Highland Park The Dark launched in Munich. Chat with Brand Ambassador Martin Markvardsen

Last weekend, Highland Park launched its latest special release, "The Dark", for the German market at the Finest Spirits Fair Munich. Chatting with its Global Brand Ambassador Martin Markvardsen is always a great pleasure, and I made sure to drop by for a few questions. This time, we talked about the blending part of the business, cask policy at Highland Park, and how things have changed in the last few years.

MM: Martin, let's begin with the new edition, Highland Park "The Dark".

Martin: The Dark is the first of two, it will be followed by "The Light", and it tells the story of the shortest day, the Winter Solstice, on Orkney. It also tells the story of the runes - we have the biggest collection of  runes on Orkney - and one of the places where those two things are combined is the Hill of Maeshowe. Here, you can find the ancient runes inside a tomb, and the sun will light up this tomb  on the shortest day.

It's a combination of very old Orkadian history, with the Vikings, and the runes, and it's also a story of the shortest day and the darkness.

The whisky itself  has been matured 100% in European Sherry Casks, for 17 years; it's 28.000 bottles, and we decided to make this at 52.9%. So, it's really high in alcohol, and it's very gentle. When people taste this whisky, it will remind them of everything they need to know about Highland Park. It's the DNA of Highland Park. It's beautiful, with lots of cinnamon, lots of spices, lots of sweetness, dried fruits, and dark chocolate.

MM: What about "The Light"?

Martin: The Light will be the complete opposite, it has the same age, 17 years, and it's story is about the longest day, at the summer solstice, and in "Light", we used 100% refill barrels, only 200-l-casks, to create very complex, very balanced flavours. It's always when you use refill casks, when you get the balance. So, it's an extremely balanced whisky. It has even more vanilla than you have found before in any Highland Park and it has some fresh fruit.

MM: So it will be only American Oak Barrels? Will it be a bit like "Ice"?

Martin: Ice was First-Fill-Casks,  it was a bit more massive. So was Frya, and so is Full Volume. I find "Light" to be much more elegant, more sophisticated, much more balanced, you don't have any flavours that overpower each other, it's a very gentle, smooth, and long whisky. With "Light", we don't talk so much about complexity like with the "Dark", with all the flavours coming out, but much more about balance and gentleness. It's one of these whiskies when you taste it, it will take you to a summer night....

MM: When will "Light" hit the German Market?

Martin: We plan launching in April, so I would reckon in summer.

MM: Highland Park belongs to Edrington, but Edrington is not only a distillery owner, it is also and mainly a Blending Company. How much does this effect the work that is being done at the distillery?

Martin: To be honest, not much. The good thing is, that Edrington is a group, but each and every brand is run by its own. The team we have at Highland Park will run Highland Park as one single distillery. We don't think about Famous Grouse or Cutty Sark, we don't think about The Macallan or Glenrothes, so we don't interfere with each other. Of course, we have to deliver to Famous Grouse or Cutty Sark. 95% of all distilleries today will contribute to some kind of blend.

MM: How much do you have to produce for the blends?

Martin: Today, around a third goes to blends.

MM: Which means, two thirds of your production is for Single Malt? Wow, that's much more than I imagined.

Martin: You know, Highland Park is a relatively small distillery, if you compare it to The Macallan or Glenfiddich. We are producing around 1.8 Million litres of alcohol per year. That means, as our Single Malt Brand is growing every day, we are one of the fastest growing Single Malts in Scotland, so we can't put as much to Blends as Macallan or other big distilleries can. We have to focus a bit more on our Single Malt. But especially for Famous Grouse, Highland Park has always been one of the key components.

MM: How do you distinguish the casks that go into Blends from the casks that you are going to use for Single Malt? Is it Monday for Famous Grouse, Tuesday for Cutty Sark... no, I'm joking, but how do you do it?

Martin: It's actually quite a simple process. To build a blended whisky like the Famous Grouse, you need a lot of refill casks, because they give a lot of balance, and you need a few first-fill-casks. So, when we fill our refill casks - which have been filled three or four times - we fill for Famous Grouse, and we mark them with colour. When it comes to the first-fill-casks, we have no idea, if they will be used for our Single Malt or if they will end up for Famous Grouse. That's the decision of our master blenders in Glasgow. Our first- and second-filled-casks might end up as Blends or might not, but we always fill them as Single Malts. Our third- and fourth-filled casks will go down to Glasgow and end up in a Blend.

MM: What was the oldest cask from Highland Park that was ever used in a Blend?

Martin: We did a 40 year old Famous Grouse, and there was Highland Park in it, so to my knowledge, it would be 40 years. It was the first blend, that Gordon Motion, our Master Blender, made, and he was using 40 years old Macallan and Highland Park in it.

MM: How many casks to you use at the distillery?

Martin: When we do the batches for our 12 years old, we normally check between 300 or 400 casks to find what we need. One batch can be up to 100 casks. But we are not making a batch of our 12 years old every week. We will probably empty around 500 to 600 casks on a weekly basis, but for all the different expressions we have. We have currently 43,000 casks lying at Highland Park, everything from New Make Spirit up to 40 years old. But we also have a lot of casks lying down in Glasgow or at the Macallan, for Insurance. If we have a fire at the distillery and everything burns down, we need to make sure that we have casks left somewhere else.

