Interview: Mark Reynier, the man who brought the taste of terroir to whisky

Interview: Mark Reynier, the man who brought the taste of terroir to whisky

The ex-head of Bruichladdich and Waterford Distillery founder speaks about his lifelong mission to champion barley and the role of the land in creating flavour

Interview | 11 Aug 2022 | Issue 185 | By Christopher Coates

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Throughout his decades-long career, Mark Reynier has become something akin to a religious figurehead in the world of whisky. The son of a wine merchant – who would ask his children to identify the wine in their glasses at dinner time – Reynier’s first job was cleaning bottles before they were filled and labelled.

This was long before he got into the business of selling wine himself, after which he discovered whisky by accident and was blown away by the flavours he encountered in bottles of single malt Scotch distilled in the 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s. He recalls being overcome by the profound realisation that something truly world-beating, gastronomically speaking, was made right here in the UK. “And nobody knew!” he exclaims, admitting that the thought of that light-bulb moment still makes him tingle.

His giddy enthusiasm for wine and spirits endures to this day and has had a profound impact on his career and reputation. His entrepreneurial projects, which have included the founding of independent bottler Murray McDavid, the re-establishment of Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay, and, most recently, the creation of Waterford Distillery in Ireland and Renegade Rum Distillery on the Caribbean island of Grenada, attract followers almost unlike any others in the spirits scene. While other brands might have fans, enthusiasts, or even ‘loyalists’, with uncanny regularity Reynier’s projects attract disciples – people who like and accept into their hearts not only the whiskies he’s created, but what he believes.

The reasons for this are numerous, but the short story is that Reynier’s projects have never been about quietly making, bottling and selling spirits. At their core, his businesses have instead focused on asking difficult questions and challenging concepts that drinkers, and the whisky industry as a whole, have often seen as immutable. Changing how people think has been as much a part of his work as changing what people drink. He’s perhaps the quintessential example of embodying the change one wants to see and, in his case, it was the whisky world he thought needed shaking up.

For example, Reynier criticises contemporary whisky companies for prioritising the production of the cheapest litre of alcohol over the most flavourful litre of alcohol possible. He rails against the practice of sprucing whisky’s flavour up at the end of the process with an interesting cask finish and then coming up with a story to sell the final product. It’s a practice he feels is indicative of what he calls the ‘cynical age of whisky making’, which he contrasts to the pre-1970s ‘age of innocence’ before economics and efficiency began to trump tradition and spirit character. “The OPEC oil crisis has a lot to answer for,” he adds.

Instead, he and his business partners started with a philosophy or belief in how things should be done or how a spirit should taste, before using their liquid portfolio and, later, distilleries as practical demonstrations of how these lofty ideals could actually be put into practice. This has often meant doing things the hard way, with complex logistics, a DIY supply chain, lower-than-average yield and an element of risk being part and parcel of how he has done (and still does) business. Even the choice of Islay as the site for a £6 million investment in a distillery, back in 2000, made the endeavour of starting a new whisky brand more challenging than it really had to be, at a time when its long-term success in the still-emerging single malt market was far from a sure bet.

Waterford barrel, Credit: Caolan Barron

Though his new projects at Waterford and Renegade are located on very different islands, he has remained loyal to the Hebrides and won’t be trading in his Islay farm for his own slice of tropical paradise or a permanent home on the Emerald Isle. He speaks very fondly of Islay and its people, an appreciation that’s perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that Bruichladdich remains arguably the most economically active distillery on Islay – at least in terms of islanders employed and local businesses engaged.

Bruichladdich may have become known for its forthright and outspoken tone of voice, but Reynier is not iconoclastic or contrarian for the sake of it, and time has proven the value of many of the concepts he’s championed over the years – from the use of wine casks (which he points out is nothing new, relating how he’d address disgorged barriques from his dad’s wine business to Scottish distilleries) to the use of local barley, flavour-focused production practices, emphasis on mashing and fermentation, and a ‘one distillery, multiple spirit styles’ approach to distilling. Not to mention his trail-blazing approach to corporate transparency and even colourful, contemporary branding. Certainly, Rémy Cointreau must’ve seen value in the fruits of his efforts before acquiring Bruichladdich for a cool £58 million in 2012. (Incidentally, he was the only shareholder to publicly oppose the sale and admits to being quite unhappy about it at the time.)

However, perhaps his most prescient focus is his long-standing commitment to farming and the insistence that whisky is (or should be) an agricultural product, rather than the industrial spirit he feels it’s become today. His focus on agronomy-led whisky pre-dates the contemporary preoccupation with local produce, greenwashing, and eco-conscious supply chain. For Reynier, the original motivation stemmed from the desire to distil a product that was of Islay – a real taste of the place.

He certainly didn’t do it because it was easy. Championing farming of malting barley on Islay was no mean feat. “It’s about 10°C on Islay until the end of April. Nothing grows until early May, by which time you’re weeks behind the farmers in England. Then, before you know it, it’s midsummer and you’ve hardly started,” he says, explaining he’s calculated that the long hours of daylight during the Hebridean summer do help to compensate somewhat for the delayed start. “Then it’s a race to get the crop ready and off the field before the autumn rain. To grow barley on Islay, you have a very tight window.”

