Pat Retson, Brand Heritage Manager at Orkney's Highland Park Distillery, was the first whisky pro to welcome me into the world of the amber nectar. Two and a half years after our first meeting I caught up with her again, for a whisky-charged blether about TV, whisky, tourism and beer.
Whisky on TV
Pat and I agreed that BBC Scotland's recent 3-part series Scotch! The Story of Whisky had been excellent, with David Hayman asking pertinent and probing questions around the industry. (The series is available at the time of writing on BBC iPlayer and is well worth watching.) I said that I think the level of information is exactly what would interest my Whisky Women and video review subscribers. Pat said that the programme was excellent for the industry, and that she is amazed at how much so many people now know about whisky. They are always keen to share their knowledge with the guides and staff at Highland Park. More knowledge, more understanding and appreciation, and then more enjoyment of whisky.
You have to make an effort to get to the Orkney Isles, buffeted by wind and surrounded by deep waters and strong oceanic currents. It was the latter that first brought me here, charged to translate the excellence of their salmon farming practice into digestible gobbets of information for Waitrose provenance-hungry consumers.
I asked Pat if Highland Park and whisky drive tourism on Orkney? Pat described many people's journey to Highland Park as one of pilgrimage, and the opening of Scapa Distillery's nearby visitor centre has added to the whisky allure of the islands. The tours and visitor centre at Highland Park are Pat's responsibility and the demand for the more specialised tours is steadily increasing. The tour structure has changed in the last 3 years and the Magnus Eunson* experience (£75pp) is fast becoming the most popular specialist tour (I guess the standard tour numbers are skewed by the increasing numbers of cruise ships that visit Kirkwall now in the summer months.) The day that we met Pat was expecting a guest for the £1,000 Work a Day experience, a complete whisky school in about 16 hours. I kept thinking of the lucky guy the following day (he had his induction on the afternoon of my visit), cutting peat on Hobbister Moor, turning the grain on the maltings floor and especially in the evening as he and his wife enjoyed a 7-course tasting menu with matched Highland Park whiskies. Yes, I was a tad envious! (*Magnus Eunson is acknowledged as the founder of Highland Park, legend labelling him both a clergyman and an illicit distiller.)
NAS (non-age statement) whiskies and special editions are received with mixed emotions by industry commentators and Highland Park have contributed quite a few of these in recent years. I asked Pat how special editions are received by whisky enthusiasts? She agreed that as they are always in limited supply they can be outside the reach of people who buy their whisky to simply drink and enjoy with friends. For both collectors and investors, however, they are valuable editions to the Highland Park range - and I guess they are exciting for the blender to create. Pat told me to check out the Highland Park Appreciation Group on Facebook and I have asked to join it. This pack of 1615 fans (soon to be 1616 I hope) is a closed group for true Highland Park enthusiasts.
When Pat and I first met she very kindly shared some glorious drams with me in the Tasting Room and so I put a couple of samples in my bag for her before I left home. She did seem genuinely touched and I was delighted to have been able to extend some wonderful whisky friendship back to her.
Grains - mainly barley - water and yeast: beer and whisky go hand in hand and matching them together is becoming a very fashionable thing to do. Pat explained that since my last visit, the Swannay Brewery has come of age and Highland Park is now offering tasting evenings with them, matching beers, whiskies and cheeses. I know that we shall be booking onto one of these events as soon as we return to Orkney again: we have enjoyed several Swannay brews on this visit.
Pat and I both agreed that we could sit and talk for hours but the lucky recipient of the Work A day tour was on his way and it was time for us to make a move. I am already very much looking forward to meeting Pat again.
Layout note: I am attempting to only use an iPad Pro and have yet to learn how to move images and float them in text. I'm sorry if they are all at the bottom of this post - but they are here!