It sounds like a lot, but on a yearly basis, it is not that much. If you go 18 years back, we didn't do that much, so we didn't have enough 18 year old in the past, but now we are in really good shape when it comes to stock, and when it comes to future stocks as well, and also in different types of casks. A lot of things are in the pipeline for the future, we like to make experiments with heavily peated malts, so in the future, you will see Highland Park in a few different variations. Not tomorrow, but maybe in 5 or 10 years time.

MM: Do you have any plans to increase production?

Martin: We don't have any plans to increase production, we have plans to do more heavily peated malt, but we are running more or less maximum now. We won't put in more stills. Were we are right now productionwise is very healthy, for the equipment and mostly for our staff, we are working very hard, were dedicated, but I don't think we can push too hard. Every time when we turn up production a little bit, it gets harder for our equipment, too.

MM: Are there any experiments going on with fancy casks like Tequila casks or the like?

Martin: No, not that fancy. We had casks like Port Wine casks for Fire, we still have Port Wine Casks lying. We are right now experimenting to see how it works with wine casks, but we don't do any Finishings, so it's again something for the future.

There is a lot of good things about whisky, but one of the bad things is, that you can't hurry things. That means, if you want to do an experiment right, you need to give it time. Filling these casks with New Make, you might find out that they are good after three months, but you can't take it after three months. It still might be good after 12 years, or after 15 years. You have to wait and find out, and it takes time.

Another issue is quantity. If you only fill one cask for your experiment, and it turns out that it is really good, then one cask is not enough. So you always fill 300, or 400 or 500 casks, and if you find out after many years it is not good, then you have 300 casks lying around...

All distilleries are experimenting right now, they have to. We have no idea where Sherry consumption and Sherry production will take us in a few years. There are about 20 new distilleries that will start over the next years, and they need casks as well. Will there be enough casks for all of us? And that is why everybody is looking into other cask types. If we don't get enough sherry casks, will there be something else that can give us unique flavours to work with?

MM: Are there any "tricks" that you are using to speed up maturation, like smaller casks, or higher temperatures?

Martin: One thing we don't have at Highland Park is heat. It's a very cold place. Maturing whisky at Highland Park needs time. We have a very slow pace for maturation, thanks to the climate. We could probably use smaller casks like quarter casks, it's not something we have done, it's not a tradition at Highland Park. If we had to do that, again, it would be as an experiment, and it would be used for special editions, but it is not something that could replace our 12 year old whisky. 12 Years needs 12 years.

To quote one of our master blenders, who I was working with one day in Glasgow, when one of the accountants came in and said: "Max, Germany needs more 12 Year old, so you have to hurry on". And Max is a very calm man, and he said: "Well....., they have to wait 12 years.....". We can't hurry things, whisky takes 12 years to become 12 Years. And at Orkney, it might not be just 12, it might be 15 years, because the climate is different. We have no plans to make maturation quicker.

MM: Does it mean that Highland Park will get even more expensive in the future, when demand increases? 

Martin: I don't think that Highland Park will get more expensive in the future. We haven't increased prices more than other distilleries. I think the price for our 18 Years Old had been to low for a long time, so we increased the price to a good level, and that took away the demand for a little while, which was good because we didn't have much 18 Years Old anyway, because we hadn't produced so much 18 years ago.

Pricewise, I think Highland Park is ok, for a 12 years old, or for the 18 year old. People can always discuss the prices for our special editions, but they are a one-off. Such products cost a lot of money to make, to put it into special bottles, to do the advertising, all these things cost a lot of money. Some people don't care about the bottles, but others do care, and we want to satisfy all aspects of the market.

MM: Will Highland Park try to enter new markets?

Martin:  If you want to go to a market like China, that's huge. It's not about a few hundred cases more or less. It's about thousands of cases. We can't do that. Highland Park is too small for a market like China. Germany is a very important market for us.

MM: Things have changed quite dramatically in the last 5 or 6 years.

Martin: The whole marketing concept in the whisky industry has changed. A new generation of whisky drinkers has come along. Fife or six years ago, when you talked about a single malt in a cocktail, it was  - --- don't mention it! And I was one of them, I didn't like cocktails back then. But now, it is different. Today, nobody thinks it's wrong to use a 12-, 15- or even 18 year old whisky in a cocktail. So, that is a new sign of the market, that I personally really like, because it opened my eyes.

People are getting more aware. People who are buying whisky today are not buying more per person, but more quality, not more quantity. People are enjoying special editions, or single casks.We have more collectors on the market, and you see more and more people who want to enjoy whisky and want to enjoy a good story with it. Today, people want to have a bit more to associate with, when they drink whisky. We have more whisky fairs, and more people are interested. For us, this is a challenge, but in a good way.

MM: Where will the industry go from here in the next five years?

Martin: I don't think we will see an increase in sales. We have probably reached the top of the iceberg when it comes to prices. What I'm worried about is the new distilleries that are coming along. I might get beaten for this, but some of the new distilleries are very brave, because it takes a lot of money to get a distillery running and compete with the big ones. I'm afraid some of the new distilleries will change ownership over the next few years or close down. I appreciate that new distilleries come, but I'm worried about their success. There will not be space enough for each and every one of them. But I can't really tell you what will happen in the future, I can only tell you what we hope will happen in the future.

MM: What does Highland Park hope for the future?

Martin: We hope that we can continue our success like in the past, that we will gain respect from connaisseurs, and that we will continue to produce quality products that people can really enjoy.

MM: I think that's what all Highland Park fans around the world hope, too. Thanks Martin, it was a pleasure talking to you.


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