Off the coast of the northernmost point of Scotland are the Orkney Islands. There, in the city of Kirkwall, is the most northerly whisky distillery in Scotland – Highland Park.

If you’re a regular visitor to airport duty free liquor stores, you might have seen a range of Highland Park whiskies that bear the names of Nordic gods like Thor, Odin, Loki, and Freya, as well as warriors such as Sigurd, Harald, and Einar. Those are from Highland Park’s Valhalla Collection and Warrior series, which the distillery released to pay tribute to the Orkney Islands’ heritage.

“Highland Park was formed in 1798, but way before that, Orkney used to belong to Denmark and Norway, and its history is closely tied to that of the Vikings. Even today, you can still see the heritage of Vikings, and a lot of Norse mythology up there,” said Martin Markvardsen, Highland Park global brand ambassador, in a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.

“We wanted to tell the story of the heritage of Orkney, so naturally we chose to tie it with the Norse gods. We also have a range that tells the story of the Viking warriors.”

Born in Denmark, Markvard-sen also has Nordic blood in him, though Scotland is where his true allegiance lies. Embla-zoned on his arms are two tattoos – one, the motto of Scotland “Nemo me impune lacessit” or “No one provokes me with impunity”; and the other, the motto of Orkney, “Boreas domus mare amicus”, which means “the North is our home, the sea is our friend”.

“Those are the two places that mean the most to me – Scotland and Orkney,” said Mark-vardsen, who has worked in the Scotch industry for almost 22 years.

According to him, most people expect Highland Park whiskies to always have the character they are renowned for.

Markvadsen's arms bear the mottos of Orkney and Scotland.

Martin Markvadsen’s arms bear the mottos of Orkney and Scotland.

“The DNA of Highland Park is first of all, about the peat, and then the sherry cask. We’re based on an island, and we have quite unique peat up there. Highland Park has always been peated, as far back as we can trace it”, he said. “We are known for a sweet peaty whisky, with smoky, honey flavours. And from the cask, it is always sherry. That is what we try to do all the time – keep the sweetness from the peat, and the quality from the good sherry cask.”

Highland Park only uses sherry casks for their core range, which consists of the Highland Park 12 Year Old, Highland Park Dark Origins, Highland Park 18 Year Old. There are also 21YO, 25YO, 30YO and 40YO expres-sions. “Throughout our core range we always have a good percentage of first-fill sherry cask whisky in the blends, but we don’t have one that is 100% first-filled sherry becaue we don’t want the sherry to overpower the spirit,” he said.

The 12YO is Highland Park’s trademark spirit, matured in Spanish oak sherry casks, of which 20%-25% is first-fill casks. “Immediately on the nose and the palate, you get a nice, sweet smoky flavour. You get a nice fruitiness on the palate, and a gentle, smoky finish,” Markvard-sen said.

The Dark Origins is one of Highland Park’s newest pro-ducts, a non-aged statement whisky that consists of 80% first- filled sherry casks. Inspired by the spirit and courageous personality of Highland Park’s founder, Magnus Eunson, the Dark Origins uses twice as many first-fill sherry casks than in the classic Highland Park 12 Year Old, resulting in a naturally darker, richer flavour.

“You get a very sweet flavour, but with a lot of spice in it as well,” said Markvardsen. Light on the entry, there are also lots of nice dark fruit notes on the palate, ending with a heavy, smoky sweet finish.

Last but not least is the 18YO, which is Highland Park’s flag-ship product. The expression, which was named “Best Spirit in the World” by US spirits writer F. Paul Pacult in 2005 and 2009, contains about 45% of whisky from first-filled Spanish sherry casks, giving it a very sweet, fruity, and almost honey-like nose. It is fruity and sweet on the entry, but in the middle, a subtle peatiness comes out, which leads into a nice, oaky, lingering finish.


Michael Cheang wonders if the Highland Park’s Thor whisky comes with a hammer. Drop him a note at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page.