Born in 1963, Olivier Humbrecht is the co-owner and general manager of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace, which produces high quality wines from low yields and all four noble grapes. His family have been making wine since the early-17th Century, making Olivier the 12th generation of Humbrecht to make wine. Before joining the family Domaine in 1989, Olivier studied Agronomy and Oenology at Toulouse University, later moving to London to work in the Food & Wine industry to complete his military service (a practice that was compulsory in those days).
Over the years his interests broadened from wine to Scotch and a particular fondness developed for Highland Park and its elemental single malt. If you were to total all the bottles of Highland Park he has ever owned, it would create the most complete and impressive bottled timeline of the distillery in existence. However, Humbrecht has never been one to leave bottles of whisky untouched gathering dust. Rather he chose to open and savour many of his oldest and rarest Highland Park expressions with good friends.
We had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Olivier to discuss the influence that his winemaking roots have had on his whisky journey and to take a look into some of the most memorable Highland Park bottles he has tried.
Olivier, you became the first person in France to attain Master of Wine status in 1989 at the age of just 26, taking over winemaking from your father that very year. Did you always foresee a career in the wine industry?
I guess so. When you’re raised on a farm or wine estate, you actually never know when you took the decision to continue. It’s almost like it is part of you at birth. I really became interested in wine at around 15 years old when I became more active at the winery during school holidays, helping in the cellar and vineyard, and of course being more interested in tasting wine. I also worked over summer at a winery in California in 1978 which was an amazing experience back then at only 15...
Can you tell us how you first became interested in Scotch whisky?
My wife Margaret originates from Scotland. I met her while working in London in 1987. We decided to spend a long weekend in Scotland, on Skye. We slept in a nice B&B but arrived so late that we couldn’t see anything around us. Waking up the next day, I could see this huge white building across the bay with ‘Talisker’ written on the walls …. So that was my first ever visit to a distillery.
Going back regularly to Scotland in the ‘90s, we would often drive by Inveraray to go to the West coast. I obviously got to meet Loch Fyne whisky shop and would regularly follow the advice of Richard Joynson who told me to buy plenty of amazing whiskies (Laphroaigs 1966 Signatory, early 10yo Ardbegs, Springbanks Local Barleys, Bunnahabhain Auld Acquaintance…). I only bought a couple bottles each time because at +/- £100 a bottle I found them expensive at the time (oh dear!).
I remember filling my hip flask with 1966 Laphroaigs… at the time I wasn’t collecting whisky because I would open every single bottle I purchased. I quickly developed a palate for ‘old style’ whiskies and mostly Island or coastal distilleries. In the early 2000s, I started to meet more and more people crazy about Scottish single malts and started to swap samples. I learned the expression: you buy 3 bottles of a whisky, one to open, one to keep and one to swap. Very quickly I started to buy more whiskies than I could go through, and I guess that’s how I started to collect without realizing at the beginning!
Do you think your experience in winemaking has influenced your whisky interests and collecting?
Being a winemaker, I have obviously developed a certain taste. What can be a quality or fault in wine may be different in some other products. Sulphury smells are considered a winemaking fault in fine wines, but I can see that some whisky drinkers like it a lot! I’m always amazed by how strong sulphury notes in a whisky aged in a first fill sherry cask can be attractive to non-wine drinkers. I still struggle today with these whiskies. I love a nice sherry cask influence, but not when it goes sulphury. Same for wine or port finish, they often leave aromatic traces in whiskies that I am not particularly fond of, because they remind me of wine faults (alcohol oxidation, colour, sulphur, even sometimes sweetness…).
In wine, especially in France, the concept of ‘terroir’ is very important. How a wine is capable to reflect the characteristic of a place is almost as important as the technical quality of the product itself. When I started to be more and more interested in whisky, I started to look for distilleries that were able to keep in their distillate the original signature of what probably made them taste different from others and started to ask annoying questions on the origin of the barley, yeasts, fermentation time… quickly realising that, just like for industrial wine, the notion of place or origin was often erased by technology, cask and marketing. Luckily, some distilleries have maintained or reacquired practices that makes them interestingly different. These are the ones I’m looking for.
As the opposite to this, has your experience with whisky had an influence on your winemaking?
My experience shows that Scottish single malt drinkers, at the difference of many other spirits like Rum for example, have a palate for drier style alcohols. Obviously there is a temptation for some bottlers to propose whiskies that have a slightly sweeter taste for some markets, but generally speaking, a classic malt afficionado will prefer a drier style dram.
This is also true for me today, so it probably also influenced my interest for much drier wines today. Some people would say it is an age thing, as you get older, people usually value more acidity, bitterness, tannins … than sweetness. So I’m not sure that the whisky world changed my palate, but probably influenced it.
You have a great passion for Highland Park, can you tell us what draws you to the distillery and when you first discovered it?
First, it is an encounter with an amazing person in the company of amazing people who will recognise themselves when reading this. With a group of friends, we went to visit Valentino Zagatti in 2004. He was extremely kind sharing his passion for whisky with us for a whole afternoon. He eventually went in his cellar and fetched a Highland Park 8yo bottled mid/late 80s. It is described as the ‘Sea of Orkney’ label as you can see a drawing of the seas of Yesnaby cliffs on the main label. The look of the bottle, the way Mr Zagatti spoke about the whisky, and its distinctive taste … made me want to get more of this whisky.
I eventually learned more about Highland Park the following years, especially after visiting the distillery. I appreciated the local commitment (peat, partial floor malting) and the amazing sense that when you are on Orkney you are indeed in a different place. This wasn’t the most amazing whisky we tasted during this trip in Italy, but it clearly spoke to me, so the hunt for more Highland Park started!
