Thor And The Trap Of First Impressions

Highland Park’s new release, Thor, is a whisky that has utterly confounded me. In trying to review it I’ve rewritten this post entirely four times over. What is it about this whisky above others that has stumped me? Well, for starters, its packaging is almost cartoonishly ridiculous, playing up the Viking angle in the extreme.

Yes. This is the ACTUAL PACKAGING.

The marketing for this release has been pretty strong, as it seems to be the start of another series of releases for Highland Park. A tongue-in-cheek twitter account undercut what could have been a stodgy and way too serious campaign (which is a good thing).

I look at this package and I think, “What on earth would I ever do with the boat-shaped bottle case? Use it as an oven mitt holder?” In my more minimalist world, the packaging probably would have been straightforward.

I like to tell myself that I’m not swayed by packaging and the focus is always in the box. I think Thor has proven me wrong – just in an unexpected way. I have found myself a huge fan of independent releases and things that buck the trend of traditional packaging. The Whisky Agency has done some amazing not-very-whisky-like design in the past that I loved (even if I thought the contents of the bottle were ho-hum).

Even frequently-covered Bruichladdich tickles my fancy. The very modern, minimalist, bold packaging strikes a chord with my designer’s eye. I know a lot of people aren’t fans of the wrapped bottles (they can be annoying), but their use of type, especially as the brand has developed, is absolutely gorgeous. Yeah, it’s not traditionally designed where it looks like it’s supposed to be mounted in a trophy case and only consumed when you’re wearing a tweed jacket, but I think that’s a good thing. Scotch whisky is a great drink and would benefit immensely from a reduction in the overall starchiness of its image.

So this brings me back to Thor. I could not stop focusing on that damned boat! It drove me nuts almost as much as the Woodford Master’s still bottles. Even as I write this I think it’s just completely idiotic. The bottle itself is completely fine. It’s just the box this thing comes in.

But what is it that drives me nuts about this? It’s only whisky. If I’m a tenth of the aficionado I let myself believe I am, I should really not care. I should be able to take a disconnected and detached view that these things will be special to the right people. The fabric-lined box of Macallan 25 is perfect for the white-collar worker marking a special moment in their career. Signatory’s elegant decanters for the cask strength collection always appeals to my eye. And yet I couldn’t reconcile the boat. However, I know there are people out there who saw it and thought it was the coolest thing ever and they had to have it. And they’ll probably enjoy the whisky even more – the whole thing will be a special experience.

At the end of this self-examination I realize I’m not as far along on this path to enlightened malt-drinking. I’m still a slave to packaging, just in a very High Fidelity, more-indie-than-thou way. Something to keep an eye on I guess.

So the only thing left to do is to strip the whisky of all adornments, pour it in the same glass as a zillion whiskies before it and see how it fares.

The nose surprised me – it’s very light and firmly on the estery side of things. There’s white wine, white grape juice, light pears, green grapes and green apples. It’s got very light and faint peat and it’s faintly oily. Honey and maltiness developed over time in the glass,s but it’s very faint. This whole thing is dominated by the esters. For some reason this reminded me of a freshly painted room, but more as a subliminal suggestion than an overt aroma.

The palate was lightly oily, reasonably malty with a touch of cinnamon. Melons were noticeable among the light fruitiness. Cantaloupe was probably the biggest note on the body early on, balanced by honeydew. Pears and white pepper round out the nose and add a little spice.

The finish led with white pepper and it dried out. Peat hung out faintly in the background but more as a top note than a base element. There was some pleasant heat on the finish.

Overall, Thor is a nice whisky. Surprisingly though, it’s light and fruity – I’d expect this more from Balblair than Highland Park. (It’s drier than your average Balblair though). I think this one is a little ungrounded for me to become a personal favorite, but it’s totally drinkable. Until I get over the boat though, I may have to pour this in an old Signatory decanter.

And seriously, a profile like this called Thor? I dunno. Strikes me more like a Freya.

