Interview with Martin Markvardsen, Highland Park

Highland Park is one of those distilleries that are hard to ignore. At the Interwhisky in Frankfurt, Germany's most important whisky fair, I had a chance to talk to Martin Markvardsen, Senior Brand Ambassador for Highland Park. We had a lovely chat about Highland Park's new release strategies, the meaning of NAS Whisky and what the future might bring for the Scotch Whisky Industry. 

To be honest, Highland Park has always been one of my favourites, and I usually have a keen eye on Highland Park releases. And thankfully, fans could hardly complain in the recent past that there wasn't enough going on at the distillery.

To my own delight, I had a chance to talk to Highland Park's Senior Brand Ambassador at the recent Interwhisky. Martin has become more or less the "Face and Soul" of Highland Park over the last years, and at some point in his career, he even worked in the production team of the distillery. His profound knowledge of all things related to Highland Park Whisky makes him a much sought-after intervew partner for whisky geeks like me.

What started as a short chat about Highland Parks new releases developed into a very interesting conversation about the meaning of NAS whisky, the challenges which the future might hold in its sleeve for the Scotch whisky industry and what to expect from Highland Park in the years to come. The following text is a slightly abridged version of our interview, which lasted almost half an hour. Hope you enjoy it.

Interview with Martin Markvardsen, Senior Brand Ambassador for Highland Park Distillery, at the Interwhisky Frankfurt December 2017.

MM: Martin, it’s a pleasure to have you here at the Interwhisky Frankfurt. How do you like it?

Martin: Last time I was at the Interwhisky was a few years ago, and it was at a different venue, which was quite tight. So coming back to the new venue was a nice surprise- it is absolutely beautiful. I think the interest we’ve had from people this year has been phenomenal, I had a full master class last night, which was fantastic as well. For us, it’s a success. I enjoy talking to people here and every time I come back to Germany I can see more whisky nerds, which is great, and they know more and more about Highland Park, and they also know more and more about me, because they follow me. So it’s good fun to be here.

MM: Recently, consumers seemed a bit confused about all these new Highland Park releases that hit the market in the past months. Can you explain the release strategy of Highland Park to my readers?

Martin: First of all, when you look at what we had on the market in the past, we had a core range that was there for a long time, and every year we came out with one special release. We changed that strategy. We discontinued Dark Origins, because we don’t have the casks anymore which we used for Dark Origins. We also discontinued the 15 years old, which was American Oak Sherry casks, and again, we don’t have too many of those casks, and we discontinued the 21, because we don’t have the age of that anymore. So there is a reason why we take them off the shelves. We know they are fantastic whiskies, but if we can’t guarantee the quality, there is no reason to continue having them and then to compromise on the quality. We don’t want to do that.

There’s been a few new ones like Valkyrie, which replaced Dark Origins, and Full Volume, which just came out and replaced the 21 year old, - so there is not “more” on the market, we are just replacing.

Then we have done some Specials, Magnus for North America, or Dragon Legend for Tesco, which will soon be released around Europe, and we are changing our strategy for Travel Retail, so people have seen new items there as well. We will continue to do special editions once or twice a year, like the Fire and Ice.

And of course people follow the Single Cask Program. But the Single Cask Program is not part of our range. It is more targeting to special customers, who want to buy a single cask.  When we release all these single casks it seems like a lot is coming out from Highland Park, but we do that to give as many people as possible a chance to get a single cask bottling. The last one we sold in Sweden was 628 bottles and it was sold out old in 3.4 seconds! That doesn’t give most of the people around the world a chance to buy one. Most single Casks at airports are there only one or two days. To satisfy our customers, we need to make a lot around the world.

MM: I know from my own experience how hard it is to get one of those Single Cask Bottlings, and I was very happy about the one at Munich Airport. Will Dragon Legends become available in Germany as well?

Martin: We made Dragon Legends solely for Tesco in the UK, and the agreement was that it will last for three to six months. After this, we will release it in the rest of the UK, and then it will come to Europe. It will come to Germany within the next year. The idea was to give the UK something special to start with. It will not be part of our core range but will be around there for a while just to ease a bit the pressure because we are taking away some other expressions. It gives us a chance to play around a bit with stocks.

We don’t like to do finishes, as other producers are doing, who come out with all sorts of different cask finishes. We like to play around with cask flavours and give our whisky maker the chance to play around with the casks he has available. The results are bottlings like Full Volume, Valkyrie, Dragon Legends, Voyage of the Raven. And we are also making heavily peated spirit once a year, and we like to play around with that as well.

MM: When will Full Volume arrive in Germany?

