Speaking with Daryl Haldane, Highland Park brand ambassador

Orkney, a group of islands located on the northernmost tip of Scotland, plays home to one of the country’s most distinctive whiskies – Highland Park. The Edrington Group-owned, Kirkwall, Orkney-based distllery’s extremely remote location and windy climate both play a critical role in shaping its whisky’s sweet smoky flavours.

We speak to Daryl Haldane, Highland Park’s global brand advocate about their whiskies and its Scandinavian roots when he was recently in town.

1. Just curious – what does a global brand advocate for Highland Park actually do?

It involves talking about the whisky, and bringing to life the stories about Highland Park because they’re so different from most Scottish distillers because of their history.

And there’s the other side where I help run production projects which involve new products and product development, including creating liquid to packaging, and then going to market. After that there’s following up when the product’s in the market.

It’s a good job.

2. Highland Park is based in Orkney, and is Scotland’s northern most whisky distillery. How does that location and climate help create the distinctive flavors of Highland Park?

The distillery is located on a wee hill called High Park, which is what we were originally known as, but it later become Highland Park. This hill overlooks Kirkwall Harbour and Scapa Flow.

We’re limited because we’re on an island far north – we can’t grow everything on the island because of the conditions.

One of the things you’ll notice when you go to Orkney is the wind, and how it blows all the time. In Orkney there are no trees because of the wind, and it has a massive influence on the final flavour of the whisky because peat is, of course, the result of the vegetation lying above the ground decomposing over thousands of years. Our peat contains no wood – just heather – so you end up with a lighter style of smoke. So you can say that our light smoky flavour is a direct result of our wind conditions.

3. That far up north, would most Scots be familiar with Orkney?

It’s really strange, but no. If you ask someone from Orkney if they’re from Scotland they would say no – they’re from Orkney. Their heritage is very different – Orkney island only became Scottish in 1472, before that it was Scandinavian. It was given back only because of a failed dowry payment (Christian I of Norway had pledged Orkney as security against the payment of the dowry of his daughter Margaret to James III of Scotland).

The genealogy of the people of Orkney is still very Scandinavian – the way the look, for example. In fact, the guy who set up the Highland Park distllery was a man named Magnus Eunson, which is definitely not a Scottish name.

It’s funny but I do a lot of work in Scandinavia, and the Swedish think Highland Park is theirs. I always joke Highland Park is Sweden’s most westerly distillery!

4. Highland Park whisky is sometimes mistakenly classified as under “Other Islands”, or worse, the “Highlands” section, which it isn’t. Do you think that’s a problem?

We try as best as we can to help people understand where we make the whisky. When people get that part – the logistics of obtaining the casks, and the elemental side regarding the wind conditions – they may then understand that the Highlands is north of that, and Highland Park is even further north.

But I get what you mean. I sometimes see Highland Park in the Highlands section of a whisky menu. I think generally whisky has an issue with how much people really understand it – they know it as a premium product and something that’s nice to drink, but the actual knowledge behind products and brands? There’s still lot to do by the industry.

Renowned beer hunter Michael Jackson once called Highland Park “the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky”, which says a lot but also doesn’t really say anything. Is that a fair description?

You got the smoke that you associate with Islay, you have the sweet flavours you associate with Speyside, and then there are light notes in there that you associate with Lowlands, and then you have the intensity of the Highlands.

So I understand why Michael Jackson says that about our whisky, but for me it’s the sweet and smoky combination that’s quite unusual; there are not many smoky whiskies that use sherry casks.

Highland Park with heather peat

5. So can you describe to us the distinctive flavors of Highland Park, and how it got to be that way?

The smoke’s obviously one of the most things in our whisky – that happens when we dry barley with our peat (the rock pictured above, between the glass and bottles).

We’re only one of six distilleries that still run a floor malting, and it’s one of the largest floor maltings in the industry – the amount of work and labour that goes into that process is huge. You then make the spirit which is then going to have a nice peaty flavour and put it into casks.

We only use American oak and European oak sherry casks. American oak sherry casks give you vanilla, citrus and other lighter notes – maybe even some tropical fruit notes – while the European oak sherry casks give you plum, cherry, chocolate and some nice rice spice flavours as well. Two different styles of wood, and different amounts of each you choose to make each expression will give you different characters. The more American oak you use tend to allow more of the smoky notes to come through because it’s just a bit lighter in flavour and colour.

We don’t add caramel to our whiskies to get consistency across batches, because we spend so much work and money getting these sherry casks – it takes seven years to build a sherry cask from start to finish – so we don’t need the colouring agents. We get it from the wood.

6. Most of us in this region aren’t too familiar with heather. Can you explain heather’s significance to the making of Highland Park?

Heather is essentially a shrub. On Orkney it grows sideways because of the wind. What heather does is that it protects its young shoots by blocking the wind as they grow. It turns purple when it flowers in August; the rest of the year it’s just brown. When they die, the next year’s crop comes up and the cycle repeats.

Peat is the result of that. On Islay, their peat is more wood and all that sort of stuff. Our peat just have heather; it doesn’t have anything else.

It’s a fascinating product, because it’s just a local fuel. We use it in our fires at home, we use it to fuel our kiln in the distillery. That’s it. On the mainland you’ll use coke, or coal, or wood as fuel. We don’t have any of those. We only have peat.

It formed literally about 3500 years ago – that’s the average age of our peat bed. All of it comes from an area called Hobbister Moor. We probably have enough there to last the next 350 years.

7. You mentioned earlier that Highland Park still retains the tradition of floor malting. Can you share with us what exactly happens with floor malting?

What we do is we trick barley into thinking it’s spring by chucking it into tanks of water, and then take them out and lay them out of the floor. It starts to grow on the floor. You need to constantly turn it to stop it from matting and becoming too hot because it respires, and you do that by hand for about six or seven days. It’s quite a long time.

It gets to a point where you need to stop that from happening, because it will continue to grow to the point where you start losing the starches inside that you need to turn into beer.

8. Aside from The Famous Grouse, which other blended whiskies contain Highland Park?

The Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark. We had a lot of customers that would have bought from us, but many of those blends those exist anymore.