Single malt scotch has a reputation as a serious whisky for distinguished, tweed-jacketed men who sip it from crystal tumblers while sitting in leather armchairs in the library of some manor house as a gray-whiskered hound sleeps on the carpet beneath an oil painting of a fox hunt. This reputation has not been thrust upon it. Scotch producers have carefully cultivated it, likely on the assumption that such a scene represents the reality of a few scotch drinkers, and the aspiration of many. Yet now it seems they feel a bit chained to it. The scotch industry would love to nab some younger drinkers, but that stuffy scene just doesn’t play with the modern twenty-something set. What to do? Well, if you’re Highland Park, you take a look at where you’re from and adjust accordingly. The Highland Park distillery happens to be the northernmost distillery in Scotland, located in Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands. After being occupied by a number of different tribes, the Orkney Islands were annexed by Norway in 875 and settled by the Norse, who used the islands as a base for Viking raids until the Scottish Crown took over in 1472. So while the Orkney Islands are a part of modern Scotland, the area maintains a cultural duality, with vestiges of its Nordic past found in its dialect and cultural traditions. Thus, Highland Park has the luxury of choice: it can position its whiskies as traditional Scottish products, or it can tap into its Nordic side. Given the intense competition among traditional scotch producers, it’s hardly surprising that they’ve decided to go Viking.
And that’s how I found myself at an event space called the Foundry in Long Island City, New York on Tuesday night, entering a darkened chamber bathed in red light and accentuated with Norse iconography. Highland Park was releasing the second expression of its Valhalla series, a collection of four whiskies inspired by Norse mythology. The series began last year with the great warrior Thor, a strong (52.1% ABV) malt with vanilla, blackberry, and cinnamon flavors. It was delicious. This year we were being introduced to Loki, a crafty shape shifter with a command of fire, and the event was designed to underscore its mythical underpinnings.
As a sharply-dressed crowd of New York journalists, bar owners, and other assorted whisky lovers filled the room, waiters circulated with trays of mini shepherd’s pies, and a concealed kitchen produced salmon three ways. Put your hand in this hole for raw salmon. This hole gets you a tasty bite of smoked salmon. The third gets you torched salmon. Hope you like salmon. Pre-mixed Blood and Sand cocktails were offered, but since I don’t fancy them, I hit each of a pair of bars serving Highland Park’s traditional 12- and 15-year-old whiskies neat. Next to each bar was a water station complete with waterfall, where an attendant would happily add a few drops of mineral water to your dram so you could watch it squirm. I reached for a flask. "Please let me pour for you, sir," pleaded the attendant. "It’s my only job here." My F&B needs properly sorted, I made my way back into the crowd to enjoy the theatricality of it all.
After a half hour or so attempting to mingle, my group–I was somehow lumped in with a couple dozen other "impulsive" souls–was summoned into an adjacent chamber by the god Loki, whose commanding voice over the PA system somewhat resembled that of one of the female publicists I greeted on the way in. No matter, this was the moment we were here for, the grand unveiling of the Loki the whisky. Smoke machines set a misty scene around the T-shaped table arrangement, into the center of which strolled Highland Park brand ambassador Martin Daraz, who introduced the spirit and led us all in a toast.
Finally, amid the smoke, red lights, music, and thunder (I’m pretty sure there was thunder), I took my first sip of Loki. And then another. I liked it immediately. Loki is a 15-year-old single malt that shares the DNA of its more traditional cousins, but goes off the rails a bit with a few out-there flavors. At 48.7% ABV, it’s another elevated-strength whisky, but it’s smooth enough to take a generous sip without having to put your fist through a wall to get it down. It smells of bitter orange and has a complex yet pleasing flavor, with notes of apple, lemon, grapefruit, and a faint wisp of smokey chocolate. The essence of vanilla lingered on my palate for several minutes.
And so we made our way to the balcony of this magnificent space to spend the remainder of the evening relaxing with our whisky as visions of Vikings danced through our heads. Music played and laughter echoed off the brick walls as I chatted with strangers and ate savory and sweet hors d’oeuvres out of order. At one point I swear I saw a man in a Druid’s cloak wandering around, but then it was dark, and there was whisky.
Evaluated on its own, Highland Park Loki is an excellent whisky, bold and flavorful, but smooth enough to not overpower the senses. It’s fun to drink. If there ever was a whisky that’s truly the "water of life," it’s Loki. But will its market positioning amid the pantheon of Norse mythology help it gain traction with the hip set? Maybe. The party certainly was fun, and the historical connection seems to make sense, moreso than, say, a German tequila. Who knows, maybe over the next few years more distilleries from northern Scotland will identify with Viking regalia as a point of differentiation. There certainly seems to be a lot more latitude for creativity on that side. Marketing-wise, it’s all but a blank slate, waiting to be filled with a dramatic scene.
All too soon, it was time to leave Valhalla and return to Park Slope, a soft landing if there ever was one. I took the warming glow of the whisky with me all the way to my couch, where I plopped down and turned on the TV. Fumbling with the remote, I landed on a show that was all too perfect: Vikings.
Highland Park knows what it’s doing.
Highland Park Loki has a suggested retail price of $249, and is available at select whisky retailers. Check the website for more information. If you’re in New York and want to sample different scotches, drop by Highlands, St. Andrews, or the Brandy Library.