My colleague Billy and I had the opportunity to sit down with Martin the Senior Brand Ambassador of Highland Park and really find out what this brand is all about. Being whisky lovers ourselves and big fans of this particular brand, speaking to someone like Martin, who is full of passion, knowledge and just storytelling, was an experience in itself. Martin’s passion for the Highland Park brand seeps right through, and you can almost feel sometimes as if you’re right there on the Orkney Island.
Martin tell us about yourself, how you got into the spirits business and what you were doing before becoming the brand ambassador for Highland Park?
M: I’ve been in the whisky business now for 27-28 years and the last 13 years for Highland Park. I used to work at the Craigellache hotel, right next to Macallan, one of the most famous whisky bars in the world. I was doing a lot of whisky tastings and whisky dinners and I was not always aware of the people that participated or where they were from. And fortunate for me I had two whisky dinners one after each other and there were people from with Edrington there, and I had no idea. During the tastings I told them that my favorite was the Highland Park 18 expression. When they came back the next day I said that the Highland Park 18 is still my favorite. And they said, why don’t you don’t come work for us. And that’s how it started. So they approached me. When they asked me I felt the same as being approached as a young kid at school. The football team came to me and said play for us and I said fine. I remember when I spoke to the guy from Edrington group, I never asked about salary or anything. My only question was, “so I can work with the Highland Park 18 right? I’ll definitely do that.
Since then it’s just been a fantastic journey. Seen most of the world and every day I get to do what I love. I help in the development process of all new things as well. It’s not the same thing for me every day. There are always new things coming along and this is exciting.
The job I have is much more than just being a brand ambassador. It’s about creating things and seeing how the whisky develops around the world. Also I have two different markets, and it’s just quite a fun job. And besides that I do love whisky.
So Martin, you’re the Senior Brand Ambassador for Highland Park. So what is the difference, is it more business development?
M: It’s very easy actually. Senior it just means I am old. We do have many brand ambassadors in different markets all over the world. I am in charge of their education. Every time there is something new happening it’s my responsibility to teach them, let them know what’s going on. I am responsible for ambassadors around the world. I make sure that they are in a position where they can tell about the brand in a good way.
Women are a big demographic in America and all over the world. And there is a big push now for women drinking whisky, not just in cocktails. There are lots of awesome ambassadors who are women and women have been behind whisky for hundreds if not for thousands of years. What do you think is the new trend that’s pushing this movement forward?
M: It’s a really good question. And we actually talked to a woman last night at the dinner. One of our ambassadors here in NY is a woman. And if we divided into the different parts that you mentioned. If we take the ambassadors, I feel a little bit sorry for the female ambassadors because they really need to prove themselves, not for me or you guys, but for the audience, they always need to show that they are better. And they are good. They do know their stuff. They are fantastic to present their knowledge that they have is beyond most others, and it’s a shame that they need to prove themselves. That said, I think that whisky and women is there to stay. It’s not a trend. It’s something that has been on its way for a long time. When we look at the whisky industry, we have Macallan’s Sara Burges, which is the best whisky maker I have ever come across.
Our distillery manager at Highland Park Marie Stanton, after she came to Highland Park things have changed for the better. Production wise, work wise, everything. And when it comes to the whisky making it’s always been male dominated. And there’s a reason for the girls. Not only for their skills of making whisky but if you think back when you were a kid the girls started at the age of 8-9 talking about perfumes, smelling different things, most guys were 25 when they started thinking wow we might need something. We didn’t really develop our noses the same way that the girls did. So they are much more developed when it comes to nosing and creating things.
I am a big fan of girls in the industry. I also think it makes the whisky much more colorful. I think we are quite lucky to have females in the industry. Not only for their knowledge and their good humor but also because they make whisky much more approachable.
With the popularity of the fairs and the whisky clubs, we feel that the average consumer is becoming more knowledgeable about whisky and wanting to know more information before making a purchase. And I feel like some of the HP expressions like Valkeriye or Full Volume focus more on the cask rather then the age. How do you feel that’s going to play with the up and coming consumer who is more interested in the details?
M: When you take the whisky we have here, we have Magnus which is a None Age Statement, but we do tell about the casks. It’s not a big secret that the Magnus is all about American Oak Sherry Cask and the Valkerie if you look it up, we talk about Bourbon, we talk about Sherry, but as we go into things like Full Volume, we are as transparent as we can be.
