A brief description of the whisky making process is described in a succinct text here. To summarize there are just three ingredients to any scotch whisky: barley, water and yeast. Quality of each ingredient feeds in to the taste.
There are mainly 5 steps in whisky making: Malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and ageing (or maturation). I will go through these steps, according to what I would like to write about "Highland Park". I will only relate to specifics related to the taste of the whiskey.
Malting process and the ageing process is key to the taste of the Highland Park whisky.
Malting ProcessYou get the barley soak it in water and lay out on malting floors (Figure 1) for 6-7 days. The germinating barley is turned regularly by hand (Figure 2). Not every distillery do this process, they buy the malt from factories specialized in the process. Highland park is one of the few distilleries that have their own malting floor, and produce their own malt. Germination is necessary to generate enzymes to convert the starch to sugar (more on this the next stage).
Figure 1. Barley Germinating on the Highland park malting floor
|Figure 2: Hand turning of malt in the highland park distillery (https://www.highlandparkwhisky.com/keystones/ )|
The result is a germinated barley, and now after 6-7 days the germinating process need to be halted. For this the germinated barley is dried over a klin. At Highland park they use a certain peat coming from the orkney islands to create the fire in the klin. This heating process also leads to smoke the malt, leading to a smokey finish to the whisky.
Aromatic Peat Used in Klin Drying
Peat is decaying plant material buried and compacted under the earth for thousands of years. What plants and shrubs decayed over this long period, determine the chemical nature of the peat. Hence when it is burnt, the phenols released could be different, leading to the taste of malted barley. Thus, peat will serve as territorial signature. More information about peat can be found in a very descriptive blog post here.
According to Highland park the peat they use to dry the germinated barley, is responsible for the smoky aromatic sweetness of their whiskys. According to their website "The Orkney Islands have an abundance of this sweet, heathery peat, which is around 4000 years old and is carefully selected from Hobbister Moor. The peat we cut is a mixture of textures and aromas ranging from a more floral heather-rich top layer, to a darker, denser material, the mixture giving the resulting smoke a slow burning and complex aroma." [Ref 1] The specialty of this peat is that it contains decaying heather and plants, as compared to decaying trees that contain in normal peat. Highland park owns the part of the moor they cut their peat from.
Furthermore, @ Highland park they combine the peat cuttings taken from three distinct levels to achieve the required character. "The top layer is taken from just below the surface is rich in heather and rootlets.The second layer is darker and more compacted; and generates less smoke and more heat. The deepest layer, of course, the oldest; it is lumpy and coal-like. On Islay and Skye they have peat with decomposing tree stumps, branches and roots, which are heavier and burn more slowly giving more smoke."[Ref 2]
|Figure 3: A Heather plan|
Heather as shown in Figure 3, is an evergreen shrub. The heather plants usually grow together, forming a thick, bushy carpet, sometimes up to half a metre tall. "This helps the plant to survive strong winds. Nectar from heather flowers makes excellent honey, and local beekeepers often bring their hives on to the moors in late-summer when the heather comes into bloom." [Ref 3]
Here you will find the blog of a person who visited the Highland park Distillery .
Maturation ProcessOnce malted, the malt is mashed, fermented (like beer), distilled and next comes the ageing/maturation process. The maturation process is responsible for around 70% of the taste of the whisky.
The distilled spirit is now matured in wooden casks. Most of the whiskys are matured in ex-Bourbon casks (Eg. casks once used to store the likes of Jack Daniels / Jim Beam) and sometimes followed by maturing in Shery oak casks. This process leads to the distinct color and flavors that the whisky derives over the years. The wood with which the casks are made will dictate some of the flavors the whisky derives over time.
The highland park whiskies are matured in oak casks matured with Olorosso sherry. (Casks can be of different sizes [Ref 5]: barrels being the smallest.) Now Olorosso sherry is a kind of fortified wine. " Spanish oak casks seasoned with sherry give colour, spice and dried fruit character, whereas American oak sherry seasoned casks give lighter, sweeter vanilla and butterscotch flavours. Sherry oak casks are far more expensive but the view at Highland Park is that they are worth it for the rich character and natural colour they provide to the maturing spirit." [Ref 6]
Furthermore, the climate in which the maturation takes place is responsible for the taste. The cool temperature in which it matures, breaks some of the harsher secondary compounds left during the distillation process. Not all whiskies are matured in the same place as the distillery, but the Highland park does.
Tasting of Highland Park 12 year oldThe following video will give you a hint or two of how to taste your highland park 12 year old.
 https://www.highlandparkwhisky.com/keystones/aromatic-peat/, Accessed 26/04/17
 https://www.highlandparkwhisky.com/peat-cutting-season-open/, Accessed 26/04/17
 http://www.northyorkmoors.org.uk/discover/moorland/all-about-heather, Accessed 26/04/17
 https://www.whiskyinvestdirect.com/about-whisky/scotch-whisky-casks-and-barrels, Accessed 26/04/17