Highland Park – Orkney, Vikings & Valkyrie
5th May 2017
Last week of April saw a large clutch of European and US whisky scribes converging on Copenhagen courtesy of Highland Park. Owners, Edrington, were launching their new expression, Valkyrie and telling us about their new positioning for the brand.
Why Copenhagen? All who know Highland Park are aware it hails from Orkney but maybe don’t know about Orkney’s Viking history. One third of current Orkney residents have Viking ancestry. Indeed, Magnus Eunson, who founded Highland Park in 1798, was a direct descendent of those first Viking pioneers.
So what of this new brand positioning for Highland Park generally?
Well, Global Brand Director, Jason Craig explained that they felt Highland Park needed a refresh (packaging last changed 10 years ago). The old pack wasn’t wrong but it focused on the whisky (rightly at the time) but needed more of an emotional connection with consumers and a reason for them to get into the brand. After all, we all choose and like our preferred whiskies because of something they say to us or a feeling they stir.
Over a thousand years ago the islands belonged to the Viking kingdom of Denmark and Norway and were handed to Scotland as a mediaeval debt repayment guarantee – though the Vikings did not leave. The debt wasn’t repaid so Orkney remained part of Scotland. Following research, Edrington decided to take Highland Park back to Orkney’s Viking roots to tell the tales of its former rulers and the marks that the Vikings left on the islands and which are still around today. So we now have “The Orkney Single Malt with Viking Soul”. All communication on the brand will feature this theme and Jason allayed my concerns that those less knowledgeable will think it’s a foreign whisky. It’s certainly one you’d want to lift off the shelf and look at more closely. The glass for this bottle is wonderful to touch with all the beautiful embossing and easy to hold in the hand.
The bottle decor was inspired by an old Norwegian wooden church in the village of Urnes, a “stavkirke” which has very ornate carvings and is a World Heritage site.
The legend shown on the pack is that of a lion fighting evil in the form of two serpents. It was designed by Andy Bowman and team at Mountain Design Creative based in Glasgow. If this isn’t in line for a packaging design award then I’d be very disappointed. After much experimentation with leading glass manufacturers, the final result you see here was achieved. It does cost only a few per cent more than the previous bottle yet the price to buy in stores will not increase. The company is absorbing the cost and Jason Craig points out that the costly part of glass design is the mould and that lasts for many years so no need for price increases.
The 10 Year old (not available in UK) and 12 Year Old are in this pack now and the 18 Year Old will follow in July. We had a taste of the 10 Year Old at the Viking Ship Museum and I was well taken with it so do try it if you find yourself anywhere overseas where you can get it. More changes are afoot on 25 Year Old (probably same pack format). It should be noted that there is no change in the whisky inside the bottles, though 18 Year Old will become a batch offering and there will be two each year. There may be a change of age from the current 30 and 40 Year Old offerings and there will be a 50 Year Old to come in November 2017 but only around 300 bottles of that will be available globally. More on those perhaps as they emerge and another new expression, Full Volume, a limited release coming out in the autumn.
The new expression, Valkyrie, has a dark and brooding pack. Anyone who has read Norse mythology will know that the Valkyrie were avenging horse-backed angels who combed the battlefields for the bravest of their fallen warriors. They would then select, from the fallen heroes, who amongst them would enter Valhalla, the afterlife hall of the slain fighters. They also served mead to the heroes and sometimes became lovers of the fallen soldiers. Not entirely the large, warrior women of Wagnerian opera. then.
For this special edition, Highland Park felt the need for someone with authentic Viking knowledge rather than a home based designer who would create maybe a perceived representation or their own, more distant, interpretation of Viking mythology. They discovered leading Danish designer Jim Lyngvild who is a descendant of Vikings and who has his own wooden castle in the countryside a couple of hours outside Copenhagen.
Jim Lyngvild’s pack design is a beautiful piece of work, featuring red for Viking blood (not, it seems, for any expected assault on certain Far East markets where red is the colour of good luck) and black for drama and stand out as a special edition. Plus the Valkyrie are also sometimes associated with ravens. In fact, this bottle is different from the new core range to reflect the special edition status. The pack design is inspired by two important Nordic sources – a typical Viking pendant from around 300-700AD discovered in Uppland, Sweden and the ancient Hammar Stone of Gotland which details the epic journey of the Valkyrie.
After a morning at the Viking Ship Museum learning about longboats and sails and how the wood is used and shaped in comparison with the oak for casks, we were treated to an evening visit to Jim’s castle and a Viking feast there. Entertainment came from opera singers and local actors played squabbling Viking warriors throughout the evening, culminating in the death of a Viking king and the symbolic burning of his body out at “sea” in a life size model of a longboat. Truly spectacular. Earlier in the day Jason Craig did comment that a lot of whisky writers were at the Speyside Festival those same days and probably weren’t having as much fun or doing anything quite as different as we were.
Martin Markvardsen, Highland Park Brand Ambassador led us in a tasting of the new Valkyrie and pointed out that if Scotland had voted for independence a few years ago, we would possibly have been drinking Norway’s finest single malt as Norway had expressed an interest in its ancient right to buy back the Orkney Isles if Scotland separated from the UK. Bear that in mind if we get another referendum!
And what of the whisky inside? Well it’s not dark and brooding but it does use some of the small stocks of more highly peated Highland Park that the distillery produces which give it an altogether more robust, but still smooth and rounded, feel. The Highland Park DNA is very much in evidence from the usual fine mix of cask types including even some bourbon cask which is not often used by them. There wasn’t a lot of time for scribbling own tasting notes on the evening so those supplied by the company are:
Appearance: Natural colour – bright, amber hue
Nose: Sharp tang of sweet green apples and ripening lemons
Palate: A bewitching mix of oriental spices. Driven by European Oak sherry seasoned casks, American Oak sherry-seasoned casks and Bourbon casks, the flavour profile is creamy vanilla with spicy, sweet, preserved ginger and lingering smokiness with hints of liquorice.
Finish: Exquisitely balanced, the long and lingering finish delivers waves of warm aromatic smoke and richly ripened fruit.
I might add in a few thoughts of my own but wouldn’t disagree with any of that. The whisky is bottled at 45.9% abv, is definitely an enjoyable dram and only around £55 a bottle. Master Whisky Maker, Gordon Motion did give some indication of the age of the whiskies in the bottle and suffice to say that they are well mature and not striplings. There is no age statement on the pack as Edrington want to defend the “no age statement” position of allowing the blending team to play effectively with the whole inventory and create something delightfully drinkable. And it is.
Valkyrie is the first in a series of three Viking Legend special editions. The other two, Valknut and Valhalla will follow in 2018 and 2019. Gordon Motion tells me he hasn’t got far into the development of those yet but they won’t necessarily be built on the Valkyrie base. They could be quite different dependent on the feel engendered by the stories behind them.
Beyond this the brand’s new website has been launched so you can find more information and pictures there on www.highlandparkwhisky.com