Highland Park has historically been among the most respected of Scotland’s distilleries for their classic single-malt offerings, but in the last few years, attitudes toward the distillery have been a little less universally adoring. A series of newer, NAS releases from the distillery were seen by many long-time fans as being on the gimmicky side, which seems to have led to the distillery re-thinking their busy release schedule a bit in 2019. They seem a bit more reticent now to bring new products to market, which implies a greater degree of confidence in the likes of the new Twisted Tattoo, which does indeed bear a 16-year age statement.
Twisted Tattoo is a 16-year-old single-malt whisky from Highland Park that was matured in first-fill bourbon casks, and—in a first for the brand—casks seasoned with Spanish Rioja wine. It’s bottled at 46.7% ABV (93.4 proof), and carries a roughly $100 MSRP in its U.S. release. I haven’t really sampled and single malts finished in non-fortified (port, sherry) wine casks, so I was curious to taste Twisted Tattoo and see what kind of profile the Rioja (especially as a fan of Spanish red wine) might bring to the finished product. Here’s what Highland Park, meanwhile, has to say about the particular collaboration that created this whisky:
In collaboration with Danish tattoo artist and modern day Viking Soul, Colin Dale, we created the bold design for this whisky, which celebrates the tattoo as a mark of both standing apart and being part of a tribe – just like Highland Park. Colin’s intricate design is inspired by the free-flowing Nordic knotwork found on Viking wood carvings and reflects the Norse legend of the Midgard serpent, which grew so large it twisted round the Earth to grasp its tail in its mouth.
Now, let’s get to tasting.
At a glance, there does seem to be just the faintest tinge of wine influence on the color here—it has a lightly rose gold hue, with just a tinge of pink to it, and Highland Park states that it was bottled at natural color. On the nose, this is moderately intense in terms of the peat and brine influences, with plenty of saltwater and tar that I have to work at to get past in search of other notes. I should note that I trend toward more lightly peated Speyside and Highland malts, and can be more sensitive to smoke notes than most drinkers, so you should likely take my perception of smoke intensity with a grain of salt. Behind the smoke, I get notes of buttery shortbread and peachy stone fruit here.
On the palate, I again am getting big peat, with sweet smoke, cigar wrapper and cedar, which flows into grass and damp earth, peach fruit and very subtle hints of red berries. The red fruity character you’d be searching for given the Rioja seasoning takes some looking for—it is quite subtle, and I can only imagine that a lot of drinkers would probably like to see it express itself in a more assertive way. Oddly, the bottle label itself doesn’t mention the Rioja cask aging anywhere on it, and I can’t help but wonder if this was intentional, to minimize expectations of the assertiveness of that flavor profile. Regardless, with enough searching you can tease out notes of raspberry and strawberry, but if you handed this to someone and had them taste it blind, I very much doubt they’d suspect any red wine barrel influences.
All in all, Twisted Tattoo is ultimately defined more by its maritime/peaty influences than by the presence of those wine barrels, which doesn’t seem to be quite what one would desire. With that said, it’s not as if there’s more objective flaws—it may just take those who seek out peatier drams to perceive everything the distillery was going for here.
Distillery: Highland Park
Location: Orkney, Scotland
Style: Single-malt scotch whisky
ABV: 46.7% (93.4 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $100 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.