Abundantly rich in heritage, the Orkney Islands have been inhabited for over 5,500 years. Each successive culture has added to the legacy of Orkney. This legacy encompasses remarkable Neolithic sites, haunting wartime remains and stunning listed buildings. The Islands offer an unspoilt environment of breathtaking beauty and clarity.
The Orcadians are justifiably proud of their history, dialect and traditions; traditions which, since 1798, include Highland Park single malt Scotch whisky.
Highland Park will forever be associated with Magnus Eunson, the man often credited with the foundation of the distillery at the end of the 18th century. Eunson was a beadle (verger) by day and a smuggler by night, the latter operation based from his bothy on the High Park above Kirkwall where Highland Park Distillery now stands.
According to W. R. Mackintosh in Around the Orkney Peat-Fires (1898) Magnus ‘Mansie’ Eunson was “a flesher [butcher], beadle, and a successful smuggler. In addition to this he was a born character, brimful of pawky humour and resource, which extricated him from many a scrape.” Stories of smugglers are forever imbued with romance and poetic licence, the canny happy-go-lucky local outwitting the cowardly, corrupt and doltish representatives of the establishment; in these stories Eunson is shown as being brave and ingenious enough to enjoy many a narrow escape from the clutches of the exciseman.
The best-known Eunson anecdote is recounted by Alfred Barnard in his seminal Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (1887); “Hearing that the Church was to be searched for whisky by a new party of excisemen, Eunson had all the kegs removed to his house, placed in the middle of an empty room and covered with a clean white cloth. As the officers approached after their unsuccessful search in the church, Eunson gathered all his people, including the maidservants, round the whisky, which, with its covering of white, under which a coffin lid had been placed, looked like a bier. Eunson knelt at the head with the Bible in his hand and the others with their psalm books. As the door opened they set up a wail for the dead, and Eunson made a sign to the officers that it was a death and one of the attendants whispered “smallpox”. Immediately the officer and his men made off as fast as they could and left the smuggler for some time in peace.”
Mackintosh tells us that Eunson was not a preacher, nor does his account suggest that Eunson was an illicit distiller, however smuggling was virtually a synonym for illicit distilling. He smuggled principally spirits, but remains most closely associated with the origins of Scotch whisky from Highland Park Distillery. By 1798 Highland Park had been founded; later a syndicate, which, somewhat ironically, included Eunson’s arresting officer, John Robertson, and his fellow exciseman, Robert Pringle, purchased the High Park estate, including the distillery in April 1813.
Excisemen had targeted the Orkney Islands and seized many illicit stills from 1805. Smuggling on Orkney had become so prevalent that one Sunday, Mansie’s minister denounced the activity as being iniquitous and un-Christian. When the sermon was over, Mansie was asked what he thought of the minister’s pronouncements; “I think that oor minister is no’ very consistent, for at the very time he was preaching, he had six kegs o’ as guid brandy under his pulpit as was ever smuggled.” Clearly, Mansie was confident that his preferred hiding place for the contraband, under the floor of the pulpit, was well-placed.
Finally, in 1813 Magnus Eunson was arrested for transporting illegal substances; four packs of untaxed salt and one pack of whisky. To quote Mackintosh; “At length Mansie was taken before the Session for smuggling, and he lost his situation as a beadle. He took this so much to heart that he gave up attending church. ” When Mansie was tackled about his absence by the minister he had as usual a ready answer. Indeed he insisted that he did still attend church. The minister said this was not true but Mansie replied; “My wife is there every Sunday”. He pointed out that when he got married the minister who conducted the service said he and his wife were now one. “Either you or the other minister has tellt us a lee” retorted Mansie.
Curiously, though, the case never went to trial so Eunson was never sentenced. This has led to suggestions that he was merely the front man of a larger, better-organised smuggling operation.
The disappearance of Eunson following his arrest contrasts with the meticulously recorded development of Highland Park from 1818. That was the year that straw-plaiting businessman and farmer Robert Borwick together with his son-in-law, John Robertson became official co-founders of Highland Park Distillery. This was around the time that Scotch whisky was gaining a higher profile; King George IV paid his famous visit to Edinburgh in 1823, in effect granting Scotch whisky royal approval, and the following year the Excise Act halved taxes on spirits. In this short space of time whisky distilleries were taking out licences, the King developed a fondness for whisky and tax cuts made Scotch whisky a much more attractive commercial proposition. Little wonder that expansion followed.
The High Park was now officially called Highland Park and in 1826 John Robertson moved south, with Robert Borwick buying out his share in Highland Park. Borwick died in 1840 and the distillery was taken over by his son, George, who invested little in the distillery and, upon his death, the value of fixtures and fittings had shrunk to a mere £104. James Borwick (George’s younger brother) inherited the distillery in 1869 but, as a church minister, he felt ownership of a distillery was inappropriate so he put it up for sale. Initially there was no interest and the property was offered at £450 on the condition that it was used as a poor-house. However, in 1876 the distillery was purchased by the newly formed partnership of Stuart & Mackay.
