The first time I got drunk—like, fall-down, pick-fights-with-roommates, using-big-words-in-incorrect-contexts-to-prove-that-I’m-actually-sober drunk—was back in February of 1996, at the start of my second semester as a Penn State freshman, the result of swilling most of a bottle of Clan MacGregor Blended Scotch Whisky that my father purchased for me to share with my dorm-mates because, he told them, “Brian’s beyond uptight, and he needs to let loose. Also,” he added, handing a friend of mine an envelope, “make sure he takes these three Advil before he goes to bed, because he’ll feel like hell in the morning no matter what, but these should take some of the sting out of it.”
So, yeah: My first experience with Scotch whisky wasn’t exactly the Ron-Burgundy classiest moment of my life. But I knew from that first pull of the bottle on that chilly night 20 years ago that I had some sort of innate soft spot for the great brown spirit of that mysterious northern land of drizzle and golf and monsters in lochs.
Happily for me—and, let’s be honest here, for all of the people I lived with in the years after that fateful night of ibuprofen and oak-aged distillate—my tastes in the realm of Scotch whisky have, shall we say, evolved in the years since. Not that there’s anything wrong with Clan MacGregor—it was an important and necessary point of entry to the world of whisky for me. But just as most smokers of Cuban Cohibas don’t start off their cigar-puffing ways with those spicy, complex sticks, neither do aficionados of fine single malt usually ignite their passion with with really good stuff.
Which is all to say that, had my father purchased a bottle of truly great whisky for that night in 1996—say, the Highland Park 15, the bottling under examination here (though it wasn’t actually being bottled back then, but you get my point)—it likely wouldn’t have made much more of an impact on me than the Clan MacGregor, despite the fact that it’s an inherently, intrinsically, indubitably and infinitely better product. Because, in all honesty, (a) I was just looking to get drunk in order to find the courage to tell a girl in the next dorm building over that I was madly in love with her and wanted to spend the rest of eternity wooing her, and maybe if I could find a bear-skin rug and a fireplace and some Kenny G recordings somewhere in the general vicinity of State College, Pennsylvania, she’d like to join me? and (b) my whisky and whiskey experience had, until that night, been pretty much limited to furtive pulls of Southern Comfort (I wasn’t invited to a lot of parties in high school, leading, perhaps, now that I think of it, to my career all these years later as someone who makes much of his living with alcohol). Really, then, my context for understanding or judging the spirit was basically nonexistent. So: Clan MacGregor was just fine.
In the decades since, thank goodness, my whiskey and whisky preferences have changed dramatically, and over the years, glistening bottles of various and sundry single malts have claimed pride of place on the liquor shelves scattered strategically around the apartments and houses in which I’ve lived. (Yes, there are multiple places of rest for my collection of bottles; no, my wife is not happy about this state of affairs at all; yes, she is a saint for putting up with me.) So: Highland, Orkney, Islay and the rest. Smoky, peat-kissed, honeyed: It’s all there, just waiting for its moment to be poured, gently dripped with water yet never-ever-are-you-crazy-to-even-consider-it plunked down with an ice cube, and sipped, maybe even contemplated, if the liquid is good enough.
Which the Highland Park 15, an Orkney beauty from one of my favorite producers in Scotland, most certainly is.
Last month, I had been hired to host the pre-meal tasting and discussion of a Scotch-and-steak dinner at a local synagogue. I featured a number of bottles that night, yet it seemed that, at the end, the favorite among those in attendance was the Highland Park 12, a single malt whose easy approachability leads down a rabbit hole of complexity and nuance, forcing new and expert imbibers alike to stare at their glasses and just try to figure out how all that deliciousness got there in the first place, what sort of alchemy was brought to bear on it in order to make it so damn tasty. In that regard, it’s like the music of Beck: You can enjoy it at the surface level, grooving your head to Mr. Hansen’s addictively catchy hooks, or on another level entirely, parsing the sneakily subversive lyrics and wrench-in-the-works musical construction. The Highland Park 12 lets you do that.
The Highland Park 15, however, is a beast of a different stripe—or whatever the old cliché is. What I’m trying to say is this: It’s profound, and deep, and layered in a way that, from a quality-to-price standpoint, is awfully difficult to beat. (You can find a 750ml bottle of it for around $90, which, given the liquid under the cap, is a great deal, indeed.) But it’s never heavy-handed or self-serious. It’s simply (or not-so-simply) a fantastic single malt Scotch whisky that’s profound and dangerously easy to drink in equal measure. Now that’s something to raise a glass to.
Highland Park 15 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
43% alc. / vol.
Gently smoky aromas are lifted with intriguing floral hints and a subtle hit of warm honey and multi-grain bread: This is one of those single malts that you could happily sniff for hours and find something new with each inhale. The palate is savory and just the slightest bit salty, which I love, and framed with those subtle smoke and peat notes. But then an almost apricot-like fruitiness swoops in, keeping it all giving and generous, and leading to a finish that boasts delicate notes of graham cracker and butterscotch. The way this evolves on the tongue is just fantastic. Highly recommended. http://highlandpark.co.uk