Highland Park Scotch: The (Distilled) Spirit of the Orkneys

The island residents occupying the Orkneys north of Scotland like to maintain a bit of a separate identity from mainland Scots. Many descend from Viking stock, and Orkney folk often eye that mainland with an independent eye. But, anyone from the Orkneys embrace their Scottish heritage full on when a single topic emerges — the single malt Scotch Whisky from Highland Park Distillery.

With its brands winning whisky awards around the world, Highland Park started producing whisky in the 18th century and continued the process largely unchanged since then. Essentially using only the two ingredients of grain and water, Highland Park’s varieties of Scotch produce a unique flavor of northern, semi-smokey whisky.

Also: Exploring the Ancient Stone Circles of Mainland Island, Scotland

Highland Park remains one of the few Scotch distilleries to use a hand-turned malting floor to dry soaked, damp and sprouting barley before it heads out into the distillery process. The drying floor is heated by the classic process of peat fires to warm the malting floor. Those fires lend the barley a smokiness that finds its way into Highland Park Scotch.

Since northern Scotland and the Orkneys offer terrain largely stripped of trees by both violent weather and forestation, the region’s distilleries burned layers of dried ground moss instead of wood. Of course, the old distilleries were built before the dawn of industrialized electricity. So, these peat fires remained the only way to heat the malting floors into the early 20th century. By then, whisky lovers preferred the smoky flavor peat gave the Orkneys’ whisky. The process remains in full effect to this day.


Only the aging period and process varies from bottle to bottle as Highland Park keeps the distilling process uniform. You can inspect the process yourself in the spirited gallery below.

All photos by John Scott Lewinski