At a glance:

Highland Park Thor 16y 52.1% ABV
Nose: 
Very light and firmly in the estery side of things. Light white wine, some white grape juice. Light pears, green grapes, green apples. Very light and faint peat that has a very faint oily quality to it. Develops and a little more honey and maltiness show up but they’re very faint – it’s dominated by the esters. I’m reminded of a faint fresh-painted-room smell as well, but it’s almost more subliminal and suggestive. 
Palate:
Medium mouthfeel – lightly oily, some reasonable maltiness and some light cinnamon tingle. Light fruits – melons for sure. Cantaloupe provides early body and is balanced by a touch of honeydew. Some of the pears from the nose are there and a little white pepper gives some spice. 
Finish: 
White pepper early, drying out. Very faint peat hangs out in the background acting as a top note. Nice little bit of heat on the finish.
Comment: 
It’s light and fruity, but the peat is gently insistent. I think this one is just a little too un-grounded for me but it’s nice enough. 
Rating:
B

10 thoughts on “Thor And The Trap Of First Impressions”

  1. I say, pull the trigger and get rid of the boat.  I did that the day I brought home my Wild Turkey Tradition – it had a heavy plastic bottom with a laminated particleboard box.  Just huge and ridiculous.  It landed in the dumpster same-day.  I do hate the wastefulness of it, though.

    1. Fortunately I tried this by way of a good size sample on a couple occasions. I didn’t buy the full bottle. All whisky packaging beyond the bottle immediately goes in the trash; I have no attachment to it. It’s more the overall spectacle and ridiculousness of the boat (not to mention the cost it no doubt adds.) 

  2. While I do like the idea of a cask-strength Highland Park, this one sounds like a peculiar beast. And for what they’re charging, I’d probably spring for the 21-year old Signatory CS Highland Park that’s out right now instead.

    1. It’s definitely a strange beast, but I will confess that some of the stranger Highland Parks have been enjoyable. I recently sampled one from The Bottlers that was nothing like what you’d think of for Highland Park, but on its own merits it was great. 

      Thor is not a bad whiskey at all. I don’t think the name and the spirit match up, but the whole thing goes sideways with the packaging (and yeah, the cost – it’s hard not to look at things and think that it could have been substantially cheaper without the boat…

  3. It’s funny, they put all this crazy packaging together to make it appealing, but like you, I’m almost predisposed not to like it when it comes in bizarre packaging.  I figure they only have so much budgeted for production of a certain whiskey and everything that goes into packaging is either going directly into the price or coming out of something else that I care more about.  Bring on more like the Glenfarclas 40 in the plain old bottle.

    1. Yeah, that’s kind of my take. Huge tins, boats, elaborate multi-opening boxes, etc… it just says “attempt to capture marginal revenue” to me. I don’t begrudge all tins, but I look at it with my tree-hugging green eye and it’s just all waste on my end. Sure, they get recycled buuuut… you know. 

      Agree 100% – Glenfarclas was SPOT ON. Incredible value, unadorned package. Let the contents speak for themselves, and as I recall you said they spoke quite well. 

      As I said in the post, I have a real attraction to minimal designs. Those cask strength Signatory decanters are relatively simple, but they have such elegant lines. And I can’t think of any time where I’ve had one and felt like I got a bad deal. 

      To be totally honest, Thor is a good enough scotch. But is it a $190 whisky? I just don’t feel like it. And looking at that price I think, this thing could have cost $50 less (and you could possibly convince me of $70) without the boat. Cut, construction, packaging, shipping size… etc.. 

      THAT’S what kills me. 

      1. Yeah, I’m thankful that American whiskey, for the most part, hasn’t gone in this direction yet, though I suppose it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing more elaborate packaging and bottles.

  4. My beloved Highland Park distillery has dropped down a notch from their lofty status for me because of this release. Atrocious and offensive packaging just tells me they are becoming less concerned about the whisky quality and more concerned about marketing. Good thing I have a stockpile of various older HP expressions because this is a red flag for sure. Like SKU said, I’ll buy a plain old bottle of Glenfarclas 40 or Springbank 18 or how about the fantastic and economically packaged Balvenie TUN 1401 (yum!) over this silliness any day of the week. I realize they do it because they get higher profit margin from casual collectors, but the silly packaging trend must stop!!

    I like the High Fidelity reference, you are no doubt a whisk(e)y anorak. Another entertaining review…thanks.

    1. Hey Cato, 

      It’s a real head-scratcher… as I recall the previous series of releases with Nordic names were reasonably sanely packaged (if memory serves), as is the 40. Maybe some wood boxes which, if we’re going to have to accept some ridiculous stuff, is far less annoying. Sure, I’d rather not pay for the box and just see the Glenfarclas 40 approach rule (live & die by the bottle contents). 

      I think the most interesting thing to me is that this whisky seemed to have nothing to do with the image of some axe-wielding icon. It’s just light and pleasant. Not $190 pleasant, but pleasant.

      And I really need to try that Balvenie, everyone’s been raving about it. 

      All this fluff drives me more towards IB’s (as if I wasn’t already a huge fan)…

      I’ll keep ‘em coming. Thanks for the support! Always enjoy your comments.

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