Cameron Highlands is known for many things, among them strawberries, tea plantations and the still unsolved disappearance of American businessman Jim Thompson. It is not known for Vikings and whisky, yet this is what defined a recent trip to cool-weather country.
Named after government surveyor William Cameron, Cameron Highlands was developed during British rule as Malaysia’s largest hill station to provide refuge from the unrelenting tropical heat. Traces of its colonial heritage remain — the Tudor-style The Smokehouse Hotel, for instance, draws visitors from miles around to admire its private English gardens, delighting in the heavy boughs of blooms, bushes of shy buds and fat bunches of herbs that perfume the brisk air.
It is here, on a rain-soaked terrace, that we encounter the Vikings through a trio of Highland Park whiskies. Local whisky retailer Single and Available whisked us to this idyllic setting for the release of the final component of the Viking Legend trilogy, where the rolling mist and ominous grey skies recall the Scottish Highlands that bore these spirits.
An undeniable product of its place, Highland Park hails from Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, known as the world’s northernmost distillery for its proximity to the Arctic Circle, closer to Oslo than London. It lies outside the five key whisky regions of Scotland and its wild, remote locale imbues it with fierce independence and distinct style. Harsh elements like the gale-force winds that pummel its terrain shaped the landscape into one free of trees. The resulting abundance of dense, slow-burning heathery peat from the woodless Hobbister Moor has informed the smoky character of its whiskies for over 220 years.
Although the Highland Park distillery’s roots can be traced back to 1798, the date is really just the year authorities finally cottoned on to its illicit whisky production. The distillery was founded and run by Magnus Eunson, a butcher and church officer by day and smuggler by night. He was also a direct descendant of the Vikings, who arrived in Orkney in the 9th century upon leaving Denmark and Norway, thus sweeping its cluster of 70 islands into their vast Viking kingdom, ruled by a succession of earls.
While that chapter of its heritage has long been laid to rest, Highland Park remains inspired by the valour and romance of the Viking legends, prompting an eponymous single malt trilogy in 2017. The overarching story traces Odin’s preparations for Ragnarök, the climactic battle that brings about the end of days — a famed Old Norse legend that gained pop culture prominence thanks to Marvel. The bravest of the fallen Viking warriors were marked by the Valknut symbol that identified them to the Valkyrie or “Choosers of the Slain”. These maidens who served Odin descended from the dark heavens like avenging angels on horseback to raid the battlefields for the worthy and spirit them away to Valhalla, the great divine hall in Asgard. Danish designer Jim Lyngvild, a descendant of the first Earl of Orkney, collaborated with Highland Park to create the evocative packaging for the series.
Valkyrie opened the trilogy to suitably thunderous fanfare, a glorious blend of richly ripened fruit on the nose and a palate of warm spices. This unfurling — freshly baked bread, tart dried peaches and sun-ripened lemons, a powerful swirl of ginger, cloves, dark chocolate, salty liquorice and a hint of vanilla — gives way to a lengthy, complex finish and lingering aromatic smoke, not unlike the scene of the battlegrounds the Valkyrie throw themselves into. There are two ways to evaluate its appeal: that it scored 99 out of 100 and took the Chairman’s Trophy at the 2017 Ultimate Spirits Challenge, or that it is virtually impossible to find on shelves, so high is its demand.
Mid-2018 saw the release of Valknut, which called upon a higher proportion of local peated malt and was matured in sherry-seasoned oak casks. The sophomore edition, representing the knot of the slain that marked the heroes with three interlinked triangles, is similarly a swallow of well-braided flavours. Sweetness from the sherry casks is emphasised by a toasted vanilla nose and dives into a sonata of pepper, cloves, aniseed and oak, wrapped with trails of peated smoke. It has a stouter, spicier character than the Valkyrie, enjoyed best with a splash of water.
Finally, on a drizzly evening in Cameron Highlands, facing tasting glasses set atop barrels, we meet the highly anticipated Valfather — the alpha and the omega. Odin went by many guises and names, among them Valfather, or Father of the Slain, who presided over the golden hall of Valhalla. This trilogy finale evokes his might and majesty in the most peated whisky ever produced by Highland Park to date, matured entirely in refill casks for flavours and a character as complex as Odin himself. Pome fruit, including apples and pears, lend their fragrance to a subtle heart of crème brûlée, toasted cedar and smoked paprika, but it is the peated smoke that embodies Highland Park’s windswept birthplace that defines the drink.
The mightiest of ancient gods, Odin is a paradox, associated with wisdom and knowledge, sorcery and poetry, and battle, frenzy and death alike. Legends have it that he meets his end in Ragnarök, at the jaws of the savage wolf Fenrir, but his spirit lives on in the retelling of his strength and wisdom, handed down from oratory traditions to illustrated fables and now, in a robust dram. As far as legacies go, this liquid trilogy is hard to beat.
The Highland Park Viking Legend trilogy retails for RM1,600 at Single and Available’s flagship outlet in Bangsar Shopping Centre, KL. Call 03 2287 2151 for more information.
This article first appeared on Nov 11, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.