The Tippling Point | A Viking Legend: Why Highland Park’s Valkyrie Will Spirit You Away to Valhalla
Valkyrie is one of the most famous whiskies around the world, coming from a place too remote to imagine. But the question lingers: Why would a Scotch whisky marry a Viking spirit?
Valkyrie whiskey. (Image: Twitter/@HighlandPark)
Spears will shatter, shields will splinter and swords will gnaw like wolves through armour, when they arrive. The avenging angels on horseback raid war fields for the spirits of the bravest men who have fallen, men who can now claim to enter the divine hall, Valhalla, of the Norse god Odin. Well, at least that's the story according to Viking legends.
Valkyrie, the name itself sends shivers down your spine. But at Orkney islands, in the northernmost part of Scotland, the spirit Valkyrie comes bottled, and instead of nervous shivers, it sends warm tingles down your throat. It is one of the most famous whiskies around the world, coming from a place too remote to imagine. But the question lingers: Why would a Scotch whisky marry a Viking spirit?
To understand this we must look at a bit of history and geography of the place where the drink was born.
Orkneys is an archipelago of around 70 islets of which only 20 are inhabited.
Off the shores of Scotland, in the waters of the Atlantic, the islands were exposed to repeated raids by the Viking warriors who came from the north. In the year 875, the Orkneys were completely annexed by the Norsemen. Norway and Denmark kept the spoils between them for the next five hundred years. But when in 1472, Denmark failed to honour a royal marriage between Princess Margaret and James III, Scotland seized the opportunity and lay claims to those tiny jewels of land scattered in the ocean. The Orkneys returned to Scotland.
But the damage was already done.
Today, even as part of Scotland, one in every three Orknians proudly flaunt their Viking DNA, a way to keep the old traditions alive. Valkyrie belongs to that lineage, even though it was only one of the many expressions of a great distilling tradition started off by a man in the 18th century.
Magnus Eunson, a Viking descendant was part butcher, part preacher, and part illicit distiller. He switched among these guises when excise raids finally got to this northernmost region of Scotland, earlier guarded by terrifying winds.
When the uniformed men got to the 'preacher's' church after a tip-off, where Eunson usually hid his casks, the man of many guises had just enough time to whisk them away to his home. However, he was closely followed by the long and quick arm of the law.
What did the excise men see at Magnus Eunson's home? The part-time preacher was performing the last rights to a man recently died. The coffin was draped with a white sheet. "Somebody died? How?" They enquired before the customary search. "Smallpox," was the reply.
The officers beat a hasty retreat while all the precious evidence they were chasing was resting in peace inside the coffin.
But Magnus Eunson was finally arrested. He had only one way now - make his business legal by paying taxes. Thus he set up the Highland Park distillery in 1798, which later became one of the most popular distilleries in Scotland.
What makes Highland Park's Valkyrie special?
In the Orkneys, trees don't stand a chance against strong gushes of wind. Sad for the trees, but this curious geographic phenomenon lends to the bouquet of flavours in Highland Park's whiskies. With no woody note to play spoilsport, the peat used to make the whisky is redolent with heather flowers (Highland Park is the only distillery in the world to use peat from Orkney). It burns only slowly, lending rich aromas to the spirit. Add to that the clear waters drawn from Cattie Maggie's Spring located near the distillery.
The rain and the gales that pummel the land and temperature that never jumps to extremes, provide the perfect environment for the whisky to mature at an even pace. The wood for the casks (handbuilt in Scotland), comes from other parts of Europe or from America. They must have stored Oloroso Sherry or bourbon for at least two years before they qualify to receive the precious nectar from Highland Park.
Highland Park's whiskeys thus prepared, covering a vast age bracket, can be found at any liquor store today. Its 25-Year-Old (you can even pick a 50-year old one!) recently received a perfect 100-point score at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, the first spirit to get such a recognition.
Ever since Highland Park found its winning streak, the distillery has been repeatedly renewing and redefining itself, all the while keeping its Viking tradition alive.
So how does the whiskey feel?
The heady aroma of sweet green apples and lemons invite you to the first sip. On the palate, the long meditation of the whisky inside those sherry-seasoned or bourbon casks will be evoked by the taste of vanilla, a touch of sweet ginger, and hints of liquorice. Fruits will soon take over as the finish.
Now close your eyes. The Valkyrie has descended on the war field to take us to Valhalla, the hall where we will be greeted by Odin, the Norse god.
Skål (Viking word for cheers)!
(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)
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