Talisker 18 vs Highland Park 18

May 25th, 2012

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.

Posted in whisky deathmatch by Joe Abercrombie on May 25th, 2012.

21 comments so far

  • innokenti says:

    Yes! Victory for Highland Park! You have now passed the test of not being a good writer but also a decent and upstanding human being. Although given that the PoV for Highland Park is Glokta… perhaps not quite so upstanding…

  • Tommi says:

    Great! Now I have to buy a bottle of Highland Park on my way home. Thank you my good sir! (my liver hates you)

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Your test for upstandingness is plainly flawed.

    Always remember your liver works for you, not the other way around.

  • Michael says:

    It would be an interesting reveal if, at the end of Whisky Deathmatch, if the PoV of the winning whisky matched your favourite character to actually write.

  • Michael says:

    ….and I hope that the editorial meeting planned for today is an exceedingly positive one.

  • Jared says:

    (drowns tears in Talisker)

  • Thaddeus says:

    Fantastic review. Had I a little more cash I’d be sorely tempted to buy myself some Highland Park 18 to guzzle upon.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Editorial meeting was cancelled. My editor could see no way to improve the perfection of the book.

    Actually she’s ill. It’s happening monday.

    I recommend you drown them in Highland Park, instead. Those Talisker fumes could be tough on sensitive eyes.

    Well there’s always the 12 YO.

  • Minsc says:

    How is the reading of The First Law going?

  • Thaddeus says:

    I hope your editor is not too pestilent (more seriously, I hope it’s nothing especially bad).

    Just checked, and that’s a hefty price difference. First site I came to had it for sale at just £24 (less than half the 18).

  • Ed Knight says:

    Bitter and cynical after my favourite fell at the first hurdle, which has put me in the perfect frame of mind to start my own reread of The First Law trilogy. Highland Park is an excellent whisky though, as you say, certainly a more relaxing drink. Hope that the editing process continues going well and that your editor gets well soon. Perhaps send her one of your vanquished bottles to blast her back to health?

  • Dan says:

    I’m a big Lagavulin 16 year old Single Malt fan myself. I’m now intrigued by both of these though. Even though Highland Park won out there mat still be a place in my cupboard for the Talisker. Thanks!

    PS: I’m eagerly awaiting Red Country. Thanks for all of the hours of battle, intrigue, and backstabbing. They are much appreciated.

  • Dan says:

    I also noticed their is a Highland Park 25 year old. Unsurprisingly it goes for a heft $230 U.S. That’s a bit too rich for my blood, more than a bit perhaps, but I bet it’s heaven with boxing gloves on.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Yeah, big fan of Lagavulin myself. If (alright when) I do this again I’ll probably do a whole set of Islays including a Lagavulin. Highland Park do a 21, 25, 30 and 40 year old, all very highly rated. Plus some highly limited edition ‘Orcadian Vintage’ bottlings, the oldest of which is from 1964. A bottle of that will set you back £3,700ish. Ouch.

  • Robb says:

    Inspiration liquefied. A writers friend indeed.

  • Curtis says:

    Damn, Joe you ever think about doing this as a side job?

  • James says:

    Disagree. Talisker 18 is THE SCOTCH. Highland Park 18 is a “cognac” so to speak. Besides, it costs twice as much. Still have nowhere-to-be-found Highland Park 21, but keep running out of Talisker.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Not sure in what language Highland Park is cognac regardless of speech marks. And they’re about the same price.

  • Darren says:

    Talisker is the winner.. I have had them both.

  • Dax says:

    Never thought of bottling as a reason for “official” criticism, but YES! They don’t fit into the small cabinet above my fridge so I have no way of hiding my Macallan bottles from my wife without subjecting them to cork rot! Not a *huge* problem since I’m not that much of a Macallan fan, but still it comes into play.

    WRT your review, well great review. HP gets props from critics everywhere. Honestly I don’t care for either *all* that much, wouldn’t buy another bottle. But if I had to choose I’d go Talisker by an inch. I agree there’s more complexity in the HP and there’s a bit of a stillwater/deadwood flavor in the Tal, the same flavor that puts me off on Macallans and Lagavulins. BUT I feel like the flavors of the Talikser go together right. It puts that stillwater flavor to use in a way that somehow works-ish, even though I still don’t *love* it. The HP has lots going on, but perhaps *too* much? With HP I’m just busy searching for and finding various flavors, but they don’t seem to build TO anything. A lot more chocolate there than the Tal, but if I wanted chocolate (I usually don’t but if I did) I’d just go for any of the phenomenal Bushmill’s expressions.

    Ultimately I wouldn’t turn either down, but I’d take any south-islay over both of them any day.

  • Dax says:

    (Yes even the Lagavulin I so disparaged above; when you’ve fully bathed yourself delicious ash tray juice from Laphroaig or Ardbeg, there’s nothing better than some still-quite-peaty Lagavulin deadwood to help you down off that high)

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