Highland Park is known for its careful balance of smoky and sweet flavors. But the newest addition to their core range of expressions, Dark Origins Single Malt ($105), leans in a much darker direction, thanks to the heavy influence of sherry imparted by double first-fill sherry casks. It’s a distinction made as obvious as humanly possible by the brand. The matte-black bottle and blacked-out external packaging, complete with an ominous hooded figure right below the label, are about as subtle as Kim Kardashian’s hindquarters in spandex. If you believe the marketing materials, the new whisky is meant to embody the “dark” nature of the distillery’s founding father, norseman Magnus Eunson, who according to legend was a butcher and preacher by day, an illicit distiller and smuggler by night. Chances are, enticing a different set of whisky fans had something to do with Highland Park’s newest creation, too.
Dark Origins is the first addition to the distiller’s core lineup without an age statement. This might seem a tactic to pass off younger whisky at higher prices, but more likely, it reflects the production restraints caused by Dark Origin’s need for whisky aged in first-fill sherry casks. First-fill casks hold and age whisky for the first time and are notable because they impart more character from the wood as well as the previous liquid aged in them (in this case, sherry) compared to “re-fill” casks that have aged whisky before. Whiskies matured in first-fill and re-fill casks, made from either American or Spanish Oak, are used in different ratios to create each of Highland Park’s offerings; while exact balances are never shared, we do know that Dark Origins features twice as many first-fill sherry casks as Highland Park 12.
Despite the heavy-handed branding, Dark Origins’s color isn’t remarkably different than HP’s standard 12-year offering. Drams from our bottle appeared lighter than the “rich mahogany” description written on their site (presumably by Ron Burgundy). That’s not a knock against the spirit, especially because the idea that darker-colored whisky is superior is a myth. But it does hint Highland Park has given into some of the promotional tactics used liberally by competitors for years. The good news for fans is that like the rest of the Orkney distiller’s lineup, the bottle’s contents aren’t cosmetically enhanced at the expense of taste. Dark Origins is non-chill filtered, meaning it isn’t stripped of the natural residues many feel are responsible for a whisky’s flavorful nuances. Caramel isn’t added to tweak the color, either.
Peat’s immediately noticeable after a sip. It isn’t Laphroaig 18 by any stretch, but it is one of the smokiest whiskies made by Highland Park.
The sherry makes itself known loudly when you take a whiff, mainly with smells of darker fruits. The taste is inviting and distinct from both the 12 and 18, with flavors pointing to a whisky in its early teens. Peat’s immediately noticeable after a sip. It isn’t Laphroaig 18 by any stretch, but it is one of the smokiest whiskies made by Highland Park. Charred wood pushes through, without the balancing influence of honeyed sweetness expected from a Highland Park. Things let up a bit through some chocolatey hints during the dry finish.
Judging Dark Origins’s impact on the Highland Park lineup moving forward depends on your point of view. Its smokier profile should make it an effective olive branch to a new segment of drinkers who enjoy whiskies from Laphroaig, Talisker, Bowmore, Ardbeg and Lagavulin. Price might be a speed bump given its lack of age statement (it’s twice the cost of HP 12), but Highland Park’s sterling reputation in the industry should comfort experienced drinkers in the end. Current Highland Park loyalists may also appreciate Dark Origins’s ability to expand their palettes while still providing the tasty comforts the brand has always boasted. But they also won’t be forsaking their bottles of Highland Park 12 or 15 for the newcomer anytime soon.