Head to Scotland and navigate even further north: there you’ll find the archipelago of Orkney, home to Highland Park. We sat down with senior brand ambassador Martin Markvardsen to chat about its latest single malt Valknut, brush up on Nordic ancestry, and find out which bottling a modern-day Viking would cherish most…

If you’re not already familiar with Martin Markvardsen, he’s something of a Scotch whisky legend. Having spent 28 years in the industry (more than a quarter of a century!) – the last 13 at Highland Park – his work has seen him involved in every single step of whisky production, from peat burning on Islay to cocktail-making at the world famous Craigellachie Hotel.

If the rumours are indeed true, Markvardsen has visited every single distillery in Scotland – pretty good going, considering there were more than 120 of them at last count. Since Highland Park is his favourite of the lot, the fab folk in Orkney are clearly doing something right. We pinned Markvardsen for a chat as the distillery releases the second expression in its Viking Legend series, Valknut.

Martin MarkvardsenMartin Markvardsen!

My love for whisky started by chance. I’m originally from Denmark, born and bred, and at one point as a young man I joined Royal Danish Navy. We were on an exercise in Scotland and had a day off. All my colleagues went to the local pub and drank their butts out, but I thought, ‘I’m going to see Scotland’. When you start driving around, it’s very hard not to come across a distillery! What really amazed me was how proud everyone working at the distillery was, and the whole story behind whisky – about the smugglers – and so I decided to learn more. I began reading about it, visiting distilleries, tasting whiskies, and I fell in love with the whole industry. I started collecting whiskies, and worked as a volunteer at different distilleries – 28 years ago I did my first whisky tasting and never looked back. I’ve been around the whole industry, from rolling the cask into the warehouse to floor malting to blending, and also sales and bartending. So I think I’m pretty well dressed to do that job that I do. I’m probably the luckiest man in the world, every day I do something different, and every day I do what I love. There’s a quote I saw the other day, ‘if you get a job you love, you don’t have to work a day in your life’. That’s what my job is all about.

Highland Park[Insert Limp Bizkit reference here]

It’s not a big secret that Highland Park is based on Orkney, we’re the northernmost Scottish distillery. We have a good story that goes a little bit away from the regular stories you hear about distillers in Scotland, and it dates back to when the Vikings used to live on Orkney. We talk about the people living there that can trace the bloodline and DNA straight back to the Vikings. If you go back 20 years, people didn’t care about stories. They wanted to have the golden liquid in their glass, they wanted to have a cup of coffee or a beer with it, and that’s it. Today when people are sitting around the table they’re talking about the whisky, and if there’s a good story to follow that, even better.

Valknut is the second in a release of three bottles. The first one was Valkyrie, and it told the story about the the angels of the Vikings, who decided who should live or die on the battlefield. It was an honour for a Viking to die in battle, because they knew they’d go up to Odin. Valknut tells a story about a slain warrior as he’s on his way up to Valhalla. We always want to associate the whisky with the story. How can we tell a story about an angel taking a dead Viking to Valhalla? We made Valkyrie with three different kinds of casks, and increased the peat level, so it’s a little more smoky than you will see Highland Park normally. People normally see smoke rising – from a chimney or a bonfire – so that’s uplifting the warrior. Now he’s on his way up, we had to make Valknut a bit more smoky. We made it from a barley type called Tartan, which is the only barley type that can grow on Orkney. There are no trees on Orkney, because the wind destroys everything. If barley grows too high it can’t grow, so this is a very short, robust type of Tartan. It’s the first time we’ve ever used it in one of our whiskies. We predominantly [aged it] in American oak sherry casks, which gives it a nutty flavour. It’s a little bit more spicy [than Valkyrie] and the finish is longer. We took it up to 46.8% to give it a little bit more strength. The last one which will be called Val Father, which is the name of Odin.

Highland Park ValknutHighland Park Valknut

I’ve never seen the team at Highland Park happier than they are now. There are a few reasons for that. We have a great production team led by Marie Stanton, our distillery manager. She’s probably the best thing that happened to Highland Park. I mean this in the most positive way: she’s the most geeky and nerdy manager I’ve ever seen. She’s the one that says, ‘do we malt too long? Do we [dry] the peat too long? How can we make production better?’, and so far everything she’s done has been spot on. We make the best new make spirit we have done since 1798, the consistency and quality of it is absolutely amazing. We are in really good shape stock-wise, production-wise, and team-wise. We can’t really expand too much because we’re quite restricted on space, but we’re one of the last distilleries in Scotland still doing the traditional floor malting. We have a dream – well, Marie has a dream, but everyone working at the distillery loves it – to expand our floor malting.

