Highland Park 12-Year-Old vs Caol Ila 12-Year-Old

Right off the start, I’d like to admit that this is an interesting pairing. Highland Park is the northernmost distillery located in Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands [so it’s an Island single malt]. Although it uses local peat, it’s not as smokey as the Scotch from Islay, so it feels almost unfair to compare it with a very peaty malt [fans of strong smokey flavours, such as myself, may simply be easily swayed over to one side just due to the origin]. And yet, this is what I do – try whiskies side by side and see which one appeals to my palate. At least for now. Today, I pair it with a single malt from one of my all-time favourite distilleries, Caol Ila, and see how these two equal in age 12-year-olds stand up against each other. But first, music! Now playing: ArovaneAtol Scrap (2021 Remaster).

In 2017 Highland Park received a facelift and had rebranded its bottles with some pretty marketing of Viking [and Celtic] symbolism under the “Viking Legend” series, with the 12-year-old dubbed “Viking Honour”. I’ll turn the blind eye on the pretty bottle, box, and story and focus on the whisky that’s inside. Matured in European and American sherry seasoned casks, this 40% ABV bottle goes for about £35 these days. There is no added colouring [I think – correct me if I’m wrong], but it is indeed chill-filtered. Let’s also note that “seasoned” means that the distillery has “manufactured” casks by filling them with sherry for some time, instead of buying truly used up sherry casks from the bodegas. The flavour is light and uncomplex, with notes of toffee and caramel, a little smoky but not that strong on heather peat. I smell fresh fruit and raisins, which inevitably adds to the taste as I take another sip. It comes in full on in the mouth, not overpowering and pretty rounded, well-balanced, with a nice and slow decaying finish. I’d add some water to this malt, but at 40%, I think it will break down further. I checked the US market [my old go-to shop, Astor Wines in NYC], and the Americans are lucky to buy this at 43% [and $60]. I’m honestly a little jealous – this watered-down nonsense for the gen pop market really needs to stop. At least I have a bottle of the 18-year-old that’s bottled at 43%. I’d put this bottle up against the 18, but I suspect I know already which one would take home the prize.

The Caol Ila is cleaner on arrival but noticeably thinner on the body, and then, of course, there’s all that smokiness and peat! It almost tastes a little “cooler” on the palate [mintier?], but I assure you that the temperature of each wee dram is very much the same. This malt is a little lighter in colour than the Highland Park, but I suppose that doesn’t matter, since, with the added colouring, the distillery could have made it darker if they wanted to. The nose is leaner and it is definitely occupied mainly by the peat. Granted, unlike Highland Park, there is no sherry present in the flavour, and so the only sweetness is extracted from oak. The Caol Ila is more potent, at 43% [even in the UK market] and pricier, at £45 per bottle. I have to pause and make a declaration: although Caol Ila is at the top of my lists when it comes to single malts, this 12-year-old is my least favourite and often hits way below where Ardbeg or Laphroaig comes in at their younger years. It’s just a very “safe”, “commercial”, “balanced” dram – there’s nothing wrong with it – I just need more adventure. Perhaps my mind and palate is a little tarnished by the “diminishing returns” of having owned and tasted many independent bottlings, where Caol Ila is uncompromised and often bottled at cask strength. I own more than a dozen of such Caol Ila bottles, and they outshine this 12-year-old by a mile.

Before I make a final call on tonight’s winner, I run a quick experiment in blending. I add a bit of younger Caol Ila from a 5-year-old and 46% bottle by Hunter Laing for Fortnum & Mason that I snatched at Christmas for £55 into the glass of the 12-year-old at a ratio of 1:2. Yes, I am blending on my own here, and yet it is a single malt still, right? And… oh my, how it changes, and how much character is now in my glass! This _is_ the Caol Ila that I treasure and not the thinned, diluted, stripped-down version for the mass. So with that said, I must declare the victor and say that Highland Park 12-year-old wins this round.

[Update 1/13/2022] – I think I am done with this bottle of Caol Ila 12. I have emptied the rest into my 100ml stash, as well as the first pour in my newly started infinity bottle. It is now quietly marrying, with the Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition, and I hope it will be lifted with a little more peat.

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