Of whisky brands that have an output on the smaller scale, Highland Park is one of those (its capacity is 2.5 million litres per annum) which is so well-known and loved in many parts of the world I’ve traveled to that I’m surprised I didn’t find myself really knowing more about it until a few years into drinking whisky.
I’d had the chance to have a few here and there but it wasn’t until a Twitter tasting with The Whisky Wire back in late 2012 where I tasted the full range side by side that I fell fully for a couple of them – the 18-year old and 21-year old being my particular favourites.
The Orkney-based brand is filled with history and pulls in its additional ties to all things Nordic through brand releases such as the Valhalla Collection, which included one of my favourite whiskies from 2013 – Loki.
And so I was keen to get behind the scenes a bit more with this brand, and how better to do that (other than traveling to the distillery itself, of course, which I’ve not had the chance to do thus far) than to speak to the person responsible for all things brand advocacy: Daryl Haldane.
In his role as global brand advocate, Daryl makes it his job to not only promote the whisky but to see many of the projects through from conception to store-shelf placement. It’s a varied role and Daryl has held the position since joining the company in 2012 from Diageo, and – before that – a life behind bars (the cocktail-making kind, rather than the clink-clink prison kind that is).
We had a good hour-long natter about everything from whisky education, to non-age statement releases, Orkney’s history and global opportunities. Here’s what he had to say…
Well, I go out to various countries around the world and speak to people about Highland Park and whatever brand stories we’re telling at the moment, such as those surrounding the Valhalla Collection. I’d run that project from start to finish.
So what do you enjoy most about what you do?
Orkney is what I enjoy most. I go there about once a month and just being around the island and at the distillery, and sharing the history of the island with visitors is really amazing. I love watching people’s jaws drop when they hear the stories and see the scenery – every time you go back it’s like going the first time and it’s priceless.
I love the history of the island and distillery. It’s such a unique story and when you talk about the founder of the distillery, Magnus Eunson (read about his brilliant and funny history on the Highland Park website) people look at you as if you’ve said his name wrong because they’re expecting a Scottish name like Angus MacDonald and they question it and want to know more.
And aside from that it’s amazing – sometimes you’ve got to pinch yourself with what you do. When I go out to different countries sometimes the only interaction people have had with Scotland is through the whisky. It’s not always right, but it’s their vision, and people emotionally connect with whisky.
Looking globally, which markets look most interesting at the moment for the brand?
There are different markets looking for different things. I spend a lot of time in Sweden and Japan and they have the über geeks of the über geeks and want to know really technical things. Then to go into places like the United States: there, people are keen to hear what the Orkney Islands are like, what they smell like, what they look like. From that perspective every market is exciting because there’s something different.
But I tend not to just look at different countries but different environments where I’m talking about the whisky. You have that beautiful balance of smoke and sweet with Highland Park and my belief is it is the perfect whisky for mixing drinks, like in an Old fashioned or Whisky Sour…a whisky with a bit of smoke adds a brilliant dimension and offers a new experience for someone who doesn’t drink whisky. There are lots of different environments for whisky to be explored and Highland Park fits that perfectly.
Ah ha, so…whisky cocktails – are you a fan then?
I’m all over whisky cocktails. I think it’s the best way to engage customers into a new product. If you give them their first whisky experience as a good one, they’ll remember you forever.
And what do you say to people who are very anti-whisky cocktails?
I would ask them: ‘Have you tried it?’ It’s easy to sit there and say it’s rubbish, but the question is whether they’ve actually tried it. In a good cocktail, you don’t lose the flavours of the whisky, you compliment them. My second point would be that it’s also fine. If a person’s bought a bottle of whisky, it’s their bottle so they should drink it how they want. But I want to get new people into the category and how can you do that? A mixed drink is a great way to do that. It’s like a chef: a very good chef adds less ingredients and lets the products sing. Put a good whisky in the right bartender’s hands and you’ll get a great experience. But I find this snobbery tends to be more of a UK issue than elsewhere. Every bar I went to in Japan whisky cocktails were being served and they were very open to it.
Another, potentially controversial move has been Highland Park’s foray into ‘no-age statement’ whiskies, such as those in travel retail (Svein, Einar and Harald) and those in the Valhalla collection. What is your response to that?
I have no issue with it at all: it’s bringing new customers into whisky and as long as it’s quality there are no issues. I’ve heard a lot of distilleries talk about flavour being the most important thing and it absolutely is but I think telling a story is as well so people see the difference between your distillery and others. As long as you can back all of it up with a great production story, such as the fact we have our own floor maltings and use first and second fill Sherry casks, that’s the important thing. You’re still getting fantastic whisky it’s just not led by age. As long as you do it in the right way and educate the customer on what you’ve done differently then there shouldn’t be an issue.
On the subject of educating the consumer, do you think the whisky industry does enough of it?
I think we should do more of it really. I come from a cross-category background, having worked in other spirits too like rum and tequila, and you have to remember that in whisky we still have the tightest legislation on the production process so you’re not going to get a bad whisky. But we have to communicate that fully.
You’re one of what we could call the ‘younger blood’ in the industry – do you think it’s changing to include younger ambassadors and what effect does that have on consumer opinion about the industry?
Folks like Andy Gemmell from Dewar’s, Dean Callan from Monkey Shoulder and Georgie Bell from Diageo – all of these ambassadors have come from the on-trade and one of the main reasons why is because they understand the consumer, the different aspects of the trade, and have an interest in all spirits. I think that’s a great asset for companies to have people who are flexible and agile.
Now, it’s cool to drink malt whisky and to know about it. When I go to places like Japan or the US I speak to guys my age who have two or three lines on their favourite whiskies, they can recommend it to friends and family and they’re proud to know about it. Even ten years ago whisky still had that old worldly look and feel, but it is changing.
Thanks for taking the time to speak Daryl.
For more information on Highland Park and its whiskies, head to: www.highlandpark.co.uk