Cover Nelson Chow, founder of NCDA (left); Daniel Lam, Bonhams Director of Wine and Whisky in Asia (right)

Whisky connoisseur Daniel Lam and interior designer Nelson Chow share a conversation about art, legacy and spirits-making over a dram of Highland Park's finest

The year was 1968. In those twelve months, Apollo 8 left the Earth's gravity to become the first mission to the Moon; the Civil Rights Movement was reaching its apogee, rewriting the world's perception of race; The Beatles released their seminal anthem "Hey Jude"; and in faraway Orkney, a windswept archipelago off the northern Scottish coast, the master distillers of 223-year-old Highland Park stowed away nine refill casks of virgin grain spirit, to be rested for the coming 50 years.

Today, with the enduring influence of 1968 still clearly felt, Highland Park is releasing that prized whisky to the world as a reminder of the vivid idealism of the era. Within the 274 bottles of the new Highland Park 50 Year Old single malt scotch whisky is a liquid that has been created using a traditional solera system—best known as a method of maturing sherry—where a small quantity of the original whisky from 1968 was married together with a newer whisky in 2008.

The vatted whisky was then re-racked into a handful of the finest first-fill sherry seasoned oak casks. Then, after a further 12 years of maturation, one of these limited casks was selected and married with a small quantity of the whisky from the last 50 Year Old released by the distillery. 

This method of continuing a legacy within a legacy has been proven three times over the history of Highland Park, with the 2020 release of Highland Park 50 Year Old carrying intensely rich notes courtesy of five decades spent in the cask. “The whisky is spectacular. Aged for a little over 50 years, [it] had absorbed the rich sherried flavours of dried fruit and sweet toffee from its final first-fill cask maturation, but still retained all the delicate fragrance and flavours driven by the original refill casks," says Gordon Motion, master whisky maker at Highland Park. 

Highland Park's legacy is alive and continually evolving, with a new chapter being written every time a dram is shared between friends—and the tale of the whisky is told. Originally laid down in a period of societal upheaval, it is only fitting that the 50 Year Old edition is released during another time of widespread change in art, culture and pioneering spirit.

To this end, Tatler invited two connoisseurs of the arts and fine spirits—Daniel Lam, Bonhams Director of Wine and Whisky in Asia, and Nelson Chow, founder and design principal of NC Design and Architecture (NCDA)—to a thoughtful conversation at Tatler House about the resonance of the year 1968, how the art and events from this era has helped shape today’s artistic landscape, and what this means for art in the future. Though their interpretations of these questions may vary, the legacy invariably echoes.

Why do you think the '60s were such a seminal period of time in history?

Nelson Chow: People very much had a different mindset at that time—they were willing to try out new things and be very experimental in everything from fashion and art, creating many different trends like pop art, minimalism, and Futurism. The use of new materials was widespread in the field of furniture design—like Verner Panton, who invented the Panton chair, a chair moulded from a single piece of polyurethane. I think it's the explosion of ideas that really generated a series of iconic designs that have since become classics.

What was scotch distilling culture like in the late '60s?

Daniel Lam: Up until the '60s, whisky was still very much crafted by hand—there were no machines involved, which produced whisky with a very different character compared to what we taste today. On top of that, Highland Park is unique because its location is the most northerly in Scotland, and we also have Orcadian heritage, so the style of Highland Park is very different compared to other whiskies.

The most distinctive differentiation about Orkney is that heather grows in abundance, and when it decomposes into the peat (which has less decayed tree content), that gives you a very distinctive, aromatic flavour that you won't find anywhere else in Scotland.

What do you need to factor in when ageing scotch for so long?

DL: For collectors, every whisky cask has a unique character because although the liquid is the same, it will take on different characteristics depending on whether the cask is American bourbon or sherry cask. Even between different warehouses there are certain environmental differences. We've all heard of the angel's share, which is less in Orkney's colder climate, but it does impact the final character. Not every cask can be aged for 50 years, which needs to be checked by the master distiller every year and have its quality assessed.

Do you think good design, like whisky, gets better with age?

NC: I'm choosing chairs right now for my new office, and I'm just in love with [postmodern Italian architect] Tobia Scarpa—he made these beautiful, bold geometric chairs. It's a design classic and to this day, nothing can replace it. The leather of the chair just ages better with time. You can't get it from a new chair. I hunted through 300-plus chairs just for this one set of six office chairs. The leather patina needs to be right and consistent between all six. And when somebody comes to my office, we can talk about the story of these chairs, which wouldn't happen with new furniture. 

DL: Highland Park really held onto these individual casks as an asset—through the modernisation of whisky distilling in the '60s and the decline of the industry in the '80s, all the way to the rebirth of single malt whisky culture 15 years ago. They have retained their own culture now for centuries.

NC: It went through the highs and the lows, and they kept it to this day.

Highland Park 50 Year Old whisky is on charity auction with Bonhams Hong Kong on 21 January 2021 with all net proceeds donated to Green Power, an organisation with projects dedicated to sustainability course in Hong Kong.  To find out more about Highland Park, visit highlandparkwhisky.com.

  • PhotographyStephanie Teng
  • GroomingMegumi Sekine
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