Martin: The shipment hasn’t been taking place yet, but it’s on it’s way. I would reckon that it will be in Germany at the beginning of January, maybe even end of December. We had six bottles here at the Interwhisky.

MM: Can you try to “deconstruct” Full Volume for us? What are the different parts that were used to “construct” Full Volume?

Martin: That’s actually a very good question, because it is the first whisky that we “build up” like a composer would build up its music. Our whisky maker had a very good conversation with a composer. The way he explained how he builds up music is to add different instruments to give it balance. And that is what Gordon Motion, our master blender, was doing. He used 481 different kinds of casks, all distilled in 1999, a mix of hogsheads and barrels, and they are all American Oak Bourbon Casks, from the beginning. He started very slowly, with just one or two casks, and then he went on to see if he needed more vanilla, or another flavour, and he built it up cask by cask, but all from 1999, to find the perfect balance. Then he tried different kinds of levels of alcohol, and he found that at 47.2% strength the balance of alcohol and flavour was just the best. So, that’s how he built it up, cask by cask. It’s a vintage, all the casks were from 1999, which makes it 17 years old. And if you look at the side of the cardboard box, it will give you the exact filling dates of the casks.

MM: That sounds positive. People appreciate transparency. And we would like to see it more often.

Martin: The Scotch Whisky Association don’t want us to be too transparent, and I understand why. But I wouldn’t mind telling people on the cardboard box for example that we used 20% six years old and so on. Then people can see what is in a Non-Age-Statement Whisky. And they might see, ok, there is six year old whisky in it, but there is also 16 years old whisky to create the balance. It is a bit like what the Cognac producers do, when they talk about a “drinking age”. There might be 4 year old Cognac but also 20 year old Cognac, so the drinking age is about 12. And that’s what we have to move towards.

You see, I’m a big fan of the NAS-Whiskies because you can play around with casks. But I do think that people need more transparency. I also think that it is fun to do different batches and telling what we have done from batch to batch. And hopefully we will be able to do that in the future. It will give us a new way to create whisky and tell people what we are doing, why we are using young casks, what young casks are giving us and what older casks are giving us.

I also think that we must build up more trust again. A lot of people have lost faith in the industry because of the NAS-Whisky and feel that we are fooling them. We can always talk about the quality of NAS-Whisky, but I think today, no distillery in Scotland today can afford to compromise on the quality of a whisky.

The truth is, there are as many good NAS-Whiskies as there are Whiskies with an Age Statement, and there are as many bad NAS-Whiskies as there are bad Whiskies with an Age Statement. So, I think you will always find your favourites, whether it is NAS or AS. You mentioned Dark Origins, which is a fantastic NAS-Whisky, and we are getting lots of good credits for Valkyrie at the moment, so it gives us a chance to play around with ages and casks and flavour.

MM: There is a growing competition world-wide. Will that be a threat?

Martin: If you look at the whisky world today, there are lots and lots of different things going on. There is a growing production in different countries. We are expecting around 20 new distilleries in Scotland, we know that the market in Taiwan and Asia is growing. Existing distilleries like The Macallan are expanding, Kavalan is expanding, Japanese distilleries are expanding, and every time we see a new distillery emerging, and every time we see a distillery expanding, we can also look into the future and say: less casks. Because they will all need more casks. WE need more casks. We just expanded Macallan distillery and people don’t think about it when they say “Now we are going from 10 to 15 Million Liters” – that’s 5 Million more new spirit that needs to go into casks. So, I think that the biggest issue for the Scotch Whisky Industry right now is to find the quality of the wood, the quality of the cask for the years to come.

MM: Will it make whisky even more expensive?

Martin: I don’t think it will make whisky more expensive. But I do think that you will see more creations coming out. You will see more expressions from the distilleries because they need to play around with the casks.

NAS whiskies have always been there, but the boom of NAS whiskies came around 5 or six years ago. And I think, they will always be there, but you will see that they will become less and less, because  the gap the distillery had all the way back from about 1983 to 1993 is now filling up. This means our casks are getting older, the quality is getting better, we now know more about the wood than we knew 20 or 25 years ago, so we do have access to whisky at a younger age, but at a better quality. So that is a positive aspect.

But I also see that we will bring back more Age Statements to the Retail Business in the future, and that is the good thing for the distillery, we are well equipped, and not only Highland Park, but also The Macallan or Laphroaig.

For all the new distilleries, what I see, is that it is very brave to start a new distillery today, but I do think that a lot of them will have a problem if they don’t invest a lot in good casks. You can make the best new spirit in the world, but if you put it into bad casks, you will get a bad whisky. You can make an OK spirit, but if you put it in really good casks, you will still get a very good whisky. You can’t make a good whisky in bad casks.

