Highland Park Releases Loki, a Scotch From Norse Mythology

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.

[Related Content: A Sample of This Season’s Most Scholarly Scotch; BlackBook New York Nightlife Guide; More by Victor Ozols; Follow me on Twitter]

Tonight’s Beer: Innis & Gunn Irish Whiskey Cask Scottish Stout

One of pleasantest surprises from our recent trip to Edinburgh was the abundance of excellent beers. We figured Scotland would be Scotch-land, but craft beers were in abundance, especially at beer-centric bars like Brewdog. Among our favorite local brews were Alechemy Five Sisters Cask Ale, which isn’t yet available here in the States, and Innis & Gunn, which is. Innis & Gunn has an impressive range of beers, but our favorite was Innis & Gunn Irish Whiskey Cask Oak Aged Beer. It’s a Scottish stout matured in oak barrels that previously contained Irish whiskey, and it’s finally available in the good old USA. It’s also what I’ll be sipping tonight.

I got my hands on a four-pack of this delicious stout last week, and think it’s just great. It’s mildly sweet, like expensive chocolate, with notes of espresso and vanilla. It has a nice chewy mouthfeel, and ends with just a kiss of bitterness, to remind you that you’re not, after all, sipping a chocolate malt. If you like Guinness and Murphy’s stouts, you should try it. 

It’s the first beer to be aged in Irish whiskey barrels, which give it a mellow sweetness (something about a sugar exchange). Yes, barrel aging is quite the thing these days, not just with whiskey and rum, but with cockails and beer too. Works for me. 

Visit the Innis & Gunn website to find out where you can get some. A four-pack will run you about $10. If you’re in New York, drop by the city’s only two proper Scottish pubs, Highlands in the West Village or St. Andrews in Midtown, for a pint. You’ll linger.

[Related: BlackBook New York Guide; More by Victor Ozols

Gentlemen, Start Your Haggis: Burns Night Awaits

There’s an Irish bar on just about every block in New York City, and if you want to drink at all of them, start at McSorley’s and keep going until your liver falls out. There aren’t quite as many English pubs, but they’re still not hard to find, and they’ve got great names like Cock & Bull. Want to hang out in a proper Scottish pub? I can count them on two fingers. There’s St. Andrews, a polished, proper pub in Midtown, and there’s Highlands, a more casual gastropub on West 10th Street in the Village. If you’ve never been to them, now’s a great time for your first time, as the two will be hosting Burns suppers this week. A celebration of the life and poetry of Scottish national hero Robert Burns (1759-1796), the events feature bagpipes, poetry readings, whisky (no e), and, of course, haggis. 

The Burns supper at St. Andrews will be held on the poet’s birthday, January 25, which happens to be a Friday – perfect for sleeping it off. I’m sure it will be lovely. But since I’m more of a downtown guy, I’m intrigued by what’s going on at Highlands, so I picked up the phone and chatted with Highlands co-owner Donal Brophy, who gave me the lowdown on why Burns Night is important, and what they’ve got lined up. Highlands is going big for Burns Night this year, offering two sittings on both Wednesday and Thursday nights before hosting a Burns supper at the hallowed James Beard House on Friday, a ringing endorsement of the Highlands crew’s Bobby Burns bonafides. 

"Robert Burns was kind of the rock star of his day," Brophy explains. "He was the first writer to forge the national consciousness and cultural identity of Scotland, and he holds a hallowed place in Scottish culture. When we celebrate, it’s a paganesque evening where we try to conjure up the spirit of all of these poems he wrote, because some of them are quite supernatural."

A bagpiper named Jerry Dixon will set the tone, dressed in the full kilt and related regalia, before a prix fix menu by executive chef Chris Rendell  is served. The main course, of course, is haggis. As is the custom, the haggis will be paraded through the restaurant so everybody gets a good look, and will be "addressed" with the reading of Burns’ famous poem, "Address to a Haggis." Whisky, of course, will play a serious role, with a series of expressions from Compass Box being paired with each course. In all, it sounds like a ton of fun, and, unless you’re in Scotland, New York is the place to be to do it right.

"New York is one of the few cities in America you can do something this culturally obscure," Brophy says. "But it’s a rich experience."

The Burns Supper will take place Wednesday, January 23 and Thursday, January 24 at Highlands with 6:30 and 9:30 seatings each night. The dinner is $55 per person, plus an extra $35 for a whisky pairing. Email info@highlands-nyc.com or call 212-229-2670 for more information or to make a reservation. 

