One For The Road: Highland Park’s senior brand ambassador, Martin Markvardsen, on why its birthplace is special

In One For The Road, we speak with the best bartenders and spirit guides to get to know them better. Martin Markvardsen, the senior brand ambassador of Highland Park, gives us the backstory on why it’s so distinct, from packaging to contents

The threads that connects former Danish boxing champion Martin Markvardsen to Orkney, a Scottish archipelago, are rich, varied and have a lot to do with whisky.

Markvardsen is currently into an almost-20-year career as brand ambassador for Highland Park, which, in terms of whisky, is the pride of Orkney. Till today, the brand makes its good stuff at its distillery in Kirkwall, Orkney, furthering and staying true to a practice that was established in 1798. Historically, Orkney was also once a Viking stronghold and part of a Viking kingdom presided over by a succession of Viking Earls from circa 800AD until 1468. Till today, a significant portion of Orkney’s population has Viking blood flowing in its veins.

That history, as well as the cold blustery winds––so cold that no tree can survive––that create moorland peat that is woodless but packed with lush heath, informs why Highland Park is unlike any other single malt in the market. As a further mark of distinction, the brand unveils the rarest whisky it’s ever made, the 54 year old to the rest of the world this week, a hyper-limited release of 225 bottles.

In town for this historic event, Markvardsen sits down with us for a chat about the three things that define Highland Park whisky: time, place and taste.

How does a former boxing champion become a champion of whisky?

It’s a very good question. When I when I was a boxer, I gave it 100 per cent. And when I became interested in whisky later on in my life, which is now  35 years ago, I was very dedicated to it too. I told myself that I needed to learn everything about about it, and put all efforts in to being the best kind of brand ambassador. You know, I’ve been working 17 years for Highland Park and I’m still of the mindset that I can learn everyday; I can get better every day and that’s what keeps me going.

There’s lots of whisky out there so what drew you specifically to Highland Park?

Highland Park is very unique. We are amongst the northernmost scotch distilleries and there are some ingredients we use in our whisky which are up there and we’re the only ones that use them.

Take our peats, for instance. The peat we have in Orkney makes Highland Park the unique whisky it is. We can’t make Highland Park without it. If we do so, it will change the flavour. The climate in Orkney is also unique, that means a lot during our maturation. It affects how our end result will be. These are a few things that make Highland Park unique, and flavour-wise, I think it stands out as a very balanced and complex whisky.

Martin at the Singapore launch of Highland Park 54. Photo by Highland Park

Let’s talk about Orkney. What do whisky-lovers all over the world need to know about it?

They need to know that it’s a very historical place. It’s a place where not only Highland Park has a long history but all the islands there have long and rich histories. Going back in time, I’d say that making whisky in Orkney was probably more more brave than it was clever.

Historically, we have roots that date 6000 years back. We have an amazing history of Vikings up there. And, besides, the story of Highland Park goes all the way back to 1798. The cuisine in Orkney is amazing as well. If you like seafood and meat, Orkney is definitely one of the best places in Scotland.

How do Orkney’s Viking roots impact the whisky in terms of its taste and the processes through which it’s made?

The thing we can relate to with the Vikings was handcrafting. The Vikings were really good with their hands. They built their ships that way;  everything they did was handcrafted. And 55 per cent of the people living there today can trace their bloodlines back to the Vikings. It’s the same with Highland Park. We’re a traditional, handcrafted whisky. We malt our own barley on site and we cut the peat by hand, all of which are inspired by the handcrafted things the Vikings did. And we’re one of the last remaining scotch distilleries to still keep those traditions alive.

And where does Highland Park sit in the world of single malts?

Well, I work for Highland Park so for me, it sits right on the top! Honestly, though, we are, taste-wise, one of the best all-rounders. We’re certainly not a heavily peated malt; we’re not a fruity Speyside whisky. But we have a little bit of everything and our own unique character from Orkney. You also get a lot of different kinds of flavours from the other regions. But you always have to remember we are a whisky with our own unique style. 
Michael Jackson––not the singer––but the whisky writer who sadly passed away some years ago, always said that Highland Park was the best all-rounder you can find in Scotland. And today at competitions around the world, that’s the kind of the recognition we still get.

Highland Park 54, only 225 bottles of which are made Photo by Highland Park

Even the bottling and packaging of Highland Park is distinct. Is that intentional?

I think it follows each other, and we think it should follow each other.

If you have a fantastic product, it has to look good on the shelf as well, whether it’s back home, or if you go to a bar or restaurant. The bottle shows the quality of what you have. We’ve always been recognised for this. The packaging reflects our Viking roots. So we’ve always thought that the packaging should look great and reflect the quality of the whisky.

The brand is celebrating the global launch of its 54 year old vintage. What does its presence in Singapore mean for the brand?

Well, Singapore is a really good market not only for Highland Park but for whisky in general. Singapore is definitely one of the markets that showcases whisky well, especially prestigious lines like our 54 year old. It has and needs to be here. People’s idea about whisky in Singapore is really good, especially when it comes to appreciating older whiskies. That’s why I keep coming back. It’s a fantastic market, so it means a lot to be able to launch it here.

Lastly, it’s late at night and you want one last drink for the road. What’s it going to be?

It would always be Highland Park 18. I think it stands out and will always be my go-to dram. I have it neat. For me, there’re no rules about how you drink whisky – you can do whatever you like with your whisky. But to get the right flavours from the 18, it has to be drunk neat. I believe that you have to drink whisky the way that’s right for you. For me, it’s Highland Park 18, neat. After that, I’ll sleep very well.

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