This whisky is a bit deceptive. It’s not a simple dram, although I remember thinking it was when I first had it ages ago. When I first tried it, I was only just getting into whisky. I remember thinking that there wasn’t a whole lot to it. Regardless, I grabbed it again recently when I came across a sample bottle at my local booze peddler. It was cheap and I had a hankering for something lightly peated. Even upon trying it again, my initial reaction was “That’s it?” Well, no. That’s not it. This whisky actually has a lot going on beneath the surface.
Nose: Very malty. Lovely caramelized fruits. Apples, peaches, banana, citrus and pears. Behind that, some gentle vanilla. Sherry notes; baking spices and dark fruits. Chocolate, nuts, and raisins. There are hints of salt and peat here, but they take a backseat to the sweet, dark fruity character.
Palate: The arrival is creamy, and initially slightly dry and salty. The gentle peat note presents itself very gradually. With it comes a deep, rich caramel, followed by big, juicy raisins, cinnamon, banana-nut, milk chocolate, and faint ginger. The dark, roasted caramel sweetness is fantastic, and it cooperates beautifully with all of the above flavours.
Finish: Cinnamon and anise. Demerera sugar? More rich, lovely caramel, which is beautifully interwoven with the gentle smoke. Banana-nut, chocolate, juicy raisins, toffee and allspice. A bit of oak comes through as well. A thoroughly enjoyable medium-length finish.
The HP18 can be challanging. There are subtleties to this dram which make it seem simpler than it is. The flavours aren’t all crisp and easy to identify, and it takes some effort to distinguish them. Why? Because they don’t stand alone, but rather their individual characters merge (quite effortlessly) with that lavishly rich, dark, sweeping caramel presence which characterizes this whisky. Because of that synthesis, it’s a fun, albeit challenging, whisky to explore and deconstruct. But if you’re not interested in picking this stuff apart, you don’t have to. The natural quality of that dark, fruity, smoky caramel makes HP18 something that one can also enjoy casually.
I failed to mention in my prior comment, that when I gave my 50 ml reviewed bottle a 90 score, that I was probably being 2-3 points generous, based on prior samples of Highland Park 18 which I had enjoyed much more. A score of 87 would actually have well-approximated what I thought about my 50 ml bottle, absent prior experience with that same whisky.
A well opened bottle of Highland Park 18 gains dimension, becoming lush and full, which includes more ability to taste ALL of the flavours: more tastable sherry, more noticeable peat and smoke, and richer barley, with noticeably increased honey-sweetness. The difference is as though a cardboard cut-out has come to life and become three-dimensional. Since I originally posted some time ago on Connosr about waiting 4 months for the whisky to bloom, there have been at least 3 other members who have commented on having had that same experience of radical improvement of the whisky after they waited several months for it to open up.
What I especially like about Highland Park as a distillery (and Bruichladdich as well), is the QUALITY of their BARLEY. When their whiskies are in their best flavour zones their barley is extremely delicious, and, to me, far superior in taste to the barley used by most other distilleries for malt whisky. You often don't really get to taste that wonderful barley-malt flavour, though, with a newly opened bottle of Highland Park malt.
I agree that this improves noticeably with air, and moves from 90 to 93 after many months sitting. Buy a bottle, try a couple of drams and make notes, wait a few weeks and do the same. Then put it away for at least 3 months and then only occasionally pour a dram. You will want to make it last as it is a special experience.
I also agree on the barley quality of both HP and Bruichladdich. I remember the first time I tried Laddie 10, I was blown away with the absolute quality of the product. I have really liked their various versions, but the 10 is not as influenced by finishes or aging, allowing one to see how wonderful the base spirit really is. The same can be seen with HP by trying the 12, 15, and 18. One tastes the underlying spirit that is characteristic of HP and why it is so loved.