Before I became an ambassador for Highland Park, I worked at the Craigellachie Hotel’s Quaich Bar in Speyside. When I did tastings it was not a big secret that Highland Park 12 Year Old or 18 Year Old were always part of it, because they were my favourite whiskies. When Edrington called and said, ‘do you want to work as a brand ambassador for us?’ I felt like a young guy being asked to play for Barcelona or Liverpool football club, because it was my dream to work for Highland Park. A few years later, my boss at the time said, ‘if you ever get hospitalised, Highland Park will run through your veins’ – not because I was drinking it, but because it’s such a huge part of me. It touched me quite a lot, so decided I wanted to have [the amulet] tattooed on my chest, because it’s so close to my heart.

Martin MarkvardsenProof of said tattoo

[After I got the tattoo], we hired a new photographer to take pictures of Orkney and the distillery. We went to the Brough Of Birsay, an old Viking village on an island. You can only go there when the tide is out. We went very early in the morning, around 8am, and the water should’ve been low, but we couldn’t get across. It was bloody cold, too! We were standing there going, ‘what shall we do?’, and then our brand director said ‘take off your shirt’. [Eventually] I said ‘ok’, because we were the only people there. So I took off my shirt and I was standing there freezing and the photographer took all these shots. In the middle of the whole thing, I saw two buses arrive in the distance. They were full of Japanese tourists. They got off and said ‘Rambo!’, and starting taking pictures as well! The picture [was chosen] as an official Highland Park picture and it’s used around the world as ‘the naked Viking’. I did have my pants on, for Christ sake! It was a lot of fun and we have been laughing quite a lot about it ever since. Today I don’t mind, but I was a little bit shy when it came out.

We are lucky to have a library on Orkney containing books and papers that date back to when Highland Park was founded. Our founder Magnus Eunson came from a Swedish family, as do many other people on Orkney. He was the local butcher, at that time called a ‘fletcher’, and he worked for the church every Sunday as a beadle – a man of the church that shows you to your seat and gives you a song book and stands beside the minister saying, ‘you shall not kill, you shall not steal’, and probably at that time he would also have said ‘do not make whisky because, it’s the Devil’s dram’. He had a different agenda because he was the one producing the whisky, and he needed a place to hide it. And what better place to hide the Devil’s dram than in the Cathedral where he worked? He hid it there for many years until he got caught in 1798. One of the old books claimed that Magnus didn’t work for the church because he believed in God, he worked there to have a hiding place for his whisky.

During the second world war, the distillery was shut down and emptied, and the Royal Navy lived there. Our big 29,000-litre washbacks were emptied and filled up with water so they could use them as bathtubs. Some would probably claim that the whisky tasted better before the war than after! We expanded from two stills to four stills in the sixties. We tried at one point to end our floor malting, but it changed the flavour completely, so started doing it ourselves again. We have increased our production as much as we can. A few years back we were [producing] around 1.4 million litres a year, and now we are between 1.8 or 2, and running more or less 24/7. We look into improving our oak all the time. Sometimes you will find a 10 or 12 year old that will have the same quality as an 18 year old.

Maltings Highland ParkMaltings at Highland Park

Our big sister distillery Macallan just increased their capacity to 15 million litres, approximately 10 times more than us. They’re huge in Asia, Russia, and America, so to keep up with demand in 12 to 15 years time they needed to do that. We can’t set the same number as Macallan because we can’t produce that. We have four stills, Macallan have 36. A lot of our whiskies are on allocation, and are a lot of markets we never go into, big markets like China, because we know if we start there and it really kicks off, we [don’t have enough stock]. Not saying that the big players are compromising on quality, not at all, but we like to be small, we like to focus on quality all the time, and that’s the niche we have up there.

We’ve been looking into [the type of alcohol] the Vikings used to drink. Basically it was beer, or mead with honey. We know today that the Vikings liked sweet things and smoky things. We reckon if they’d had Valkyrie and Valknut at that time, they would empty a bottle each every night, because that’s the kind of style they liked. If you look at smoky flavours around the world it more or less all comes from the Nordic countries – by smoking salmon and herrings and so on, that was the way the Vikings kept it fresh for a long time.

There’s a growing trend for comparing casks over a small series. There are Swedish distillers using different types of sherry casks next to each other, different kind of peat levels next to each other. Not just putting out 12, 18, 25 [year old whiskies], but making a small series of different flavours where the age is the same. We did it with The Dark and The Light, the alcohol strength was the same, the age was the same, but the casks are different. People can sit with two whiskies and really compare them, and go, ‘what do the casks actually do?’.

Highland Park casksHighland Park’s casks doing what they do best – maturin’ whisky