The Viking spirit of Highland Park

The Viking spirit of Highland Park

As Highland Park celebrates its 225th anniversary, we explore the origins of the Orkney distillery and how the Viking heritage of its island home has influenced its whisky making over the past two centuries

 

Pictured: Gordon Motion, Highland Park master whisky maker (credit Søren Solkær)

Distillery Focus | 12 Dec 2023 | Issue 195 | By Blair Phillips Davin de Kergommeaux

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For 225 years, the whiskies of Highland Park have shouted, “ORKNEY” – a bold yet simple assertion that cuts through the lore and myth of a distillery with a storied past. Still, every drop of Highland Park, soaked in the wildness of Scotland’s Orkney Islands, recounts a thousand legends. Long before Highland Park sprang from Orkney’s jagged sandstone, here lived Vikings whose folklore told of sword-wielding Scandinavians in horned helmets disembarking from dragonhead ships to pillage the locals’ belongings and drink from their non-Viking skulls – perfect fodder for Hollywood. In truth, we know little more than fragments of the Vikings who arrived in Orkney in the late eighth century.   

 

It is not hard to see why the Vikings stayed. Green fields in all directions brim with fertile soil which nourishes the two-row barley that survives the salty winds whipping off the chiselled cliffs and the sea below. Picturesque lochs and creeks bring fresh water to lands layered with peat dating back thousands of years. The official Wonders of the World dim in Orkney’s aura while a new wonder emerges: why didn’t the Vikings put all this together and make whisky?

A closer look at the barley. Credit: Søren Solkær

Orcadian lore suggests that the Vikings arrived from Denmark and Norway, fleeing the brutal rule of Norway’s King Harald I. Sailing west, they may have pillaged at first, but the Vikings who settled in the archipelago imbued it with a more peaceful Norse culture. They preferred to farm the bountiful lands, terrifying no one but Orcadian livestock when the dinner bell rang. In 875AD, Harald, noting their success, decided that Norway owned Orkney, even as the tree-stunting Orcadian wind showed him who was boss. Without trees, the settlers built their homes from stone, with driftwood beams supporting turf roofs.

 

The Scottish kings were not fond of their Norse neighbours and for centuries persisted with schemes to reclaim the land, but the islands remained Scandinavian until the late 15th century. Denmark’s cash-strapped King Christian gave Orkney to Scotland because he couldn’t afford the expensive dowry the country demanded to wed Christian’s daughter to its king, James III. Plans that Scotland would hold the land as security until Christian came up with the cash went unfulfilled when the gold never materialised, and hence, today, Highland Park is a Scotch whisky. While Norse political influence dissipated over time, their customs endured, as did their lore, surnames, fair complexions, and ruins – all the makings of excellent tales to relate over a dram.

Turning malt in the floor maltings. Credit: Søren Solkær

“No matter how we put it, the heritage of Orkney will always include a huge part of the Viking period,” says Highland Park’s senior brand ambassador Martin Markvardsen. “33 per cent of the people living here can trace their heritage back to the Vikings. There are streets with Norse names and people named after the old Nordic kings.” The roots of the Viking family tree are Highland Park’s roots, too. About 300 years after King Christian’s gaff, a Viking descendant named Magnus Eunson mashed the first grain on Highland Park’s grounds to charge an illicit still.

 

Distillery management takes great pride in attributing the distillery’s origins to this smuggler and church officer. What Eunson distilled precisely, no one knows, but history suggests he began production around 1790, setting up in the current location in 1798. Famously, Eunson is said to have hidden his spirit under the church pulpit. Did Orkney’s winds blow the smells of booze away so the congregation would sing Christian hymns rather than verses of Scottish drinking songs? Whatever the circumstance, revenuers finally caught Eunson in 1798 and made him buy a licence.

 

Around this time, the story continues, Eunson was also caught smuggling his distilled hooch on the mainland. Excise officers confiscated the whisky and then stayed at a Thurso inn. Eunson tracked them there and, with the innkeeper’s help, drilled through the ceiling into the officer’s room, draining the casks of their liquid gold while the revenuers slept. Come morning, the casks seemed much lighter coming down the stairs while the pub’s patrons’ heads weighed heavy in a fog of good whisky.