Highland Park taken along clifftops in Orkney
Can you talk us through some of the whiskies in your collection? Bottles that are particularly meaningful to you, special bottles you currently have open at home, and any prized bottles that you have been waiting to open.
There aren’t many official distillery bottlings of Highland Park bottled before 2000 that I haven’t tried. But once in a while, there is always a new discovery. There are also many independent bottlings, and there are probably still many of them that I haven’t seen yet. Unlike some other distilleries, Highland Park often released casks to private buyers, and still today.
The bottle I opened the most recently is actually an official 12yo version I never tasted before. It is from the late 1960s in clear glass at 43% with a cork closure, imported by Adriatic in Italy. I realise this sounds incredibly geeky, but collectors make differences with details like glass colour for whiskies that carry the same label. The reason goes beyond a different look, as glass or bottle can be an important source of information when dating the period a whisky was bottled. The whisky was amazing and does rank amongst the best 12yo I tasted from Highland Park. That isn’t a light assessment because I do believe that Highland Park is probably one of the most consistent distilleries in Scotland when it comes to a classic 12yo.
My friends know that I opened many Highland Park (and other distilleries also) and even if I have only one bottle, I will open it one day because the curiosity is stronger. The next bottle on my bucket list will be an early 1960s St Magnus label with a securo cap. I only have one bottle and will wait for the right moment and company to open it.
Probably the most special bottles would be a 27 Year Old dumpy James Grant bottled especially for Fortnum & Mason in London and limited to 300 bottles. Bottled probably in the late 70s like all the other bottlings of the same type. I also had the chance to open twice an absolutely amazing 10yo 80proof St Magnus bottled mid/late 50s which as Emmanuel Dron mention in his book ‘Collecting Whisky’ is arguably one of the best whisky in the world. One of these bottles was opened at the distillery during a crazy session where many other special bottles were tasted.
Collecting whiskies isn’t just collecting names, tasty spirits or even labels, it is also collecting past memories from a special place where the local people have crafted a product at the image of their place.
A selection of bottles from Olivier's collection.
You are a leading advocate of biodynamic winemaking practices; can you tell us why this is important to you, and do you believe the quality of Scotch whisky could be improved by adopting these same practices?
Our vineyards are all organic/bio-dynamically grown since 1998, I am not speaking about the classic organic farming here and its advantage on environment, pollution, health…. But more its impact on taste, quality. I am therefore also interested in the method of production of the barley used in Scotch whisky and how this affects the taste and character of the final product.
Bio-dynamic farming creates a better environment around the crop. It means more bio-diversity, the use of natural plant extract, specific preparations that bring back to any plant the energies they need to perform their task, the use of a specific calendar to perform certain operations and so on.
Barley is quite an amazing plant if one would take the time to properly observe it, growing vertically above ground seeking for the sun. Sun as an element seen from a bio-dynamic perspective can be assimilated with the fire element, so I always found it amazing that barley goes through fire in order to express some amazing quality in whisky. Hence my disappointment to see that most distilleries stopped direct fire for steam or stopped the old classic peat fired kilns.
More distilleries, in my opinion, should at least for some of their product, emphasise more on the origin of the barley, how it is cultivated, malted… If it’s only a matter of cask selection, age, shape of the still… it’s reproducible and there is eventually no notion of terroir. I know some distilleries are now producing whiskies from bio-dynamically grown barley and the results are very interesting….
In winemaking the quality of each year’s output can be clearly differentiated from the prior, do you believe this is true for single vintage Scotch whisky?
The influence of the vintage is important in winemaking as it can change the balance of a wine through variations amongst its main constituents (acidity, alcohol, sugar, tannins…) and aromatics. It’s the work of the viticulturist to make sure that these variations do not impact the quality but sometimes, serious events, can have a positive or damaging effect on quality and quantity.
There is no doubt that a great terroir has the possibility to keep its originality and personality through most vintages in whisky. Unlike for wine, climate also has an influence on the water used through the process of making a spirit. History shows that droughts seriously impacted distilleries, not just in terms of volume produced but also style. Cold/warm winters or summers also have an impact on the spirits.
Are there any friends or peers that have had a particular influence on your collecting journey? If so, who and how have they influenced this journey?
Many people at different moments. As I mentioned earlier, Richard Joynson was the first to introduce me to ‘special whiskies’ in the ‘90s. My friend Serge Valentin introduced me to the MaltManiacs. All the crazy Belgium collectors (Billy, Geert, Luc, and all Lindores mad people), Sukhinder, LMDW, Emmanuel, ... some Italian collectors (a long list!), because without them, many bottles would have not survived…. Carsten and Roland (Limburg) who created perhaps the craziest whisky fair in the world, and of course all my Scottish friends (Jon, Johnny, Angus, Phil, Simon…). And many more from the whole world. Great whisky is also about sharing. I would never consider open something really special alone.
Finally, unlike many collectors you don’t hesitate to open rare bottles and share them with friends. Can you tell us about a particularly special occasion or trip you will never forget?
Well, without any doubt, it has to be a trip to Highland Park in 2016 with a few friends. We tasted an amazing range of whiskies, I really believed that these bottles should be opened, tasted and drunk on Orkney at the distillery. Martin Markvadsen, Highland Park brand ambassador, welcomed us and let us use the old manager’s office in the distillery for the tasting. I remember that at the end of the tasting he really was very emotional! Before people ask, I will not be able to repeat this tasting as many of these bottles were unique in my collection.
Highland Park distillery in Orkney.
Want to know more about the history and collectibility of Highland Park? Read our Complete Guide to Highland Park.