We will have a lack of casks in the future. That’s why we are making so many experiments right now, with all these expressions like Ice and Fire, we are doing a lot of experiments with bourbon casks, with different types of wine casks, to see if we can fill the gap twenty-five years from now. So you will see lots of different things coming out that might have started as an experiment from the distilleries.

MM: Can you grant us a quick glance into your crystal ball and tell us what is coming out from Highland Park within the next months or year?

Martin: What is already out in some markets is a whisky called “The Dark”. It tells about the shortest day on Orkney, the Winter Solstice, and it is a whisky that is very dark, it comes in a black bottle, from predominately First-Fill-Sherry Casks –

MM: - is it also very dark inside the bottle?

Martin: - yes, it is dark inside the bottle as well ;-) It’s 17 years old, 52.9% alcohol, and it will probably hit Germany around February. Right now, it’s already available in the UK and in Belgium, I think.

And of course, there needs to be a follow up on that, which will be called “Light”, which tells about the longest day, which is very important for Orkney. And these longest days were very important for the Vikings as well, and we will talk a lot about that. That’s been matured mainly in refill-casks, so it will be a lighter colour, but same strength, same age, so people can compare these two expressions.  We are making 28,000 bottles of each, and those will replace Ice and Fire. So again, it’s not too many new expressions, but replacements. They have an age statement on it, they have a high strength, and they are as much for the collectors as for people who really enjoy whisky. That’s the two new things that will be coming out within the next six months.

Then of course we have a new 50 year old on its way, which will soon hit the shelves, and which is a cracking whisky! And we are doing a few things for charity, there will be released very soon a bottling for the life-boats in Orkney, and we will have a Keystone, which is only available for our membership club “the inner circle”.

MM: Valkyrie is already on the market, can you tell me a bit about this bottling?

Martin: Valkyrie is the first in a series of three, with 240.000 bottles for the world, so it’s not a limited edition, it is a limited time release, it will disappear after 18 months. It tells the story of the Valkyries, the spirits that decided who should live or die on the battlefield, and again, it is a very good story.

The whisky itself is a bit more peated than usually. Gordon Motion used some of the heavily peated stuff we are making every year, to dial up the smoke. We used 50 % refill casks, and also First-Fill American Oak Sherry and Bourbon casks. These different types of casks gives us a very good complexity. There are lots of tropical fruits, lots of sweetness, and then this beautiful smoke. The refill casks are giving us the balance, and the other casks are building up the flavour. We bottled it with 45.9%, to give it a bit more power.

MM: You still make your own peated malt at Highland Park Distillery?

Martin: Yes, we make about 20-22% of the peated malt ourselves. Then we mix it with commercial malt that comes from Simpsons. It is a big  thing for our distillery manager Marie Stanton to keep that tradition going. And it’s even more important for the flavour. About 18 or 19 years ago, we used peat from the mainland, and it changed the flavour completely. So, at one point we shipped peat from Orkney to the maltings at the mainland, and it changed the flavour completely. We can only get the right flavour by doing it on the distillery itself. We are not just doing the malting for the tourists, but we have to do it, to create the right flavours.

MM: I hope you won’t run out of peat at Orkney.

Martin: Oh no, we use peat from bogs called Hobbister, and we have peat there for the next 90 years.

Margarete: Ok, so my lifetime is safe.

Martin: My lifetime is safe as well, I don’t need to worry. And we have rights to the bogs right next to Hobbister, which will create about the same flavour.

Margarete: Highland Park has a female distillery manager right now. Do women do things differently or does it not make a difference whether it’s a man or a women who runs the distillery?

Martin: I think Marie is doing things differently in a positive way. Productionwise, she has done a lot of changes for the better. Things, that we had never even thought about before. She is a “nerd” in a positive sense, she goes into details. The effect has been that the consistency of the quality of our New Make Spirit is much better now. When she came up about two years ago, the guys at the distillery were not over-enthusiastic about having “a girl – yeah…..”  but it didn’t take long and she knew exactly what she was talking about. And now, she is “one of the guys”, she is a fantastic friend, and also extremely funny. Whether you call it “the female way” or the “distillery manager way”, she is definitely doing the right thing.

Margarete: Sounds like lots of hope for the future.

Martin: Yeah, we are in very good shape, we are producing very good New Make, we are getting very, very good casks in – and the consistency of the quality of the wood is amazing. We are very, very confident for the future. We know that for many years from now we will be producing very good liquid – and we will still be telling stories. That’s what we are really good at besides making very good whisky, we are telling really good stories. We have more visitors than ever at the Distillery, and we made changes for disabled people, so yes, we are in very good shape.

Margarete: Thanks for taking the time talking to me, Martin.
Interwhisky Frankfurt at night


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