Stoking the kiln fire. Credit: Søren Solkær

Eunson persisted until 1816, when John Robertson, a customs and excise officer and policeman from Wick, made his way up to Orkney for one purpose: to capture the infamous smuggler. Offered a choice between jail or leaving Orkney, Eunson departed. Robertson may have dipped into the evidence and liked what touched his lips. In one of Orkney’s rare acts of pillaging, he claimed the distillery, moved into Eunson’s house and began making whisky. He deferred purchasing an official licence until 1826 after the 1823 Excise Act gave the islands a three-year grace period. No one can be certain of this history, but fact or fiction, the Eunson name is sacred here.

 

In 1895, when The Glenlivet’s James Grant bought the distillery, he expanded it to four stills and built a house behind it, where he lived for many years. New owners eventually sold off the house, but Highland Park has recently repurchased it to refurbish into distillery lodgings. In 1937, Highland Distillers acquired the distillery, then in 1999 sold it on to the Edrington Group. Despite many changes in ownership, the spirit of Magnus Eunson still wanders the distillery at night, checking on his legacy. His illegal mortal escapades could well disqualify him from claiming his angel’s share, but with those howling Orkney winds, he would need to travel to Alaska to claim it anyway.

 

But Orkney has a much broader story to tell than Norse settlers and bootleggers. While the clichéd imagery of Vikings, based on fictional tales of Thor, Loki, and Odin, has become something of a caricature, the balanced and distinctive flavours of Highland Park whisky remain matter-of-fact Orkney, as does a unique 54-year-old release launched in 2023 to mark the distillery’s 225th anniversary.

Rolling casks out of the warehouse. Credit: Søren Solkær

“It was a coincidence that this old whisky was ready, and we had enough whisky to make 225 bottles,” says Markvardsen. This oldest-ever Highland Park was distilled in 1968. In 2008, master whisky maker Gordon Motion transferred it to 10 first-fill sherry-seasoned casks and matured it for another 14 years until it was judged to have reached peak flavour and character. “It’s by far the best whisky I’ve ever tasted,” Markvardsen continues. “I tasted it blind and had no idea what I was drinking.”

 

In this, Highland Park’s 225th year, the smoke rising from the pagodas isn’t from birthday candles but the peat that plays a vital role in Highland Park’s production. Workers malt a portion of the barley, turning it by hand on the distillery’s malting floor, then dry it with fragrant local peat. Assaulted for millennia by those ferocious, salty sea breezes, Orkney peat is tougher than Chuck Norris, but its long-cured heather lends its smoke the soft, elegant, aromatic redolence that underscores the whisky’s house style.

 

After decades of occasional one-off releases, Highland Park made a big splash in the late 1970s with its first core release: Highland Park 12 Years Old. Even as the whisky industry struggled through the 1980s and early 1990s, Highland Park continued with its 12-year-old.

 

“The distillery had been standing on its own for a long time and did not have an organised release of expressions. Like most distilleries around that time, most of the whisky made went into blends,” says Markvardsen. “We were one of the highest-categorised whiskies for blending at that time. The distillery made good money from that. When we decided to release the 12 [Years Old], we entered a new era of whisky where more single malts were coming out. There wasn’t a plan to base the entire distillery around this aged expression.”

A peat stack in the Orkney landscape. Credit: Søren Solkær

In the 1990s, when the 18 Years Old joined the core line-up, it stood out and quickly became a favourite to many – including famed whisky writer Michael Jackson, who described it as “the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky”. Other ultra-aged core expressions followed the 18.

 

Markvardsen explains that Highland Park has been appreciated by more than just whisky fans and writers. Its admirers include politicians from Winston Churchill to the former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, Kenneth Clarke. Conversation tells of Clarke, a glass of Highland Park firmly gripped in one hand, waving to the nation while reading his 1995 budget, which included the first-ever cut in excise tax on whisky. The Highland Park effect repeated the following year. Unfortunately, a year later, Clarke’s successor Gordon Brown (himself a Scotsman) announced a rise in whisky taxes, a glass of water in his grip.

 

In 1967, its Nordic ties cut but still remembered, a campaign called for Orkney’s return to Denmark. Then in 1986 came a proposal asking that Orkney renew its Nordic ties. Again, in July of this year, Orkney council leader James Stockan proposed an “alternate form of governance” that meant rejoining Norway as part of the European Union. As Stockan explained to the BBC, “We’ve been part of the Norse kingdom for much longer than we’ve been part of the United Kingdom.”

 

However, Highland Park contributes significantly to Orkney’s economy and, as the past 225 years have shown, this Orcadian whisky’s Scottish roots are deeper than even the island winds can dislodge. Put that in your peat-laden pipe and smoke it, Mr Stockan, and pillage this beloved Scotch whisky at your peril.

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