Let’s talk about non age statement expressions. Two types of consumers. One consumer will always want the higher end older expressions and the other consumer is just looking for something affordable but tasty. As someone whose tasted a various amounts of whisky, does age really matter? And can the NAS expressions compete with the older more coveted releases.
M: You answered the question yourself. A very good answer to that I think is yes age matters, if the whisky is not old enough, it’s not good enough. You have tasted an 8 year old that’s probably phenomenal and you’ve also tasted a 30 year old that was awful and that’s probably because of age. You will find as many old whisky that are bad as you find good whisky that are young. It’s all coming down to the cask and to the whisky maker.
With the NAS, it’s about being open minded. What we do see when we do blind tastings and a lot of NAS whisky wins. But if they see the bottle before it’s never close to winning. And that’s people not being open minded.
It’s the same with color of the whisky. If we think about what the color tells us, actually not that much. The only way to get around this is to do much more training and much more education. But I also think that people are getting more educated, people are thinking well NAS whisky is not that bad.
What do you find to be the most challenging when trying to get the message out to the buyer?
M: The most challenging is simply to tell him that flavor does not come by age only; flavors come by the different cask composition. To be completely honest I don’t think any distilleries in Scotland can afford to compromise on the quality. It all boils down what you prefer taste wise, whether it be age statement on not.
In the last few years brands have been heavily reliant upon social media. To me social media seems to be a double edged sword. On one hand it’s great because you get a lot of free press really quickly but on the other hand a lot of the influencers only like to drink old age statements and promote those. How do you find the balance of using social media responsibly?
M: We did a good thing this summer for Magnus where we did a Viking Ship tour and there was nothing else to taste besides the Magnus. When you do this you have to do one focal tasting. For instance with this tour we are focusing on Magnus only. But when we do a show with Eric of Scotchandtime, we knew right away when the 30 year old came on the Highland Park dark would be in the background. We knew that. That’s the risk of course. I think Scotchandtime series are the future of whisky events. But when it comes to Social Media and people are talking about the 25 or the 40, they are talking about the brand first of all, and that is how we look at it. And you’re absolutely right. Social media it’s two way but there’s good things and there’s bad things. The good things of course are that its free advertising, but it could also be the opposite effect if people are complaining. The really bad thing is that people talk about how Highland Park is sending too many expressions out. And actually we are not.
Today people are talking about the single casks. They forget if you go back to the beginning of 2005, we had even more single casks, and people never complained because social media was not there.
The good thing is that social media helps us get immediate response.
As a consumer and someone in the industry I notice that when another consumer walks into a bar and they know nothing about whisky they go for Macallan because that seems to be the everyday brand name. Also here are so many different whisky expressions available besides Macallan or HP. What are you all doing to stay fresh and relevant in people’s minds?
M: It’s a very good question in today’s age. It’s something that we would love to see increase ourselves and we’ve seen that in this last year. We’ve reached a 2 year marketing budget in one year, which is fantastic. And when you mention Macallan, it’s our brand as well. It’s kind of competing against each other, but that said Macallan is our guideline to reach new goals. And we do brand awareness, because awareness is the only thing that matters, we can’t do anything else. We can do promotions at bars; we can do promotions at shops, everything that gives us awareness. People can call it marketing, and it is, and that is the only way you can grow a brand. Weather its whisky, beer, computer systems, and its awareness.
Sometimes people forget we do so much marketing, so do Windows, so does Apple. And if there was never an advertisement about an apple phone, no one would have an iPhone. It’s about getting the product out there. It’s about training people and letting them taste the product to see what it’s all about. I’ve worked for Macallan for a while, and what we do see is a lot of people are changing from Macallan to Highland Park. Which for us as a brand is a good thing. And what I do see is a lot of the people who start drinking whisky heard about Macallan. So they are starting with Macallan, Glenfiddich, Balvenie. The next step after that might be Laphroaig and Lagavulin, and then finally Highland Park. What we do hope is that when they reach Highland Park, they don’t go any higher.
Highland Park is not a beginner’s malt. It’s something you go to on the next step.
Martin, I personally prefer to taste cask strength whisky. I believe that it’s what the distiller had in mind when he created the whisky. What’s your take on that?
M: I think that cask strength is the closest you’ll come to being at the distillery, tasting it as it is from the casks. When it comes to enjoying whisky, I do not have any preference because, I think that most whisky at 40-43% is the drinking strength I would prefer anyway, when I water it down. Depending on what type of whisky, the age of it and the cask, I think most whisky needs to open up whether it’s by air, or whether it’s by water, but I think it needs something to detect all the flavors.