17-Year Cask Strength Single Barrel Single Malt from “An Orkney Distillery”

AN ORKNEY DISTILLERY SINGLE MALT SCOTCH
Barreled by ??? in August 2003 and bottled under Hunter Laing & Co’s “Old Malt Cask” label for K&L in March 2021

MASH BILL – 100% malted barley

PROOF – 109.8

AGE – 17 years 7 months

DISTILLERY – Hunter Laing & Co. bottling from “an Orkney Distillery” (cough cough – Highland Park – cough)

PRICE – $87

WORTH BUYING? – Oh yes, for a few reasons!

I have long been a fan of secondary scotch bottlers like Hunter Laing & Co. They make scotch more financially accessible for whisky fans, and arguably more adventuresome, than the name brands tend to do. Sometimes they are able to reveal the distillery responsible for the whisky bottled, usually when it’s a lesser known operation like Invergordon. Only occasionally are secondary bottlers able to identify the name brand casks they pick up, as with a Laphroaig 12 Year Cask Strength bottled by Alexander Murray in 2018. But this is more rare.

But when they can’t name the source, clever retailers like K&L plant hints on the label. Their 2020 cask strength bottling of Caol Ila, also procured through Hunter Laing, was said to be “Known As Islay Straight,” referencing the region where Caol Ila is based. Then tasting the whisky, one could have no doubt it was Caol Ila in the glass—that signature sweet ashy peat.

Likewise, by simply stating that the current bottle is “Distilled At An Orkney Distillery,” one has a choice between three operations, one of which focuses more on gin and another of which is entirely possible, but, the K&L description doesn’t hint that way. So, Highland Park it is.

Tasted in a traditional Glencairn, four days after uncorking and three pours into the bottle, here are some brief notes.

COLOR – pale straw, with various yellow and buttery highlights

NOSE – heather, lemon zest, fresh wildflower honey, vanilla custard, seaside air with its salt and sand, light caramel, light smoke and very light peat

TASTE – arrives like bright sun suddenly emerging from clouds, salty and sweet at once, with the vanilla custard now holding fruits like pineapple, mango, and especially peach

FINISH – slightly drying here, with enough of the fruit and creamy custard notes lingering to add balance, also the saltiness and smoke swirling together as in the breeze at a beach fire

OVERALL – light and bright, yet moody like a partly cloudy day at the beach, altogether like a 19th Century British romance novel of some sort… (BTW my partner nosed it and said, “Box of chocolates and a beach fire.” Works for me.)

This single barrel is lovely and lively, very nicely balanced between its dry and sweet aspects, with a beautifully soft peat and smoke to it adding savoriness to the custard and fruit notes. Anyone wary of peat might be tempted into the bog by this one. It all comes across both gently and vividly, combining strength with ease. I can imagine it appealing to a range of whisky drinkers, from the casual scotch fan to geeks like me who enjoy sinking into the details.

Success! Have I had better and less so? Sure. But well-aged cask strength Highland Park single malt for this price? When one could pay over three times as much for something similar, just to have the Highland Park name officially stamped on it? Or pay the same price for either non-aged-stated cask strength or proofed-down Highland Park? What is there to debate?

I so rarely buy name brand scotch. The overwhelming majority of my scotch purchases have been from secondary bottlers. No absurdity underscores the reason why more than that time in 2018, when Macallan released a rare 52-year-old scotch for $60K per bottle around the same time Hunter Laing released a 52-year-old Carsebridge for $350. Of course, I was not in a position to compare them. But one need not spend one second wondering whether the Macallan tasted $59,650 better.

Even with recent price increases, the ongoing phenomenon of the secondary bottlers and what they offer compared to the name brands underscores the fact that pricing in whisky is pure cuckoo-bananas, based entirely on marketing and a dependable FOMO, not on the actual experience of the whisky itself.

The limited number of bottles in this unnamed “Orkney distillery” release are already gone, so, I cannot recommend one seek it out. But I do recommend keeping an eye on your local shop or online retailer that stocks bottlings by the likes of Hunter Laing & Co., Alexander Murray, or Single Cask Nation. Not only do they save you money, but through their wide range of named and unnamed sources they provide an education into the vast network of Scottish distilleries, present and past, that contribute to that region’s massive contribution to world whisk(e)y.

Cheers!

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