Far up the North of Scotland,on the same geographical latitude as the Swedish Stockholm and Norwegian Stavanger, there is a group of British islands called Orkney. On their voyages, the Vikings landed there centuries ago and according to the many Orcadian myths and sagas, they most likely used Orkney and the Shetland islands as their base to raid Scotland, England and Ireland.
For the pirates and smugglers the Vikings appeared to be, the islands proved to be the ideal hiding place, offering them a rugged coastline for a good defence, the harsh sea streams in the Pentland Firth and rough weather to keep away travelers and just far enough from the mainland of Scotland, to be safe from any followers.
It is very clear the history of the islands and their inhabitants with their melodious dialect have a lot of this Scandinavian history and influences running through their earth and veins. This also – and maybe especially – goes for the distillery high on the hills in the town of Kirkwall, Highland Park. Martin Markvardsen, Senior Brand Ambassador, was happy to talk to us about his work, passions and the brand.
When you have met him you will know you have encountered a real life Viking – minus the flowing golden hair, and feel he is a perfect match for the Highland Park brand. Defying the seas to Orkney over dangerous seas, like the Vikings did so long ago before him. You can see the passion and joy in his work when you meet him. He travels all over the world to spread the word on Highland Park. A guy with a hunger for knowledge and love to share.
Thank you Martin for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to answer some of our questions, can you tell us what your role as a senior brand ambassador involve?
My role today, is a lot about education, tastings etc, but I am also hugely involved in the creation of new expressions, both the names and the liquid. Working for almost 10 years with Highland Park has given a good insight in what the request for Highland Park is around the world.
What is the best part of your job?
Best part of my job is the people I work with. Of course Highland Park is in my blood, but my colleagues are great. Also I get to see the world doing the things I love the most. Talk about whisky and Vikings… (big laugh) Sietse and I are working very close together and are a very good team, with the same ideas and passion.
How does a normal week look for you?
Haha there is no normal week for me! I have about 220 travel days in a year, so most of the weeks are different depending on the market I’m going to. I am normally doing 3-4 tastings in a week and then there also fairs around the world during the weekends.
How did you get started in the spirits business?
My first tasting I did was 26 years ago. Must admit that my knowledge was not that great back then, but my passion for Scotland and whisky was, so I just talked. I found that the flavours and how different whisky could be fascinated me. But most of all how proud people working at the distilleries were about the product they had created. I was working at The Craigellachie Hotel when I was asked by Edrington Group to work for them. They knew that my favorite whisky was Highland Park and they have been to a few of my whisky tastings at The Hotel. So when they asked me my first question was; can I work with Highland Park 18yo????? And they said yes… I was in right away, and never had any doubts.
What is Highland Park to you?
Highland Park for me is everything I expect from a distillery. First of all the peat smoke from the pagodas, one of the last remaining floor maltings, but most of all the people at Highland Park who all have a passion for what they are doing. For me as a whisky man I feel at home. The atmosphere is unique.
The distillery is a big part of the community, the island and its history we feel? How is that visible?
Highland Park is involved in more or less every event on Orkney and especially in Kirkwall. We do a lot of charity, and some of the guys at the distillery are hugely involved in these charities. We sponsor local sports events we also sponsor upcoming young sportspeople, singers, artist etc. We like to give something back to the locals. We have 19 men working in production and warehousing, 10 tour guides during the high season and 4 that come in from April to September to cut peat. They are all locals and we don’t use a rotation system as some other companies do. Some of the guys have been working more than 25 years at the distillery.
It is clear that you have a lot of passion for not only Highland Park but also Orkney. What are some fun facts or places to go when on Orkney that you could share with us all?
There are a few funny things also about the distillery such as the washbacks at Highland Park were used as bath tubs for the soldiers during the war. Some say the whisky was better before. Hobbister Mhor is where we cut our peat, funny to think that it only grows with 1 millimeter per year, so it will take about 2000 years to be ready from where we cut it right now. A must see is the cliffs of Yesnaby. A stunning place and shows what Orkney is all about. The St. Magnus Cathedral is amazing. Orkney is a very historical place.
What can you tell us about “The five keystones” of Highland Park; harmonisation, cool maturation, sherry oak casks, aromatic peat, hand turned malt?
The peat is very important for Highland Park; it comes from Hobbister Mhor and contains no wood. It contains a lot of heather and is essential for the honey sweet note in the Highland Park single malt. About 17-18 years ago we experimented with mainland peat. Peat from Caithness and malted at Bairds malt in Inverness, it made a huge difference in our new make. Some of these casks we used to create a different style for Loki in the Valhalla collection.
