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.

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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.