Nobody Knows Strong Liquor Like People Stuck in Cold Places
Whisky In Orkney
Seven tantalizing pours of Scotch are placed on a table mat in front of me at the Highland Park distillery, located in the town of Kirkwall, on Mainland, the largest of Scotland’s 70 Orkney Islands.
Highland Park has released a series of special-edition whiskies over the years honoring Viking culture and Norse mythology, with names such as Thor, Loki, and Leif Eriksson. It’s only when you visit Orkney that you realize the depth of its Scandinavian roots; you better cheers with skål rather than sláinte if you intend to stay in your host’s good graces.
Orkney was part of Norway until 1468, when Christian I, king of the recently united Norway and Denmark, pledged the islands to King James III of Scotland in lieu of a dowry for his daughter, Margaret of Denmark.
While I’m told that the day of our visit is actually quite mild, the gusts of wind are still severe enough that it’s difficult to walk around. The wind routinely gusts at more than 60 miles per hour on Orkney, and a smattering of wind turbines produce more than 130 percent of the island’s energy needs. With no way to return that energy back to the grid and the rest of the country, they simply turn off the turbines sometimes.
This is the kind of environment that would lead residents to develop a thirst for a ready supply of hearty, soul-warming drinks. It’s no surprise that Highland Park was founded in 1798, putting it on the shortlist of the oldest still-operational Scotch distilleries. In fact, despite having only a scant 21,000 residents spread across the 20 inhabited islands of the chain, Mainland has a second distillery: Scapa.
Orkney’s remote location and its weather don’t seem too inviting to those without Viking ancestry, even if the island is quite charming, particularly when guests have been properly fortified with Scotch. A vertical sampling from the distillery, taking us from the 12-Year-Old up to the 40-Year-Old, manages to soothe the soul just fine. The heavy hitters of the lineup, the 40-Year-Old and 30-Year-Old, aren’t the favorites, though. It’s the middle of the family, the 21-Year-Old and 25-Year-Old, that seem to have more fans amongst our group.
But it’s the 18-Year-Old that’s said to best represent the 218-year-old distillery. The whisky is rich with honey sweetness and heather, balanced with smoke and salt. “This is Orkney in a glass,” we’re told as we take our first sip, more ready than ever to head back out into that punishing wind.