Upon first impression, Martin Markvardsen hardly strikes one as an aficionado of whisky, let alone an ambassador of one of Scotland’s most famous whisky brands, Highland Park. Faced with his imposing height and bulky build, one would think he is a professional wrestler or boxer—which incidentally he was, having represented Denmark in 22 boxing matches for the national team and been Danish boxing champion twice—if not for the Highland Park-emblazoned shirt he dons. In fact, if he lost the shirt, his love for whisky and the brand would have been more obvious, as Markvardsen sports a Highland Park logo tattoo over his heart. Indeed, as we’ve come to uncover, Markvardsen’s passion for Highland Park whisky transcends his role as senior brand ambassador, and the lineage they share goes back centuries.
A SHARED HISTORY
Highland Park was founded on the Scottish archipelago of Orkney in 1978, by Magnus Eunson. Off the extreme northeastern coast of Scotland and shaped by a wild climate of fierce winds and stormy seas, Orkney was ruled by a succession of Viking earls from early ninth century up until 1468, when then King Christian I of Norway and Denmark gave the islands over to Scotland as part of his daughter’s dowry to the Scottish king. Eunson was a direct Viking descendant, and still today, one in three Orkney islanders bear Viking DNA. As Markvardsen puts it, “People in Orkney are very different from normal Scottish. Their heritage and inspirations are very Nordic. I don’t think you’ll find anywhere else outside of the Nordics, a Viking soul like the one in Orkney.”
It is this shared heritage that drew the Dane to Highland Park and vice versa. Markvardsen started getting into whisky while in the Royal Danish Army. On an exercise in Scotland, while his fellow crew went to the local pubs to get drunk on their off days, Markvardsen would visit distilleries. “What blew me away was how proud and passionate every worker in each distillery was of their whisky,” he shares.
Despite devouring every book he could find about whisky, the self-professed nerd’s thirst for whisky knowledge was still not quenched. He then offered to work for the distillers for free, just so he could learn all about the whisky-making process. That was 27 years ago. After leaving the navy, he started working at whisky shops and eventually moved to Scotland to become whisky manager at The Craigellachie Hotel. There, he put together whisky programmes and organised whisky dinners up until 2006.
Markvardsen recounts, “At that time, Highland Park was my favourite whisky and I always included the 18 Year Old in my tastings. Some guys from the Edrington Group came to one of my tastings and must have heard me gush about my love for the whisky because I then got a call from the Edrington Group that they wanted me to come work for them as a Highland Park ambassador. That was a fantastic dream come true and I’ve been with the brand now for almost 12 years.”
THE VIKING SOUL
Markvardsen gets fired up talking about Vikings: “Ancient Viking way of life was a lot about trading, exploring, andhandcrafting. The modern Viking soul is about a passion for life and creating artisanal products. It is something you see when you visit Orkney. Everyone there has a passion for making things with their hands, be it crafting chairs or building boats. It’s all connected to the way Vikings worked: they didn’t like to use modern tools; it’s all done by hand.”
In many ways, Markvardsen is like a modern-day Viking. As a Highland Park ambassador, he travels 210 days a year, to educate whisky drinkers across various countries. But when he is back in Orkney, he relishes getting into the thick of action. He notes, “When I’m back at the distillery in Orkney, I take part in wherever they need a hand. I can be leading a VIP tour, rolling the cask into the warehouse or distillery, or turning the barley around. (Highland Park is one of the few distilleries left in Scotland to follow the old traditions of floor malting its own barley, using locally cut peat from Hobbister Moor.) I try to be involved in the whole process of things, which is what fascinates me anyway.”
Markvardsen lets on that he is more involved in the final stages of the whisky production such as the blending of whiskies and the selection of single casks. “I travel a lot but I’m still involved in the blending process where we work with master whisky maker Gordon Motion. Everything we distill is not necessarily coming out as whisky. Plus, no two casks will be the same: there are different types of wood, sizes, and ages of the cask, and so on. What we’re looking for inside the casks are different kinds of flavour profiles for the markets that they are going into. We are looking if this cask is good enough to be bottled as a single cask whisky or if we should put it into our core range,” he explains.
THE HIGHLAND PARK DNA
Most importantly, the whisky that comes from the casks needs to carry the Highland Park DNA. Markvardsen describes it as “some sweetness, a delicate peat smoke at the end with this honey clover flavour”, as well as hints of maritime saltiness and spiciness. Their core range of the 10, 12, and 18 Year Old are always matured in sherry oak casks, but the brand also puts out special editions that are bourbon-matured or port-matured.
Highland Park’s most recent release is the Valkyrie. Named after the avenging horse-backed angels who combed the battlefields for the bravest of their fallen Viking warriors in Norse mythology, this special edition single malt Scotch whisky is a blend of nectar from American bourbon oak casks, American sherry oak casks, and European sherry oak casks. Markvardsen expounds, “The three casks give layered soft tropical fruit flavours and spice, and [there’s] lots more smoke at the end compared to our core range.” The Valkyrie is the first in a series of three bottles called the Viking Legend. The next one is called Valknut, which are interconnected triangles that represent Norse God Odin’s mark to celebrate slain warriors; the last is Valhalla, the Norse mythology’s great heavens, to finish the story of the Valkyries choosing fallen warriors that are worthy of heading there.
Not only have Highland Park been releasing special edition whiskies that hark back to Viking history and Norse mythology—they have a Valhalla series of four whiskies named after the gods Odin, Thor, Loki and Freya—the brand has also repackaged their core range to come in bottles fully embossed with markings drawn from the wood panellings of the 12th century Urnes Stave Church in Norway. The markings depict the legend of a lion locked in battle with the forces of evil in the form of serpent-like dragons and is a common Viking art style.
It’s all about telling the legends of the Vikings, Markvardsen notes. “We’re making [the whiskies] with pride and I think it’s beautiful to tell the stories about our ancestors. Orkney used to belong to Denmark and Norway, so it’s our way of saying that we haven’t forgotten that history and heritage, and what the Vikings did for us. This is our way of honouring that connection, that part of us.”
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
If there should be one whisky that best represents who Markvardsen is, he reckons it’s his all-time favourite Highland Park 25 Year Old Single Malt Whisky. Matured in European sherry oak casks, the 25 Year Old “gets so complex and balanced that upon first impressions, you can’t exactly figure out right away what is happening”. He adds, “You have layers of spiciness, sweetness, smoke, and then it just becomes one. When you sit with it for 10 to 15 minutes, suddenly all the flavours appear: dried fruits like raisins and apricots, a hint of coffee, chocolate, glutinous notes from the sherry influence. At about 20 minutes after you’ve poured it out, you have the smoke. It carries an extremely long, elegant finish. Every time I drink it, it still amazes me because there’s always something new about it to discover. At the same time, [there is] something always so trustworthy about it. It’s a beautiful, natural colour; just sitting looking at it is something I can do for hours.”
Packing a punch and bursting with strong alcohol upon first nose, the 25 Year Old takes time to open up in the glass, revealing its complex layers of flavour the longer you appreciate it, just like how beneath Markvardsen’s imposing veneer, his deep passion and knowledge of whisky becomes evident the longer you speak with him. He enthuses, “The more I travel, the more I meet people with huge interest in what we are making, not just the product but also in the minor details about our production, like the strains of yeast we use and the pH levels of our water. I think it’s fantastic because that’s where my expertise and passion is. When they ask all these questions, I like to go into details even though others might be bored. At the end of the day, it’s always about appreciating the whisky and understanding it.”