This past week, Colborne Lane was transformed into a dark medieval dining experience, replete with Viking shields, helmets and swords. This was to coincide with the Highland Park's launch of the first in their Valhalla Collection – Thor.
The evening was a highly spirited event featuring Chef Claudio Aprile and Highland Park's Canadian Ambassador, Marc Laverdiere.
Many whisky events that I have attended treat food as secondary, keeping the focus solely on the drink. Yet for this event, Highland Park boldly went with a unique menu by Chef Aprile, in order to pair excellent food with, as the Highland Park tagline proclaims, the "The Best Spirit in the World."
While wine was freely poured, the focus was clearly on the Scotch. Marc Laverdiere kicked off the event with an honest, passionate introduction about his love for Highland Park. Hearing Marc speak is always a treat, as he does an excellent job of sharing his passion for the drink and story telling, all the while making sure to not keep us too long from our food and drink.
In terms of the menu, we were surprised that Chef Aprile veered from his standard molecular gastronomy fare to feature a far more rustic and traditional dishes, yet still keeping true to his philosophy of perfection and attention to detail that heightened each course. In fact, Chef Aprile alluded that the menu will be slowly moving in this direction.
While the 18 is Marc's favourite, his love for the spirit started with the Highland Park 12 which was served with our first two courses. Being the younger Scotch, it's sharper with a balance of peat (smokiness) and light sweetness. Paired with a dish of caramelized carrots, wheat berries and chèvre noir (black goat cheese), the play on flavours went through the extremes of the drink, with the caramelized carrots and black goat cheese being as opposite but as balanced as the sweetness and boldness of the Highland Park 12.
The second course was peat-squab, creamed barley, and charred ramps with an infusion of the Highland Park 12. Chef Claudio's attention for detail was apparent in the ramps, as an example, charring it heavily on one side which nicely complemented the smokiness of the Highland Park 12, yet leaving the other side uncharred which balanced well with the sweetness of the Scotch. Simple, yet brilliant execution.
Next, we moved on to the Highland Park 15. Unlike the 12 and 18, the 15 has a higher ratio of bourbon cask than the traditional sherry casks predominantly used with Highland Park Scotch. This brings out a lighter and summery feel to the drink. The plate of food was equally light and playful, described as a “green apple bomb, white chocolate, vanilla” and infused with the 15. The plating was as whimsical as the dish itself.
The Highland Park 18 is predominantly sherry cask-aged, using more first-fill casks as compared to the 12. While maintaining the traditional peat that Highland Park is known for, the drink has a subtle sweetness. The 18 is repeatedly recognized as the best spirit in the world including high praise from Jim Murray and Michael Jackson (a Scotch critic, not the singer). Paired with lamb shank and stuffed onion, the flavours were bold and sweet, underlining the strengths of the Highland Park.
While the dinner thus far was relatively restrained compared with what we're used to seeing from Chef Aprile, dessert was chocolate, malted milk (the white ball), and hazelnut. The malted milk was (literally) an explosion of flavour, and the base had a fantastic crunch.
This is when the Highland Park Thor came out, as introduced by Marc Laverdiere. You'll immediately notice this is a special limited release by the extraordinary wooden framing of the bottle. The drink inside is aged a minimum of 16 years (with some Scotch used aged as old as 30 years) and bottled at cask strength (52%).
As with all Highland Park spirits, Thor is beautifully balanced and complex. I'd need more time with this drink to fully appreciate all the layers, but I can say that as the name suggests it comes out bold from start to finish. The nose has an earthy moss scent with a light smokiness. It is intense to start, with the peat and zest leading into dried fruit and blueberry flavours. It's the type of Scotch that I love, with such complexity that each sip will bring out something new. The peat is never offensive, and it lingers through the finish where the subtle saltiness and spice comes into play.
This night was about harmony. The nordic themed decorations could have been over-the-top, but instead they struck a perfect balance between letting you know this wasn't an ordinary night, yet not distracting from the dining experience.
Highland Park is often praised for bringing out the perfect balance of flavours, and what many would term as a true Scotch containing defining elements in one drink. This night mirrored those values perfectly.