Now we are most definitely talking. Island whiskies are those distilled on any of Scotland’s islands other than distillery-heavy Islay. Matured near the crashing salt waves of the North or Irish seas they traditionally have a slightly salty, sea-sidey, maritime character. Probably the two most prestigious of these distilleries are Talisker (Skye) and Highland Park (Orkney), and their flagship 18 year olds are some of the most celebrated, decorated, and highly rated whiskies going. Both have been called the best whisky in the world at one time or another, by one critic or another, and they are also two of the most expensive bottles in our little competition, weighing in at some £60 a piece. Are you prepared for an Island clash of the titans?
Talisker 18 – 45.8% ABV, £58.49
Highland Park 18 – 43% ABV, £57.95
LOOK – Both pleasantly presented without being over the top. Talisker is one of Diageo’s classic malts, and has a pretty classic look. Simple, clean and classy. A nice blue box, a pretty classic bottle, tall, but not too tall for my whisky cupboard. I hate a bottle too tall for my whisky cupboard, because it has to go in the other cupboard. Like Macallan. Current Macallan bottles are WAY too tall, in my opinion. But I digress. Label is creamy with accents of gold. According to the bumph on the back of the box, “Talsiker is for many the complete, even the only single malt.” That must be a pretty damn stupid many right there, because even if it was by some way the best, few would believe it was the ONLY malt. There are loads of ’em. The Highland Park has a slightly more contemporary approach leavened by celtic notes, and a shorter, more elongated bottle which I feel is nice in the hand though perhaps a little chunky in the spout. Makes pouring a little more cumbersome, and a big part of the point of a bottle is to pour, right? Label is black and red with silver accoutrements. The reams of marketing bumph are rather strangely presented in a cornucopia of fonts, and apart from anything else, make great stock of the exceedingly high quality of the oak casks used in maturation. This is a common theme. Everyone’s casks are the finest, the best, the most specially carefully lovingly selected. One wonders who takes all the shit casks. But I digress again. The liquids themselves are pretty similar in colour – rich amber golds, the Talisker perhaps a tad darker and more orangey.
SMELL – Aaaah, two different odours of the untamed coast. The Talisker is right down there in the docks, a salty sea-dog, a jolly jack tar, waves slapping on barnacles, good natured insults flung from deck to deck. A zingy spiciness that challenges you to give it a taste if you think you’re hard enough. The Highland Park is frolicking on the meadowy cliffs above, hair streaming, the far off spray, the calling gulls, the wildflowers whipping with the sea-breeze. Less forceful, more thoughtful. Less spicy, more herby. Less challenging, more inviting.
TASTE – The Talisker – Very rich, almost gloopy, very fruity, very — KERPOW! It explodes in your face with a ripping broadside. Huge spiciness, almost hot chilli-like fires of Mount Doom. Muscular, merciless, a hairy-chested, tattoo-forearmed pirate captain. Avast ye, me hearties. Big smoke. Big beach bonfires. Everything about it is big. Ships aflame, down to Davy Jones’s Locker, full fathom five thy father lies. Almighty, tongue tingling finish with a lingering memory of smokey salt. Zounds. The Highland Park, if I can just put my face back together – similar and yet so different. Still assertive, but far less explosive, far more subtle. Strong in the mouth still, but savory, almost herbal. Leafy, grassy. Deeply complicated. Beautifully poised. Lots going on. A long and smoky ending, but heather camp-fire rather than roaring furnace. A respected academic, suede patches on the elbows, lounging cross-legged in his leather wing chair, considering the arguments of his hapless students and then, steeple-fingered, demolishing them with an off-hand line and a quote from Goethe. When you reach my age my dear … Pour me another you suede-patched mastermind.
CONCLUSION – Two island titans, two twists on the sea, both with big presences. Talisker 18 – huge, rich, rugged, fiery, spicy, uncompromising. Recommended PoV – Ferro Maljinn. Highland Park 18 – floral, herbal, complicated, balanced, intimidatingly intelligent, wheels within wheels. Recommended PoV – Inquisitor Glokta. The Talisker you’d definitely consider a winter malt, a nip after a long walk in the snow. The Highland Park, perfect for after dinner, preferably somewhere with panelling. Big reputations well deserved, so far as I can tell. But which the winner?
RESULT – If you were stranded in the arctic circle it’s the volcanic Talisker you’d want, but I’m not. The Highland Park is more flexible, way more subtle, and for me more interesting. I wasn’t convinced about it to begin with, and considered describing it as half sea-water and half-dishwater, but it’s a real grower. The more I’ve drunk it, the more I’ve discovered. Highland Park soaks up the berserk onslaught, floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee, and outwits the Talisker on points, asserting itself as a strong contender for our title. Both excellent whiskies, though.
The Winner – HIGHLAND PARK 18.
From now on the loser will be stripped of its packaging and placed upon the table of shame to be drunk without mercy.
Coming next – the ring explodes with unsherried Speyside just past the age of consent: AnCnoc 16 vs Longmorn 16.