Until 1955, when they entered the Japanese whisky industry, Karuizawa was a vineyard. The distillery is very old-fashioned, sticking to Scottish traditions and focusing on small-scale production. Karuizawa uses 100% Golden Promise barley, wooden washbacks, small stills and sherry casks sourced from Spain.
The distillery composed an epic whisky last year when releasing the oldest Japanese whisky ever, the Karuizawa 1971. Now there is a slightly younger follow-up, the 36 years old 1972.
Karuizawa 36yo 1972
(65%, OB 2008, cask #7290, Japanese wine cask, 528 btl.)
Nose: the alcohol really hits you, but it’s still very expressive. Big sherry (well, Japanese wine) influence. Wonderful tobacco notes, like a recently opened cigar box. Plums. Kirsch. Spicy chocolate (cinnamon) and orange marmalade. Some leather. A light hint of smoke. Very complex, very good. Mouth: wow, very powerful and hot. Water needed here (and I don’t say that very often). Very intense, with a peppery attack. Fruity notes (lemon and tangerine) with a strong woody dimension. Raisins. Hints of smoke. Finish: very long finish on oak and spices. Warm and drying.
Again a true classic. Not cheap but simply excellent. Expect to pay around € 185.
Another release in the 2009 line-up from The Whisky Agency. The previously reviewed Longmorn 32y 1976 was from their Shark series (brown label), while this Caol Ila is from the Perfect Dram series (yellow label). Thumbs up by the way for the clean design. You may also want to check out the Bunnahabhain from these series.
Most of Caol Ila’s production goes into the Johnnie Walker blend. Only around 5% is reserved to be bottled as single malt. While there is a warehouse at the distillery on Islay, most of today’s production is shipped to the mainland and stored there. This 26 years old was matured in an ex-bourbon hogshead.
Caol Ila 26y 1982 (63%, The Whisky Agency 2009, Perfect Dram I, 120 btl.)
Nose: quite some alcohol, you need to warm it up considerably or add some water to release the flavours. Quite some iodine and medicinal associations. Sea breeze, seaweed. The usual peat and coal smoke. Rather sharp and tingling. A tad grassy as well. Faint notes of a rather sweaty salami. With water: fresher notes. Lemon, apples and walnuts. Some leather. Very good and rather typical Caol Ila, I would say. Mouth: much sweeter with lots of vanilla. Some smoked bacon or lomo ibérico. Tarry notes. With water: less sweet, more grassy. Liquorice. Green tea. Long and smokey finish. Hints of smoked fish, salted almonds and cocoa.
Nicely coastal, well balanced and certainly one of the more complex Caol Ilas I’ve had. Around € 130.
Highland Park recently said that they can’t sustain the high strength of the current Highland Park 21 years old, because it was very popular and stocks at that alcohol level are limited (do they really have difficulty finding 20+ year old casks over 47,5% – hard to believe). They will be lowering the strength to 40%.
In fact, they say they had already changed the whisky that won the World Whisky Awards this year, although there’s actually no proof of that. Why doesn’t the WWA jury publish the full details of the winners, just to avoid these kind of problems?
Also, Highland Park doesn’t mention a price reduction for the 21yo, so the lower volume could easily be seen as a disguised price increase. Sad news!
In terms of flavour profile, this recent addition to the Highland Park range is quite closely related to the Highland Park 30 years old, sharing a slight emphasis on American oak in maturation (less sherry influence to release more of the smokiness). That’s why I’ve tasted them head-to-head, apart from the HP 18 yo and HP 25 yo.
The 21 years old is only available at travel retail. Unfortunately it has been difficult to find outside of the UK.
Highland Park 21 yo (47,5%, OB 2007)
Nose: a bit quiet at first, but it became more expressive after a while. Lots of heather, more than in the 30y. Again quite fruity and sweet, but it has more body and seems to be more complex. More pear and more oak influence, apple pie, floral notes and even some cherry. A bit ‘darker’ or ‘dustier’ as well, with some well-defined notes of bonfire and roasted nuts. Toffee, chocolate and caramel. Some herbs. Lovely nose altogether. Mouth: vivid, spicy attack (ginger, nutmeg). Heather and honey again. Oily. Peat smoke in the distance. Creamy milk chocolate. Very rich. Warmer and less citrussy / gingery than the 30yo. Finish: long continuation of the taste. Starting with a sweet smokiness and getting drier in the end.
It’s a cracking dram, certainly worth looking for. Around € 80.
If you thought the Highland Park 40yo was old (and expensive), think twice. The distillery announced a new Highland Park 50yo, the oldest bottling ever. In fact, not many distilleries can claim such old whisky in their core range. Expected in a few months.
Other news: there’s a new Highland Park 1997 vintage, sherry matured and available only at German duty free shops. As far as I know, the first vintage in the new bottle design? Around € 45.
Highland Park 30yo used to be the oldest expression in the core range, until the (very expensive) 40yo became the new king about a year ago.
Highland Park 30 yo (48,1%, OB 2007)
Nose: very floral and tropically fruity. Peaches, pears, really sweet and highly elegant. Some beeswax and slight estery, spirity notes. Heather and honey as well, which are Highland Park’s trademark notes. Some vanilla and nutmeg. The lightest hints of an extinct fire. Very nice although I’m missing some depth. Mouth: toffee, some lovely oranges wrapped in chocolate. Vanilla, cinnamon and ginger. Figs. Almonds. Honey. Finish: long finish on orange and grapefruit. Soft touch of smoke. Getting drier with a slightly metallic edge.
This dram has aged magnificently. Very mature, mellow and surprisingly crisp, floral and fresh. Around € 220.
The Highland Park 25, together with the 30yo and the recent 40yo, are the premium bottlings of the distillery. I’ve tasted this one head-to-head with the 18yo. The 25yo is certainly more expensive but I’ve heard mixed opinions about it.
Highland Park 25 yo (48,1%, OB 2007)
Nose: definitely grassier and waxier than the 18yo. More resinous notes as well. The honey accents are still there, but less pronounced. More peat, less caramel. Walnuts. It’s difficult to say whether this is better or not, it seems a lot sharper and a bit more one-dimensional on the nose. Mouth: really muscular: more peat, more grass. The sweetness was traded for a waxiness and there’s a bunch of pepper. It’s bigger and less gentle, which is a good thing. Finish: very long with dominant spices and warm peat. Less smokey than the 18yo. Some marmelade at the very end.
This one is wilder than the 18yo. It’s less balanced and less all-round, but I presume it was meant to be like that. Since the 25yo is almost 3 times as expensive, the 18yo still offers the most for the money. On the other hand, once you’ve tasted the 25yo, the 18yo seems a bit soft and “easy”.
Highland Park is the northernmost distillery in Scotland. The entire range of expressions have been redesigned in 2006. The result is one of the most beautiful bottles in the industry. About 60% of the production is used for the core range; the other 40% are bottled as single casks or used for blending.
The 18yo can be seen as the corner stone of the Highland Park range. It unites the older richness of the 25yo and 30yo with the freshness and liveliness of the 12yo and 15yo. A highly regarded classic.
Highland Park 18 yo (43%, OB 2007)
Nose: a bit of everything really. Honey, a bit of smoke, some grassy notes, apple, spices, toffee, butter…This is a true all-round whisky, it contains a lot of flavours in the right amount. Mouth: punchy attack, quite fruity and sweet. Hints of peat and smoke. Very rich. Finish: a bit of mocha and marzipan and something vaguely metallic. Salty notes (liquorice).