This Week’s NYC Happenings: NYChiliFest, Marquee, & Highlands

SUNDAY: Chili-laxing In Chelsea
Winter Warming At NYC’s Biggest Chili Festival

A hearty bowl of chili is fair compensation for the January cold. On Sunday at Chelsea Market, the NYChiliFest goes off, with masters of meat competing for the 2013 Golden Chili Mug crown. Dickson’s Farmstand Meats supplies the dry-aged beef while Sam Adams pairs up four chili-friendly brews. The chefs in the fray represent a couple dozen of our more creative kitchens, from Delaney Barbecue to Ducks Eatery to The Wayland. Brooklyn’s own band The Dixons provide the honky-tonk soundtrack.
NYChiliFest at Chelsea Market (88 Tenth Ave., Chelsea) kicks off at 7pm on Sunday the 27th. Tickets start at $50 and must be purchased in advance. To learn more about the market, check out the listing at BlackBook Guides. 

WEDNESDAY: Marquee Lights
Long-time flouter of gravitational hotness laws Marquee is back and smoking once again. The space has been redesigned from tip to toe, with the focus shifted from bottle service to dance music. Case in point: Wednesday night’s red-hot set by DJ Chuckie.
Marquee (289 Tenth Ave., Chelsea) is open now. Chuckie will DJ Wednesday night with doors at 12:30am. To learn more about the club, check out the listing at BlackBook Guides.

THURSDAY: Highlands Hearts Burns
True Scotsman’s gastropub Highlands celebrates poet Robert Burns’ 254th birthday with their annual Burns Night. There will be Scotch, along with a bagpiper, prix-fixe dinners, and a few kilts, too.
Burns Night at Highlands (150 W. 10th St., West Village) will be celebrated Thursday, with seatings at 6:30pm and 9:30pm. Prix-fixe dinners are $55, with $35 additional for whiskey pairings. To learn more about the gastropub, check out the listing at BlackBook Guides.

Find out first about the latest openings and events in NYC by signing up for BlackBook Happenings, the email brought right to your inbox every Monday. And download the BlackBook City Guies app for iPhone and Android.

This Is New Scottish Cuisine

If you read Rocky Casale’s recent BlackBook story, “The Mists Lift On a Burgeoning Scottish Culinary Landscape,” you know that Scottish chefs have finally put haggis behind them, instead focusing on the amazing bounty of meat, fish, and vegetables available in their fertile country. I happened to edit that story right before I took a trip to Edinburgh with my wife, so I decided to check out one of the restaurants it featured, The Kitchin, a favorite of author Irvine Welsh along with a few anonymous Michelin Guide agents. It was my wife’s birthday, and I wanted to take her somewhere special. I can’t pat myself on the back enough for that one, because The Kitchin was amazing, one of the best restaurant meals of our lives. But in addition to our precious little memories, the restaurant was a perfect example of the latest thinking in upscale Scottish cuisine. We decided to put our trust in Tom Kitchin and ordered the "Chef’s Land & Sea Surprise" tasting menu (I was too cheap/poor to do the wine pairings, but we had a great, semi-affordable bottle all the same). It was the right call, as we swooned over all seven courses. On the way out, they gave us a copy of the menu to take with us, rolled up and tied with a ribbon. So, for those of you wondering what, exactly, modern Scottish cuisine is, read on. (And for those who can’t make it to Scotland, I recommend Highlands on West 10th Street in New York for tasty Scottish food.)

Chef’s Land and Sea Surprise

Tasting Menu @ The Kitchin

Tuesday, 28th August 2012

Appetiser (sic)

Jellied chicken consommé with a leek cream, crispy bacon, and croutons.

Mackerel

Tartare of mackerel from St. Abbs Head* served with a Newhaven crab cream, cucumber, and capers.

Razor Clams (Spoots)**

Razor clams from Arisaig, cooked to order and served with diced vegetables, chorizo, and lemon confit.

Pig’s Head & Scallop***

Boned and rolled pig’s head, served with seared hand-dived**** Orkney scallop and a crispy ear salad.

Hake

Seared fillet of North Sea hake served with a red pepper piperade***** and confit garlic.

Rabbit

Saddle of rabbit from Burnside Farm stuffed with spinach, served with sautéed artichoke and a ragout of rabbit kidneys.

Strawberry & Crowdie******

Millefeuille of Blacketyside Farm strawberries served with Highland crowdie mousse, pistachio, and strawberry sorbet.

* St. Abbs Head is a National Nature Reserve not far from Edinburgh, and it looks like a very pretty place, at least when the sun is shining.

** Ha ha, spoots. I like saying the word spoots. Try it. Just turn to whoever is sitting next to you right now and say "spoots" and nothing else.

***Our favorite dish of the meal. No, it didn’t look like a pig’s head, the meat was shaped into a hockey puck. A delicious, pink-hued hockey puck.

