Home Interview Conquering the Whisky World: Meet Martin ‘The Viking’ Markvardsen

Conquering the Whisky World: Meet Martin ‘The Viking’ Markvardsen

Photography by Søren Solkær

Martin Markvardsen is a real, modern-day Viking. You know, the near extinct kind of man that maintains a tough exterior, but also has a tattoo of his first love over his heart. For ‘The Viking’ Markvardsen though, that tattoo is of the Highland Park logo. The ex-boxer turned senior brand ambassador for the brand first started working in whisky at just 17 years old and has dedicated his life to the industry ever since. 27 years later, and with the prestigious title of Keeper of the Quaich under his belt, ‘The Viking’ has truly conquered the world of whisky.

When Drinks World found out Martin was in Australia last month, we grabbed the chance to talk to him about the new Highland Park whiskies, his knowledge of whisky and of course, the Vikings.

Drinks World: What makes Highland Park Whisky different to other whiskies?

Martin ‘The Viking’ Markvardsen: Two things make us very different, and those are the peat we use and our location.

We are the only distillery in Scotland that uses Orkney peat. If you ever go to Orkney, you’ll see that there are no trees there, so we have no wood influence in our peat. The location makes a huge difference as well. Because of the Gulf Stream there, our winters are pretty mild, and our summers are relatively cold, so the temperature difference between summer and winter is not much more than ten degrees, which makes the whisky mature very slowly.

Then most of all, even though you can’t taste it in the whisky, the people are very different. We are more Nordic than we are Scottish, but our whisky belongs to Scotland, so that is what we write on the door of the distillery.

DW: You were recently hosted a few whisky tastings in Melbourne and Sydney. Were you showing trade and consumers anything new?

MM: We’ve been showing trade and consumers Valkyrie, which is one of our new products that will come to Australia at the beginning of 2018. They also got to taste two expressions that were only available outside of Australia, which are the Ice Edition 17-Year-Old and Fire Edition 15-Year-Old. But the following up on these two, The Light and The Dark, will come to Australia next year.

[According to the brand, the two-part The Light and The Dark series celebrates the story of the contrasting seasons of the Orkney Islands and the resulting intense balance of Highland Park Whisky. The Dark is a 17-Year-Old Whisky, matured exclusively in European oak sherry seasoned casks, delivering a distinctly deep flavour, packed with dried fruits, nuts and spices overlaid with hints of smoky peat. The series will be coming to Australia in 2018 in strictly limited quantities.]

DW: Can you tell us a bit more about Valkyrie?

MM: Valkyrie uses a different type of cask to our core range. We only use sherry-seasoned oak casks for our core range, but for Valkyrie we put three different types of casks together – American oak bourbon cask, American oak sherry cask and European oak sherry cask, plus a small amount of refill cask as well. But what makes it so different is the level of peated malt in it. The whisky we normally make contains 20 per cent peated malt and 80 per cent unpeated malt. This one contains some of that liquid but also a heavily peated malt that we make in small amounts. So 50 per cent of the liquid in Valkyrie is this heavily peated malt so it’s more peaty and smoky, especially on the finish. You’ll also find some of the really nice tropical and dried fruit flavours that we see normally in Highland Park whisky.

DW: How are bartenders around the world using Highland Park Whisky in cocktails?

MM: The 10, 12 and 18-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whiskies are great for cocktail bars and we are seeing a trend of single malts being used more often in cocktails, which I think is absolutely amazing, even though I’m one of the older guys in the market and quite traditional. Initially, I didn’t believe in single malts in cocktails, but when you try one, it opens up your eyes. We’ve seen it with chefs using the best ingredients and now with bartenders as well using better whisky in their cocktails. And I do think that people are willing to pay a few dollars more for a really good drink where the ingredients are better.

Photography by Søren Solkær

DW: What’s been a great single malt cocktail you’ve tried recently?

MM: When we launched Valkyrie in Denmark, a very good bartender locally made something called the Lakes of Orkney with Valkyrie, liquorice powder, fresh apples and some cinnamon. It was just incredible. Today it’s only your imagination that holds you back. Bartenders are the new rock stars, and we like to see them not only working with our products but also lifting all traditional cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan with our products.

DW: What do you think is going to be the next significant trend in whisky?

MM: I think the growing popularity of single malt cocktails and peated whiskies is going to stay. In fact I don’t believe peated whisky is just a trend, and I think we’ll see more distilleries produce peated whiskies at different levels, as we have with Valkyrie.

I think wood cask finishes might disappear a bit with distilleries instead looking more into maturing the whisky in one quality cask rather than making all kinds of wood finishes.

I also think we’ll lose age statements, which there has been considerable debate about. Age statements will always exist, but I don’t think they’ll be as prevalent. That’s good and bad because consumers want to know what they’re buying, they look for an age statement a lot, but an age statement isn’t always a symbol of quality. Sometimes you can find a cask that’s a seven or eight-year-old that tastes like a 30-year-old, and then you can find a 30-year-old that has been in a less active cask, and it gives no flavour at all.

DT: How did you get the nickname ‘The Viking’? 

MM: I was born and raised in Denmark, and that’s where the Vikings come from. I also believe my family can be traced back to the Vikings. The way I live, my tattoos and everything else, are all Viking inspired and I like all the stories about the Vikings. I used to be a boxer, so some will say I look like a warrior/Viking too. And I do Nordic bathing – I like to jump into the cold sea, so it’s probably from all of these things.

DT: What’s been the highlight of your career with Highland Park so far?

MM: I’ve loved taking whisky tastings to another level, which for me has been about bringing a combination of stand up comedy and whisky knowledge to them, so when people leave my tastings it’s with a big smile, lots of stories and a better understanding of whisky. From the Highland Park side, it would have to be being a part of bringing back the single cask that has taken Highland Park to another level.

DW: Is there a whisky you’re yet to try or a distillery you’re yet to visit that is on your bucket list?

MM: One day I’d like to visit all of the distilleries in Scotland, but they are expecting 20 new distilleries to open in the next 45 years, so that is a task that’s probably not realistic.