This time I have something very special for you. I had the opportunity to sit down with the Global Brand Ambassador of Highland Park, Martin Markvardsen and talk about how he started at Highland Park, about the future of the Distillery and of course, his favourite Whisky. Just as I am typing these lines I got the word, that he was awarded Scotch Whisky Brand Ambassador fo the Year by the Whisky Magazine (see the latest issue 149)!
Lukas (LDA): So, how did this all come together? How did you end up at Highland Park?
Martin Markvardsen (MM): Okay, to make a very very long story short, 27 years ago I started doing Whisky Tastings around the Nordic countries. And one day took the other, you know, I got more and more interested and I moved to Scotland to work with different Distilleries. And then at one time, I got a job in Craigellachie near The Macallan. I was doing Whisky Tastings and Whisky Dinners. There was a group of people coming in one day. We sat down and I did the Whisky Tasting/Dinner for them and after that, after they have been there a couple of times, they offered me a job at Highland Park because they actually were from the Edrington Group, which owns Highland Park. I thought I did well. So at that time, Highland Park was my favourite Distillery, I had been to Orkney quite a lot of times before that, and it was kind of a dream. When they asked me, it was kind of being offered a football contract with Bayern Munich, as a boy, you know? It was a dream come true and this is now 13 years ago. I have been working now 13 years for Highland Park and still love every day! So the whole thing started for me as a pure interest and hobby and then became more and more my work. And suddenly I was at Highland Park.
LDA: Beforehand you where I boxer, right?
MM: Yeah, I was born in Denmark. I became Danish Champion two times and boxed on the national team. But at one point you just feel too old to box. So I quite the gloves for a bottle of Whisky and I still love boxing, I still keep myself in shape by doing boxing and so on. I think a lot of the things boxing told me at that time, you know, how disciplined you have to be with your work, with your training, your workout, gave me a lot of strength in the work I have to do now, because you need to be very disciplined even if it sounds when doing tastings I drink a lot and so. I do taste my Whiskys and I love them but to do this job here for 13 years you need to have discipline not to drink Whisky every day. And I think boxing had helped me a lot to keep this discipline.
LDA: If you are on social media, it seems Highland Park is releasing new bottlings every week or so. And if there are no new releases, everybody is going crazy like, did Highland Park close down or what happened? Is this kind of a new trend, or what’s the reason behind that?
MM: No, I do agree, there’s a lot of things going on at Highland Park, we release quite a few but of course if you look, most of what we release now is Single Casks. And they are Single Casks for different markets around the world. We just want to try to make as many people happy as possible. People think it’s profit but if they knew what we sell the Single Casks for, they will think twice. We don’t make much by Single Cask, the shops are, we know that but we can’t control the shops, what they are selling them for. But for us it’s more a Thank you for the time you’re enjoying Highland Park and supporting us, so we’re sending them out to different markets. Then, of course, we’ve had Valkyrie to go after Dark Origins, we have Full Volume to go after the 21-year-old. So it’s not that we have lots of new bottles out there. We have some, that replace other. The 15 has gone, the 21 has gone, the Dark Origins has gone. And we replaced them with some new things. And we made a new bottle design [which I myself find very nice; LDA] which again looks like something new. So every time people see a picture of the new 18-year-old or the new 12-year-old they kind of think about it as a new bottle. But if you compare to other, if you take the Single Cask away – because that’s very special – I don’t really think we really send that much more out than other competitors. We had ICE and FIRE which come two years ago. It started with ICE and then FIRE. Now The Dark is coming out with The Light later. So yea, there are expressions coming out but most of them ist Single Cask. You can say the thing with the Social Media is, the minute it comes out, it will be posted. It looks very dramatic, South Africa, Australia, you know, all these Single Casks coming out, and people can’t afford them. I don’t know how much you follow the Highland Park Appreciation Society [of course I follow the HPAS, as I myself are a member; LDA] but now and then I do a comment – half funny, half serious – that these Whiskys are not made for you in Scotland. There’s a reason we sell them in South Africa. So don’t try to get them unless you want to spend some money. And that’s what people need to realize, if we don’t send something to South Africa, don’t send anything to Singapur or Taiwan, then they will kind of think “Well, why not us? Why only them?”. So we have to do different markets.