****Hand-dived? What a job. Scottish scallop diver. Let’s get one to do a Reddit AMA.

*****Maybe you knew what a piperade was, but I had to look it up. It’s a Basque dish popular in France made with onion, green peppers, tomatoes, and Espelette pepper. And Espelette peppers are a type of chili pepper cultivated in the Pyrenees.

******Crowdie is Scottish cream cheese. Gimme a bagel with a schmear of crowdie. 

It’s Time to Welcome Back Gin to Your Spirits Repertoire

It seems like only yesterday I was researching gin for my spirits column in the October, 2011 issue of BlackBook. As I called in various bottles to sample, I asked everybody I knew how they felt about it. There were a few enthusiasts, but the majority of respondents cast their eyes downward, quietly shook their heads, and murmured something to the effect of "I can’t drink gin." It’s as if the question caused them to relive their worst gin experience, choking down a warm shot of some astringent rotgut poured from a plastic bottle, eyes watering, salivary glands in overdrive. Even my celebrity gin-tasting partner, Patton Oswalt, said that he couldn’t stand the stuff – though he later came around after a few choice cocktails at Stone Rose. But what a difference a few months makes. Yesterday a team from Nolet’s Gin came to the new combined editorial offices of BlackBook, VIBE, and Uptown magazines to mix a few gin-based cocktails, and people couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the juniper spirit. What happened? 

Good gin happened, that’s what. Yes, there have been quality gins on the market for years, but it seems people are only now willing to embrace them. As a result, they’re finding that today’s gins – and the fancy cocktails that showcase gin – are smooth, refreshing, and delicious. Better still, they’re hip to the idea of moderation: passing on that ill-advised nightcap can do wonders for your memories of a spirit. 
 
The Nolet’s team brought along John McCarthy, the beverage director of three great New York bars, Highlands, Mary Queen of Scots, and the recently opened Whitehall, which has nearly 50 gins on offer. For his part, McCarthy brought a host of great mixers, from honey to orange bitters to basil leaves, with which he made an inspired collection of cocktails. But first he had us all taste a simple, chilled shot of Nolet’s, and it was fun to witness the reactions of the 25 or so people in the room. They were at first jolted a bit by the strength of it – drinking straight liquor at 4:30 p.m. in a conference room will do that – but there was a sense of collective enlightenment as the various flavors – citrus, floral, and pepper – revealed themselves.
 
And then came the cocktails, the Nolet’s Silver Basil Collins, the Lynnette’s Own, and the No. 11 among them. The room lit up with questions and conversation, with people asking for recipes (below) and other good pairings. Poor McCarthy was scrambling to keep up with the requests, a task made especially difficult since his bar consisted of the western end of a conference table, but before long everybody was sipping their favorite cocktails and making plans to visit his bar for an encore. 
 
So if you’re one of those people who shudder at the mere mention of gin, I feel for you, but it’s time to give it another chance. Swing by Whitehall (or your favorite local bar), order a Nolet’s Silver Basil Collins (or the gin-based cocktail of your choice) and savor the subtlety, complexity, and character of gin at its finest. Pretty good, huh? Time to replace those bad gin memories with, well, memorable ones. 
 
Nolet’s Silver Basil Collins
1.5 oz. Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin
3 Muddled Lemon Wedges
.5 oz. Honey Syrup
.5 oz. Lemon Juice
3 Basil Leaves
Shake and pour all contents into a Collins glass. Top with club soda. 
 
Lynnette’s Own
2 oz. Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin
.5 oz. Lemon Juice
.75 oz. St. Germain
2 Dashes Rose Petal/Applejack Bitters
Shake and strain into a coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.
 
No. 11
2 oz. Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin
.25 oz. Simple Syrup
3 dashes orange bitters
Stir and strain over ice. Garnish with an orange twist. 

Mix It Up: A Selection of Single Malt Cocktails Worthy of the Good Stuff

Scotch should almost always be mixed with nothing more than a splash of water, but once you’ve become acquainted with your favorite bottle, there’s nothing wrong with playing around a bit. We asked T.J. Lynch, who tends bar at New York’s Highlands gastropub and its sister restaurant, Mary Queen of Scots, to suggest a couple of single malt cocktails that celebrate the spirit while adding to it some mixological magic.

The Blood and Sand, Highlands Version 3/4 oz single malt Scotch (recommended: 12- to 15-year-old Scotch that’s not heavily peated, such as anCnoc 12) 1/2 oz each Cherry Heering, lemon juice, orange juice Shake and strain into chilled coupe. Garnish with flamed orange peel.

Dram Dirk 1 1/2 oz single malt Scotch 1/2 oz Compass Box Orangerie 1/2 oz fresh lemon juice 1/2 oz chipotle-orange syrup 2 dashes orange bitters Shake and strain into ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with flamed orange peel.