Highland Park's Martin Markvardsen Talks About Whisky & Norse Mythology

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When Highland Park’s brand ambassador Martin Markvardsen first looked at his refilled port-wood cask Highland Park in 2007 – seven years after new-make spirit went into the barrels – a candy-floss coloured potion was the last thing he had expected.

“We had 300 casks of these pink whiskies – because that’s the amount you’d make to test for consistency – and we didn’t know what to do with them. Our head of marketing wanted to donate it to the Breast Cancer Fund but they didn’t want it,” Markvardsen recalled with a smirk during his visit in Hong Kong early this October. “Turns out, we just needed to wait a few more years for it to mature into something drinkable!”

Fast forward eight years and the ugly blushing duckling eventually turned into a swan that is the Fire Edition, a postscript to the 2016 Ice Edition which alludes to the Norse legend of world creation. The Fire Edition’s tenacity is represented by the amber-coloured liquid; vibrant aromas of ruby red fruits and warm vanilla followed by cinnamon bark. The palate bristles of light smoke with zesty dried peel and finishes with a lingering sweetness that settles into a fruity spiciness.

The intensity of the Fire Edition (above) – as contrasted to its fruitier predecessor – is a nod to the demolition of a world, when fire giant Surtr led an army to destroy everything in sight in Asgard (the home of the gods).

Though an expert in the spirits industry, Markvardsen’s surprise at the pink liquid isn’t unwarranted, given that port casks are commonly used only as finishing during the final year of maturation.

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“We really only had a slight idea of what it’ll be after it comes out of the cask. So far, only three to four distilleries have used 100% port-wood casks before, but the climate is very different in Orkney so we can only predict so much,” said Markvardsen. “Our next experiment may be European wine casks, the options are endless.”

In celebration of the all’s-well-that-ends-well attitude, two other whiskies accompanied the launch of the Fire Edition, namely a redesigned 12-Year-Old Viking Honour as well as the Valkyrie, the first in a series of three Viking Legend releases.

A New 12-Year Old Highland Park

While the 12-year-old isn’t new, the packaging and bottle are now embossed with an emblem of a Viking dog – a symbol of loyalty that’s frequently seen in Norwegian stave churches.

“The emblem signifies the fight between good and evil, and it’s our way of giving back to Norway, who used to own Orkney,” said Markvardsen.

Though the 12-year-old seems to pale in comparison against its storied brothers, Markvardsen said it’s the ideal taster for any Highland-Park novice.

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“Basically there are no rules to the 12-year-old, you can enjoy it any way you like – there’s no right or wrong. It’s still made like how the Vikings used to do it; it’s definitely indicative of Highland Park as one of the few distilleries to honour old craftsmanship and tradition,” he said. “The drink itself brims with honey and heathery smoke on the nose; the flavours are more elegant. It’s a wonderful drink to try.”

Viking Legend – Valkyrie

Continuing the artistic streak is Valkyrie, which adopts packaging and a bottle dreamt up by Danish designer Jim Lyngvild – whose initial reaction to the project, according to Markvardsen, was a shriek followed by the comment: “I could imagine this to be dressed in fur” (a highlight in many of his fashion pieces).

Though not quite as flamboyant as the designer would’ve liked, the first instalment in Highland Park’s Viking Legend series, does come with a striking tale. Valkyries are angels who determine life and death; but for the Vikings, said Markvardsen, to perish in battle was not only an honour but also a chance to join fellow fallen warriors and the Norse god Odin in Valhalla.
The use of metallic detailing on the Valkyrie packaging represents the angels as shield-maidens of Odin, along with a larger illustration featuring a winged Valkyrie with coiled hair and a necklace that pays homage to the goddess Freya’s magical Brísingamen torc.

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“I’ve known Jim for a long time: he’s weird – but in a good way. When we asked him to design the new range of Highland Park, it was definitely a dream come true for him. Incorporating the Valkyries was our idea but he just came up with a waterfall of designs that really captured the look and display of what we wanted.”

The whisky itself lives up to the legend. As Highland Park’s first whisky to be matured in three different casks – first-fill American oak sherry, bourbon and Spanish oak sherry – flavours like spices, cinnamon and honey are expected. What comes as a surprise, however, is the lingering smokiness, a feature deliberately done to signify the rising of Viking souls to heaven.

The subsequent releases in the collection, Valknut and Valhalla, will pay tribute to slain warriors and the celebration of afterlife, respectively. Both will again be designed by Lyngvild and are set to debut in 2018 and 2020.

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