlighted to me recently in one of the distillery’s tasting rooms during a trip to Orkney. Daryl Haldane, Highland Park’s global brand advocate, laid out samples of seven of its whiskies on a long wooden table, made from part of an old mash tun.

Haldane explained that about 70 per cent of the flavours found in a bottle of whisky come from the oak casks, highlighting the importance of picking the right wood for the right job.

The influence of the European oak casks was on show in the distillery’s classic 12-year-old whisky, which gave me flavours of apricots, honey and that familiar smoke. About 60 per cent of the Scotch that goes into the 18-year-old bottling is aged in first-fill Spanish casks, delivering flavours of apricot, fruit cake, honey and orange, with an oily and creamy texture and a subtle bit of peaty smoke on the finish.

The 25 year old also takes its influence from European wood, with sweeter cherry and dark chocolate notes coming to the fore with age, along with fruit cakes flavours and a slighter hotter and more spicy finish.

In the other part of the tasting it was the American wood that dominated, with fudge, toffee and vanilla flavours coupled with spicy notes of cloves and white pepper in he 15 year old. About 30 or 40 per cent of the casks that are blended to produce this single malt are made from first-fill American oak.

Heat and spice were also on show with the 21 year old, with some coconut and lime notes showing up among the orange and vanilla flavours and the creamy and buttery mouth-feel.

The 30 year old was even more complex, with flavours of almonds, marzipan, limes, mandarins, fudge and toffee mingled in with hot and spicy notes and a dry finish.

A slow maturation in 100 per cent refilled American oak has produced a spectrum of flavours in the 40 year old, which showed fruit cake, raisin, sultana, sherry, smoke, orange, apricot and mandarin on the nose and then the full range of orange, vanilla, fruit and spice notes on the palate.

Visiting Orkney coincided with the launch of the distiller’s latest expression, Dark Origins, which commemorates Magnus Eunson, Highland Park’s founder, who was a church beadle by day and a whisky smuggler by night. The new Scotch gave all the expected cream, honey, smoke and vanilla aromas on the nose, and then some delicious orange peel, caramel and spicy clove and white pepper flavours on the palate.

An incredibly interesting tasting, which showed how both wood and age can effect the whisky. If the storms did roll in then I certainly wouldn’t mind becoming self sufficient with a bottle of 40-year-old Highland Park.

Self-sufficiency was also the order of the day on a visit to Netherton, which was named Scotch Beef farm of the year in 2013 by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), the government agency that markets Scotch Beef, Scotch Lamb and Specially Selected Pork.

Alistair and Anne Foubister have about 120 suckler cows on their farm, home-breeding their replacement stock and growing their own winter feed. They keep their own bulls on the farm and have even erected solar panels to produce some of their own electricity.

Alistair jokes that he keeps Aberdeen Angus because he likes the look of black cows against green fields and, as we drove about his farm, it was hard to argue with his taste in colours. His stock looked fantastic in the summer’s sun.

Orcadian farms have also been at the forefront of protecting their livestock against diseases, forging a hard-earned reputation for outstanding meat.

And quality meat was certainly on the mind of Laurent Vernet, a Frenchman who is head of marketing at QMS and who laid on a Scotch Beef tasting on Orkney.

He explained the difference between ‘Scottish beef’ – which needs to have been born, raised and slaughtered in Scotland – and ‘Scotch Beef’, which carries a protected geographical indication (PGI) from the European Union and which not only has to come from Scotland but also have been fed on traditional feeds – that’s mostly grass – and meet quality assurance standards.

Laurent has trained his palate to pick up on flavours in the meat – such as metallic notes – that can tell him if the beast from which his steak has come was a male or female. Only heifers – females that have not had a calf – and steers – castrated males – can be sold as Scotch Beef.

As a Highlander, I’m naturally a big fan of beef – and steak in particular – but meeting Laurent and Alistair heightened my appreciation of the huge amount of effort that goes into rearing cattle, rounding off an enjoyable tour of Orkney’s ‘Scotch and Scotch’.

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