At the end of 1990’s we took a break from doing our own floor malting just to see if it made a huge change and it did. Bairds malt in Inverness did some malting for us and the peat they used that came from Caithness, changed the flavors’ completely, so we started up again after a few months. The remote setting of Highland Park is what it is all about. The hand turned malt is something we have to do due to the peat we are using. But the climate plays a huge part; the humidity and temperature do make a difference during the 6-7 days it is on the floor.
Cask Harmonization is done in Glasgow after the vatting, and is something we truly believe in, not only at Highland Park, but in The Edrington Group, we do think that it gives a certain complexity and more important gives the different notes from each cask time to find each other, therefore a more consistent quality. Think of you making a lasagna, it taste good straight after you made it, but next day after the all the components you used such as meat, spices, sauce have had time to find each other and it tastes even better. The difference is that the marrying period of the whisky takes 3-6 months, don’t wait that long for you lasagna though.
The cool climate at Orkney really makes a difference in the whole maturing process. It is slows down maturation, as the difference in temperature between summer and winter on Orkney is not that far from each other. The angels share on Orkney is about half of what they share to the angels in the rest of Scotland. I do believe that the old dunnage warehouse gives a unique flavor to our spirit, but I’m also a true believer that the micro climate has and will have an ever bigger effect. It is of course hard to measure, but believe it can move mountains as we say.
Each cask starts its maturation on Orkney and some will after a period of time be transferred to the Speyside or Glasgow area. We use a variety of cask sizes, everything from barrels to puncheons and different types of cask; American oak Bourbon cask, American Oak Sherry cask and European Oak (Spanish Oak) sherry cask.
There is a debate about casks being seasoned only to produce more ex-sherry-casks fast, instead of using decennia aged ex-sherry casks, which would result in different (better?) whisky-ageing. How do you stand in this all?
Well it’s a good question. Casks are a very important thing, not only the sherry cask, even though the majority of casks we use at Highland Park are sherry casks. The Edrington Group’s investment in casks is by far the biggest in the industry, and almost 95% of all Spanish oak casks arriving to Scotland is imported by The Edrington Group. Most of the sherry cask we use is seasoned sherry and have had sherry in there for a period of 18-24 months some even up to 48 months. We still have older sherry cask in the warehouse and now again we buy in some of these just to create different quality of Highland Park
There are different aspects we have to look at. We look for flavours from the oak. Not so much from the sherry. The longer sherry have been in the cask the less flavours we get from the oak, but more from the extractive (sherry) that’s why we use a mix, to create different styles.
So, tell us what is up with the coffee beans?
Highland Park has a lot of stories to tell and we like to tell these stories. That said, we know the whisky do not taste better because of a good story, but the idea is to give people something else than just the best whisky in the world, but something to have fun with. We are always looking for new challenges, and when I recently got the opportunity to work with a coffee roaster, I thought this have never been done before.
The idea was to create a coffee that would go well with our Dark Origins expression. To create this coffee I sat down with the coffee maker, tasted the whisky and explained to him about the tasting notes of it. He was impressed about the quality of the Dark Origins and straight away began to look for coffee that would complement the flavors.
After a few weeks we met up again and tasted like 18-20 different coffees. We found that the beans from a small farmer in Costa Rica and with a medium roasting gave us the same sweetness and mouthfeel as Dark Origins, it was a fantastic moment. Right now it’s only available in Sweden, but can be bought through the website baristashoppen.se and will in near future be available around the world.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
There have been so many. One was when I Became Keeper of the Quaich in 2009. Another and really different was the boat trip from Gothenburg to Kirkwall last year to celebrate the release of Dark Origins. What a trip it was, worse weather in the North Sea for 12 years ….
Next to your work do you have other passions or hobbies that you would like to share with us?
No big secret that I work out a lot. Like to keep in shape. Music as well, a good way to relax is to listen to music and then a play the guitar, not as good as Sietse, but I will try. Then I like to spend time with my son.
I am enjoying my life as an ambassador for this fantastic brand. Orkney is a great place to visit….Extremely rough nature, but great seafood, people and whisky. People really should keep an eye open for the future Highland Park, as I do think people will be surprised of what comes out the next couple of years.
Thanks Martin for taking the time and telling us about Highland Park and you. See you on Orkney next year!
Copyright notice: Photos provided by Martin Markvardsen and Highland Park