Let me reiterate something quick: a zero-star review doesn't mean that a spirit will turn your insides to mulch, leave your mouth coated in a scummy film, or cause you to break out in hives.
More often, and as is our case today, I use it simply as a measure of palpable disappointment. Readers might remember that the Highland Park 18 is so far maybe my favorite scotch of the several hundred I've tasted. It would be ludicrous of me to compare a $130 bottle to one that retails for about $33, but still, this is a case of a brand extension utterly failing to live up to its pedigree.
Let's start with the larger context of this product. In a time when stocks of aged whisky were less strained than they are today, the utterly competent and generally good Highland Park 12 was the distillery's entry point. Now, as supplies have to stretch just a bit farther, HP 12 has slowly climbed in price, which necessitated (apparently) a new NAS product at a better price point. Now, I've never felt that NAS whiskies are terrible by default, or that it's the apex of deception to not tell us the minimum age of the juice in the bottle, but the Magnus certainly isn't doing the category any favors.
Let's start by comparing apples to apples. For about $45, the HP 12 delivers the distillery's classic "sweet and smoky" flavor profile. True, that profile becomes considerably more well-developed given six more years of aging time, but the 12 is a respectable bottle I think every aficionado should try. It's certainly a solid enough ambassador for the brand as a whole.
Here with the Magnus? You save about twelve bucks, and you get only a shadow of what the distillery has to offer. It's not to say that this isn't Highland Park. There's a little smoke, and there's a little sweetness, and together they combine to make a passable combination as far as scotch goes.
But I'll just be god damned if this doesn't taste like a blended whisky—I checked the bottle and web copy a few times to make sure I was drinking a single malt in the first place. A lot of my rank skepticism was based on my first impressions, which weren't great. The palpable sourness from the nose is the first element that comes across on the palate. To me, that sourness was a dead ringer for cheap grain whisky, but I suppose it's just young malt whisky I was tasting.
After it sits in the mouth, it does mellow out a bit into lemon custard and smoky, barbecued meats thanks to the peat. I also taste some savory sherry in here trying to bring up the rear. (It's probably what accounts for the sweetness of the BBQ sauce.) Sadly, nothing pops.
It's not that it isn't drinkable. I went through the bottle at about the speed I'd go through a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black or Dewar's 12 (both of which I enjoy more, purely from a taste perspective). The problem is that when I spend $33 on a single malt, I feel like I should be getting a clear upgrade over a $20 blended scotch, and here of all places the Magnus falls flat. Forget this stuff exists and start with Highland Park 12. You'll thank me later.