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Highland Park Swings Thor's Hammer

When you have Scotland's northern most distillery (Highland Park) on a remote island (Orkney) that was once part of Norway, it's very tempting to invoke Norse gods once in a while. And so we have the Valhalla collection, which recently debuted with Thor and is planned to include three other single-malt Scotches, also named for Viking deities, in the coming years.

At a glance, it's easy to be captivated by the mere packaging: a rectangular bottle encased in a wooden frame akin to a Viking ship, with serpentine prows facing in opposite directions. But it would be a mistake to dismiss this 16-year-old, limited-release one-off as nothing more than a pretty box. The formidable whisky inside is a fascinating departure for Highland Park, even as it contains its basic DNA.

The 104.2 proof (52.1 alcohol by volume) provides the punch that distinguishes this malt from other Highland Park releases. Martin Daraz, the company's brand ambassador in U.S., says that Highland Park is often referred to as the “velvet hammer. Well, Thor might just be the hammer.”

And it does pack a wallop while never forgetting the signature factors of its Orcadian upbringing (cold climate, prevailing winds, particularly aromatic peat) and creation at the Highland Park (traditional floor maltings and use of Sherry barrels in aging). Like the 25-Year-Old, it is the product a mix of first-fill Sherry casks and previously used vessels. In the case of Thor, some of the casks are made with American, as opposed to Spanish, oak.

Daraz says that Orkney peat smells and tastes markedly different than the peat used in Islay and makes a distinct impression even while its only used in increments of two to four parts per million (far lower than some of the peat bombs that weigh in above 50 ppm). Its effect is a more nougat-like smoke with hints of chocolate.

Product shot, HIghland Park 25 year old Scotch.
Highland Park 25-Year-Old Scotch.

Thor, as the leading member of the Valhalla selection, will be released in the greatest quantity (23,000 bottles worldwide, 1,500 in the U.S.). Subsequent expressions will be at reduced numbers, and the company expects that to increase their collectibility. Loki will be the next release, sometime next year. Other divine namesakes will be Freya and Odin.

Just for fun we decided to taste in combination with its older brother, the 25-Year-Old, against a brace of cigars.

(More tasting notes and cigar pairings on next page)

Highland Park Valhalla Collection - Thor (104.2 proof or 52.1 percent alcohol by volume, $199)

APPEARANCE: Light gold, champagne color. Sturdy, quick, no-nonsense legs.

NOSE: If you flirt with the high-proof bouquet, you'll fall in love with the pretty notes behind the veil. The first sense is balls-out fruitiness, an almost Cognac nose with overwhelming pear and solid honey. The underlying oil and peat of the whisky then releases a floral character like tea roses.

PALATE: Succulent pears are the first sense of the flavors that grip you right from the start. The alcohol quickly fades and out comes a moment of bread and honey, followed by candied-red berries and tropical fruits. Very complex.

FINISH: The feeling that you've just sucked the tender heart out of a piece of hard candy lingers until you let the toast and peat redefine the whisky once again.

Highland Park 25-Year-Old (96.1 proof or 48.05 percent alcohol by volume, $384.99)

APPEARANCE: A rich, deep reddish color that verges on tawny port. The legs sob down the glass like adolescent tears, swollen, but in a hurry.

NOSE: This one is a wallflower compared to other coquettish Thor. But keep at it and the same kind of meaty fruit notes suddenly appear and then turn to tender tea leaves and whiffs of earth and toast.

PALATE: This whisky earns the Velvet Hammer sobriquet. A subtle nuanced whisky turns to a collection of meaty fruits (pears, peaches, apples) with the zest of eucalyptus. Far more toward syrupy than its younger sibling, it also packs potpourri, cinnamon graham cracker and honey.

FINISH: And then all the spices traipse out and mingle with an underlying doughiness in the whisky and fill soul like a rich dessert.

CIGAR PAIRINGS: We picked two cigars rather different in body weight, a milder La Palina and a fuller Casa Magna, and were surprised at how well both whiskies matched up with the span.

La Palina Collection Goldie Laguito No. 2 (89 Points, August 28 of Cigar Insider) - Woody and floral notes elegantly converge with each puff of this pigtailed panetela, which draws and burns evenly. A touch of peppery spice also comes through.

With Thor: The understated graces of the cigar get called out onto the dance floor by the big flirt of a whisky and get sweeter and toasty warm as well as fruity. The whisky calms a bit as it becomes entranced with its date and the substance of peat and toast.

With 25-Year-Old: The cigar rolls over and wants to be scratched by this charming whisky. It offers up its inner toast and sugar sweetness, and the whisky just complements it.

Casa Magna Box-Pressed Toro (88 Points, August 14 issue of Cigar Insider) - A very dark and oily squared-off cigar with an even burn. It starts out a bit papery but warms to show a woody, leathery character and apple-like sweetness.

With Thor: After a moment the Casa coaxes barley and earthiness from the suddenly reticent Thor and then releases it own quotient of fruit, heartiness, nuts and toast.

With the 25-Year-Old: Again, the Casa gains nuts plus nougat and a bit of an herbal note, while the 25 warms up quite a bit, becomes even rounder and heartier with nuts and toasts. At times it's hard to tell whose trading what in the bargain.