LDA: How do you see the future of Highland Park? You told us at the Masterclass, the peat field will be depleted in like 80 years or so. We won’t see that happening I guess, but are the people of Highland Park already thinking ahead?
MM: No, no, when it comes to the peat it is a very good question. But at Hobbister, where we cut the peat now, we have enough peat for the next 80, 90 years. Then we can’t cut there more peat but we own the rights to the field next to it. But today that’s restricted to birds, when we move over there, we can’t move there now because we have to finish an area first, so when we move over there, the bird will go to Hobbister. That said, we will have enough peat for the next 1.000 years. At Hobbister, which we used since 1798 we will have enough for the next 80, 90 years. The lignin-content, how the peat is put together is exactly the same, so probably wouldn’t change the flavours. So with the future of our peat, no problem! What I see as a dramatic future of the industry is probably more about casks, quality casks in the future. With 20 new Distilleries opening up just in Scotland and around 100 Distilleries opening up around the world. They all need oak cask and you see all the Distilleries, like The Macallan increasing from 10 to 15 million litres of alcohol [a year; LDA], will there be cask enough for the future? That’s the dramatic side I see, will there be enough of the quality casks. And especially, I’m not too worried about Distilleries like Macallan, Highland Park or Glenfiddich – the big companies – I’m more worried about the new Distilleries that are opening up, that doesn’t have a huge financial security. Casks cost a lot of money and demand – like Whisky – takes up the price. So can these new Distilleries afford buying quality casks, if not they just might close down. That’s the downside of the future. The bright side I see is Whisky increasing sales for the next 10 to 15 years. I still hope that the quality of Whisky will still go up. I’m a huge fan of no age statement Whiskys, that said but I can see Distilleries going back to age statement Whiskys. They are doing it because now we get to a level where the stocks in the Distilleries are up to date. So I see a very good future for Whisky, when we talk in our lifetime ahead – so 40 years or something like that – but if you look at the industry 100 years from now, if I had a crystal ball – I wouldn’t be sitting here, I’d be a multi-millionaire or probably president of America. If we look in our lifetime, I see a good future for Whisky and for Highland Park.
LDA: My last question is, what is your favourite Whisky?
MM: Highland Park is ma favourite Whisky and things like the 18-year-old or the 25-year-old is still what’s very close to my heart. But that said, I love Whisky. I love Highland Park but I love Whisky in general. To name just one, whether it is Highland Park or not, is a very big question. I do think, for me, Highland Park has something all around to it, that’s why I can always drink Highland Park. If we have a weather we have like now here in Munchi, pretty cold and so, I do like a very good Ardbeg, a good Laphroaig. I do like my peated Whisky. The only thing I have with peat after being so long in the industry is one glass of peated Whisky is enough. If we go to the summer, things like Auchentoshan or Clynelish, Linkwood or such things. Beautiful Whiskys and I love them. Caperdonich, which is long gone but still, the old Caperdonich, beautiful Whisky! I’m a fan of Whisky and there’s a lot of favourites and I still, today after 27, 28 years in the industry, find new favourites now and then when I go around tasting Whiskys. Not only Scotish Whisky, Indian Whiskys like John Paul and this kind of things. So many good Whiskys out there and it is a shame only to stick to one brand, with all the things out there. So I’m a big fan of Whisky and of Highland Park.
LDA: So you plan on staying with Highland Park, whit your tattoo and everything.
MM: Yeah, I have no plans on leaving. I couldn’t see myself working for another Distillery. Going out and representing another brand like Glenfiddich, The Balvenie, or it could be Dalmore for me it would take my credibility away. I’m boss says, Highland Park runs through my veins, I would bleed Highland Park and it’s probably true. Because it has been my favourite for so long and I feel at home on Orkney. And today people know me as Martin Highland Park and when they mention my name, the mention Highland Park and the other way around when they mention Highland Park they think of my name. It’s not that I didn’t want to, but I just didn’t feel comfortable working for another company. That’s what I am, Highland Park!
LDA: Thank you very much for your time and the insights you shared with me, Martin. And all the best for your upcoming travels.