These were great days in the Scotch whisky industry and business boomed.
Highland Park whisky enjoyed first class status and became (and remains) extremely desirable to blenders for use as top dressing, to give blends backbone, structure and flavour; Chivas Brothers, Haig & Co, George Ballantine & Co and John Dewar & Sons all became customers.
In 1895, on the death of William Stuart, James Grant became the partner of James Mackay. The library archive chronicles the alterations and improvements made to the distillery by Charles C Doig, renowned engineer and architect. Typed and hand-written letters from Doig to Charles Hayden discuss details such as this note from 20th June 1908; “I am not sure what kind of roof you have on No.10 at present but if it is of iron only you would require to sark and felt underneath it, or make the walls of barn at least 5ft; higher or you will never make good Malt.”
The Grant family retained control of Highland Park until 1937 when the distillery became part of Highland Distillers’ portfolio; the other distilleries in the group at that time were Glenrothes, Tamdhu, Bunnahabhain and Glenglassaugh. Highland Park was run as a wholly-owned subsidiary and retained the name James Grant & Co for many years.
Highland Park stopped distilling for the duration of the Second World War from 1939. Its war effort was confined to the mash tun being used as an enormous bath for some of the 60,000 troops stationed on Orkney. That was the year in which HMS Royal Oak was sunk by a German submarine in Scapa Flow and Sir Winston Churchill visited the distillery. When offered a cup of tea upon his arrival, he is recalled as stating his preference for a glass of Highland Park in a typically direct manner. The distillery returned to production in 1945.
New warehouses were built at Highland Park to cope with increasing demand in 1954.
In 1970 Highland Distillers bought Matthew Gloag & Sons, blenders of The Famous Grouse. Distillery Manager Pat Scott wrote in 1976; “The distillery does not bottle its product, but several of its customers make a specialty of it as a single whisky. The major proportion is, however, used for blending purposes.”
Highland Park was available as an independently bottled 8 year old at the time. It was felt, however, that the time was right for a proprietary bottling; and so it was that Highland Park 12 year old single malt was launched in 1979
Highland Park is made today with the same enduring belief and integrity, to the same exacting standards, as it has been since 1798. The established attitude at Highland Park is one of custodianship rather than management, of tradition rather than novelty. That’s not to say the distillery is stuck in the mud – far from it – but innovation is only used when there is a genuine benefit to the whisky not, as is often the way, a benefit to efficiency or profitability.
This approach accounts in some way for the appeal of Highland Park; there is much more to how the remote site of an illicit still became The Best Spirit in the World. This accolade was no fluke, they managed to repeat the feat in 2009; it was based on an unbroken tradition of whisky-making stretching back over 200 years. Highland Park is arguably the most respected single malt in the world. As everyone knows, respect has to be earned; their distilling tradition, attention to detail and honesty have combined to achieve just that.
The first official bottling of Highland Park was released in 1979, until that point there had only been 3rd party bottlings. Over the last 30 plus years the proprietary bottlings from the distillery have substantially increased.
Highland Park 12 Year Old, 40% abv
The first proprietary bottling of Highland Park single malt Scotch whisky was as a 12 year old in 1979. It remains the core expression of the Highland Park range and is a smooth, balanced single malt, with a rich full flavour and a gentle smokey finish.
Heather-honey sweetness; peaty smokiness
Rounded smoky sweetness; full malt delivery
Teasing, heathery, subtle smoke. Delicious
Take your time to appreciate the nose of Highland Park 12 and you’ll discover the characteristic honey sweetness followed by fruit – maybe pineapple, apple or pear. On the palate it is drying and leaves a gentle smokey feeling and a flavour that just keeps on going.
“A gorgeous, honeyed combination of heather root, sweet spices, fruit peel/marmalade and a drift of peat smoke. A seductive dram that mixes butter tablet, dried herbs and heather-honey, all bound together by that wispy peat smoke.” Handbook of Whisky, Dave Broom
“Outstanding, frighteningly near-perfect Orcadian malt.” Jim Murray, Malt Advocate
“Succulent, with smoky dryness, heather-honey sweetness, and maltiness. 90/100” Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion 5th Edition 2004
“The 12-year-old is already a phenomenal, potent dram, and the stuff just generally gets better and better as it gets older. Sweet, smoky, smooth and opulent, filled to bursting with spicy fruits and a long, hazily luxuriant and powerful finish, this is a magnificent whisky.” Raw Spirit, Iain Banks
“Few malts are as complete in flavour as this remarkable Orcadian spirit. The holy trinity of malt, peat and cask come together in heathery harmony.” Andrew Jefford