Smokin’! – the Highland Park Distillery

Best hotel view ever (for whisky geeks)

It was inevitable. After several years of traveling to Scotland, we never got to get more north as we did on our first trip, when we visited the shop at Clynelish. This year we had decided to go a little further, visit the Orkney islands and the Highland Park distillery, one of the most remote distilleries of Scotland. Only accessible by sea or by air, we had always decided it would cost us too many days to get to the island and get back, but this year we convinced ourselves to include it into our travels. Getting up bright and early in Speyside, have a pitstop at the Kininvie distillery for a previously arranged behind the scenes tour and make our way up North on the A9 right up to Gill’s bay, where a boat was waiting to bring us to Orkney.

Arriving at St Margaret’s Hope at the end of the afternoon, we checked into our hotel in Kirkwall, literally underneath the smoke of the both of Highland Park’s smokin’ hot Doig ventilators, filling our lungs with the pungent scent of the local peat, drying some of the distillery’s barley. Two days on Orkney isn’t that much, and we knew it was too short from the moment we set foot on the island. Two distilleries, dozens of sights to be seen filled with culture and history, we already regretted we had cemented down the rest of our programme after these two days.

Our first day on our Orkney programme started with “the other distillery”, a trip around the island where we wanted to see as many of the sights as we possibly could, take a lot of photos and make sure we would be on time for a fabulous Highland Park themed dinner with Highland Park’s indispensable Martin Markvardsen and Patricia Retson, together with the editor and photographer of Swedish “All about Whisky” magazine.

the orange pixel is Martin, not to scale

Day two started with the long walk of almost five minutes to the distillery gates, where we took the obligatory overhead gate picture. Martin introduced us to Marie Stanton, who made the step from her role as Operation Manager at the Balvenie and Kininvie distilleries to become Highland Park’s new distillery manager in November 2015. We had a lengthy chat with her about her new function whilst the rain was pouring down on the slate roofs above our heads.

Enthusiastic and passionate Marie started her career with a degree in Brewing and Distilling with the Heriot Watt University and has an IBD Master Brewer qualification. Before working her nine years at the aforementioned distilleries and their parent company, she has built on her vast knowledge and experience at different positions at different breweries in France and the UK, changed to distilling after moving to Dufftown and when that virus caught, there was no letting go anymore.

The Orcadian distillery, with its many Scandinavian influences, has many similarities with the Dufftown pair and is one of the few distilleries in Scotland where almost all processes are done in-house, including the cutting of their own peat, malting and kilning (large amounts of) the barley and an on-site cooperage. All of these processes are run by a total of 24 people, including the peat cutters and people working at the visitor’s center.

Three different peat-densities, drying in the Orcadian sun

Marie is still getting to know all the different characters in the various parts of the distillery, and is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to get her hands dirty and clean the kiln or turn some of the malting barley – which she secretly practices when her colleagues are not looking. Balancing her time between being on the distillery floor and the administrative workload has proven the largest challenge, and when the office ‘lost’ her, chances are she is to be found on the distillery floor to do an odd job of one sort or another, with or without the guidance of her experienced crew, “doing nerdy very well” as she herself describes.

Moving from the small town of Dufftown where everything is scattered in different villages around the Speyside region to the bright lights of the big city of Kirkwall seemed another challenge at first. Her husband and three children moved along with her, and they quickly learned that in the practically crime-free Kirkwall everything is around the corner, including schools, sports and a strong community feel. Farmers come knocking on her office-door when they would need some of the pot ale, the locals help if there is a big job to be done and feel “their” distillery is part of their normal everyday life. In return, the distillery involves their crew and the locals when certain special bottlings are to be selected and they sponsor the local pantomime theaters (very big on Orkney) through the Edrington group’s Robertson Trust, with Visitor Center Manager Patricia as the company’s key figure between them and the community with whisky and non-whisky related projects.

It is very clear Marie dropped on her feet in the town and the distillery, and when our time with her was up we felt we still have so much more to learn from the woman who describes the distillery and her job as “awesome!” and wants to know everyone, and everything about everyone and everything.

Inside one of the kilns, where barley is drying

Martin took us downstairs to show us the distillery and started in the distillery square where the sun was out again. Weather on Orkney is on or off; it is either time to get your sunblock out and relax in the sun, or shield yourself from the torrential rain storms, anything in between is a myth, like many other things on Orkney.

The distillery is founded by Magnus Eunson in 1798 and ever since they have used the Crantit spring as their source of water used in each of the processes. Their peat used in the kilning of their malt is cut from the Hobbister nature reserve, of which they cut three differently aged layers, the youngest being about 500 years old, the oldest close to 3.000 years. An equally balanced mix of around 300 tonnes is annually burned in both kilns, smoking the predominantly Concerto barley and the – locally grown for Highland Park, Tartan variety. Kilning is roughly done with peat for 24 hours, after which coke takes over for another natural day.

This is where all the Highland Park flows through

After the barley has steeped, malted and kilned, it is milled in “ye olde trusty Porteus”. 6.4 tonnes of grist is fed into the semi-lauter mashtun, feeding 29.000 liters of wash into the twelve wooden washbacks, where a mix of Kerry M and MX dry yeasts start fermenting for an average of 55 hours. Half a washback is then transferred into one of the two 18.000 liters capacity wash still, and the two 12.000 liter spirit stills squeeze out around 420 liters of new make spirit per tonne of barley, resulting in an annual capacity of 2.5 million liters. About 90% of these 2.5 million liters is matured in sherry seasoned casks, produced and imported by the Edrington Group, casked at the distillery and matured in one of the four racked and 19 dunnage style warehouses.

Pretty, huh?

We ended our tour in the private Eunson room, where we also had our chat with Marie. Pat had organized a massive private tasting of the core range and some exclusive releases and cask samples, while we conversed a bit more with Martin, about his life at Highland Park, his near death experience on a boat from Scandinavia to Orkney and his love for cookies and music. Our extensive meeting connected to Martin’s next appointment with 22 Danes from the Whiskypartiet whisky club, where we heard him share his passion with his fellow countrymen in his own tongue, while guiding all of us to the Hobbister peat bogs.

Dinner at the hotel was an early one for us and the visit in the bar a short one, because our boat from Stromness to Scrabster was scheduled to depart at early-o’clock, bringing us back to Scottish mainland to visit the Wolf in the North. As we already mentioned, two days on Orkney was just too short, and we had the same feeling as we did when first leaving the isle of Islay, which we seem to be coming back to on regular basis. We have had a great time at the distillery, and if you are in the neighbourhood, make sure you plan a visit. Many thanks to Marie, Martin and Patricia for treating us like Royalty and making our maiden trip to the Orcadian islands a memorable one.

We’ll be back.

Thomas & Ansgar

Copyright notice: Photos by WhiskySpeller

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