In February of 2023, Highland Park released its oldest-ever whisky, a 54-year-old single malt aged 40 years in refill casks, then finished in first-fill sherry casks for another 14 years. Each teardrop-shaped decanter cradled in a sculpted wooden presentation box has a price of $54,000, which includes an invitation to visit the distillery on Orkney.
Most craft distillers don’t have casks from the 1960s kicking around in the warehouse, and convincing somebody to spend the price of a brand-new Ford F-150 on a single bottle likely feels somewhere between aspirational and impossible. But even the humblest distillers often aspire to age at least something for a very long time — perhaps to surprise a kid with a cask of 21-year-old to celebrate their first legal drink, or toast to their own retirement with a 30-year-old whiskey they made themselves.
Successful extended aging isn’t just a matter of filling a cask, hammering in the bung, and hoping for the best. Here’s how Highland Park’s master whisky maker Gordon Motion stewarded a whisky older than he is through its final decades of maturation.
Don’t Be Afraid of Late Bloomers
“Anytime we fill casks, there’s no set destination,” said Motion. “Back in the late 60s when these casks were filled, we had no idea they would become a 54-year-old.” Motion says they would have been evaluated numerous times for their suitability for Highland Park’s younger expressions— and each time, they failed to make the cut. Rather than shoehorn them into a blend they didn’t belong in or write them off as failures, Highland Park stayed patient and let them mature on their own course.
It’s OK to Shift Gears
After about 40 years, the casks had developed the “ethereal, fragrant, delicate” notes of age, but they were still pale. So Motion transferred them to a variety of secondary casks — American oak, sherry, and European oak — to generate a little more color. “If they had been in first-fill sherry casks for those 40 years, they would have been extremely tannic and very bitter,” says Motion. “The fact that they were in refill casks that allowed them to age slowly was actually a benefit.”
Take it Slow
There’s a reason there are so many more very old Scotch whiskies than bourbons, and it’s not because Scottish people are just more patient. Cool temperatures are critical to helping casks go the distance without becoming overly tannic, woody, or just plain empty from evaporation. “You’re in a marathon, not a sprint,” says Motion. “These casks have had to mature at a snail’s pace to get them to survive for long enough.” The right cask type is another key inflection point. When planning for extended aging, old, near-neutral casks are key. “Give up on calling it bourbon. Put it in a refill cask, stick it in a cave somewhere, and keep it in cool, constant conditions as long as you can,” says Motion.
Careful with proofing and filtration
Ordinarily, Motion and his team dilute all whiskies to 20% ABV for sensory evaluation. But not for this release. “My mentor John Ramsay, who was master blender when I joined, used to say the old whiskies don’t swim very well,” says Motion. Instead, they assessed all samples at cask strength, and then left them at cask strength for bottling. Any water would “flatten it completely.” The whisky was only lightly filtered to remove barrel char — no chill filtration — before bottling.
It’s Gotta Taste Good
Many prestige bottlings are purchased by collectors as investments, which means they’re never actually opened or consumed. Still, flavor matters. Motion says he learned an important lesson in the late 1990s, when he and his team almost bottled a very old cask of whisky that looked and smelled great, only to taste it just before bottling to discover “it was so tannic it would have sucked your fillings out.” Even if not every bottle will get opened, some will — “and I want them to get that experience that I had making it,” says Motion.