Over time, the local barley idea (along with experiments involving different barley varieties, including heritage types) coalesced into an out-and-out commitment to the pursuit of whisky terroir – a concept that, even today, remains at the fringes of the whisky scene but has become the centrepiece of Waterford’s (and Renegade’s) underlying philosophy.

As is the case for any figurehead championing new ways of thinking, his status quo–shaking approach to the whisky business hasn’t always been met with open-armed acceptance. Over the years, Reynier and his colleagues’ outspoken views on various topics have been met with opposition ranging from polite criticism to outright ire in various quarters – both among consumers and the industry. Most recently, a disagreement with ex-Diageo head of whisky outreach Dr Nick Morgan over the existence of terroir in whisky, for instance, was played out publicly via an open letter on Waterford’s website. Perhaps indicative of the times we live in, this has led to people either being in ‘camp Reynier’ or out of it – especially when it comes to the terroir argument. Reynier, however, finds the concept blindingly self-evident.

Mark Rainier celebrating Waterford"s spirit, Credit: Caolan Barron

“Of course, farmers here don’t call it terroir – they call it ‘farming’. And gardeners, who understand that roses must be planted on a south-facing slope to thrive, or that soil pH will determine how particular plants will grow, call it ‘gardening’, ” he says.

Nevertheless, in whisky, terroir is still considered outlandish. The idea itself is borrowed from the French winemakers Reynier spent time with in Burgundy and, in the global wine scene, there’s nothing controversial about the idea that the exact same vine grown in different locations – and therefore different soils and environmental conditions – will yield grapes that produce very different wines. Neither is this concept controversial in Cognac distilling, where different terroirs are well known for producing different spirit profiles. There even seems to be evidence of it applying to the world of agave spirits.

However, as the whisky industry has purchased its raw ingredients on the commodity market for the past 60 years, usually from whichever source could supply the right quality (in terms of potential spirit yield) at the right price, there has been little incentive for distillers to talk about where their raw ingredients were coming from – especially if a Highland distillery was taking in English barley one week, French the next and Ukrainian the week after. Thus, the idea that growing location might be intrinsic or even remotely relevant to flavour has not been one that most of the industry has been keen to investigate further.

It’s perhaps due to this history of being met with scepticism and, according to Reynier, even outright hostility, by some members of the whisky scene, that the intense but friendly energy exuded by followers of his Irish project feels almost evangelical in nature. This is made all the more appropriate by the fact that becoming a card-carrying member of camp Waterford does require a little faith at first – whether that be in the hitherto poorly understood role of terroir in whisky, the initial evidence for which was largely anecdotal, or the undeniably kooky practices of biodynamic farming – the regenerative agricultural practice sometimes described as ‘organic plus’ that’s embraced by both Reynier and some of the world’s best vignerons.

And Reynier really does believe what he’s saying: especially his claims that organic barley tastes better than conventionally grown, and that biodynamic tastes even better still. What’s more, far from asking us to take his word for it, given the chance, he’ll wax lyrical about the hows and whys. The longer one lets him talk about whisky, the flavour of barley and the importance of the soil and environment, the more visibly excited he becomes.

Mark Reynier in the Waterford Distillery still house

“We needed to communicate. We needed to explain what we were doing. Instead of the propaganda, we want to show you what really happens,” he states, before admitting it’s no easy task to communicate such complex ideas. This sparks a memory of when he was once challenged by an industry executive to explain what Bruichladdich was all about in one sentence. “I said I couldn’t,” he admits. “There was a lot to say. Half an hour of explanation later, I said: ‘That’s Bruichladdich.’ ” The same is true of what he’s doing now at Waterford and Renegade. The detail-orientated approaches to both defy distillation down into sound bites or condensation into a single article, fuelling a steady stream of educational content on both distilleries’ websites.

Perhaps most importantly, when there isn’t concrete evidence to back up what he knows to be true, Reynier makes it his mission to prove the science. At Waterford, this meant commissioning a terroir study in partnership with Dr Dustin Herb of Oregon State University, a leading Scottish laboratory, and the Irish Ministry of Agriculture.

“What was very surprising was that nobody had ever bothered to do it before. The French had never bothered – they just accepted terroir, for hundreds of years. This was the first project, and what we discovered was startling,” he explains. “There aren’t 100 flavour compounds in whisky, as previously thought, there are 2,000, and 60 per cent of them are influenced by where the barley grows. Terroir exists.”

Though still doubted and publicly challenged by many, independent studies are emerging that once again seem to prove Reynier correct. For example, the 2019 publication of Rob Arnold’s peer-reviewed study on the impact of Texas terroir on corn at least indicates that Reynier isn’t the only person beating this particular drum and using science to back up the theory. Slowly, it seems the argument that terroir doesn’t apply to whisky is being exposed as apocryphal, and a new gospel is being written.
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