Distillery Focus

A single, single malt whisky

Waterford Distillery has released their first whisky and it’s not so much poking the beehive, it’s taking a bat to the whole thing
By Mark Jennings
Behind Waterford is Mark Reynier, a name you’ll likely know as either the erstwhile rejuvenator of Bruichladdich, or the occasionally ranty guy off of Twitter. If you look up Marmite in the dictionary you see his face, and he’s proud of it. Clearly a whisky that has his thumbprint on is something worth looking into.

I asked Mark, if he ruled the world, what one thing would he stop people doing?
“Bullsh*tting!” he replied, without a moment of hesitation, clarifying, “people saying things that they can’t deliver, saying things they can’t do, making up things about their abilities, people pretending to be knowledgeable about subjects they’re not, grandstanding, all of this faux/fake news type stuff.”

You don’t so much interview Mark as hold on tight. “You tend to get these ad hominem attacks on terroir, and there’s the phobia of an idea that talks about ultimate provenance... That’s what I would talk about, if people are going to say things, they have to do it with truthfulness”.

This terroir he is talking about is his almost biblical quest to prove that the secret to truly incredible whisky starts at the grain, not in the stills or in the cask. His theory is that different fields of barley will create an entirely distinct new-make spirit. It’s not a widely held view, but he is zealous about proving it.

“The terroir leads to traceability, which leads to transparency, which in my view is provenance. So if you can’t prove it, and you can’t demonstrate it or show it, then don’t talk about it”.

Fair enough. He likes transparency.

Did I mention the distillery was in Ireland? I’ve left that out so far because, frankly, Mark doesn’t care about this being the best ‘Irish whiskey’; what he cares about is the Irish grain. Well, the grain and the fact a brewery site that Guinness had pumped €40 million into a few years before was going for a song.

“I remember Duncan McGillivray (ex-Bruichladdich general manager), telling me one day that the best barley he ever saw, this was going back to the 60s, was barley from Ireland. That was always in the back of my mind, that there was this better barley. After Bruichladdich (sold to drinks giant, Remy Cointreau in 2012), I did sit around wondering what I was going to do next, not really feeling particularly keen on doing anything. I saw this opportunity with the Guinness Brewery and I thought: there you go. Let’s put two and two together here”.

Beyond the grain, Mark isn’t too impressed with the major brands of Irish whiskey. Some of his typically frank comments regularly get people into a tizz and he’s never felt the need to cool the heat, preferring to just fire and forget.

“There was certainly a feeling it was going to be the Wild West, so therefore you’d have to be pretty mad to get involved. On the other hand, you know what? If you keep your nose clean, you do your own thing, and you know what you’re trying to achieve and you can insulate yourself, then why not?”.

The setup at Waterford is substantial to say the least. Taking up a considerable portion of the Waterford city river front, this former Guinness brewery lay dormant for years.
When Guinness left they simply deleted the software and closed the doors leaving Mark to discover a fully set-up column still distillery and brewery, not to mention a state-of-the-art hydromill. Seeking people to run the place, he luckily happened upon local Ned Gahan, who’d worked at the site for years and made him head distiller. He also brought back fellow Guinness man Neil Conway as head brewer.

The first thing they needed was some copper. Luckily Mark knew just the place. The old Inverleven still that had sat outside Bruichladdich for years – that’s right, the one adorned by Duncan McGillivray’s old wellies. He had Forsyth’s in Speyside refit it and another ex-Inverleven still, and off they trotted across the Irish sea. The pair live in an equally unusual place now, perched a nosebleed-inducing 20 feet in the air, in order for them to be seen from the control room.

Complementing the team is Grace O’Reilly, their agronomist. The fact that they even have an expert in the science of soil management and crop production on staff shows that this place is a little different.

If I was in a field, I'd bring the person to two different farms, and I'd give them two handfuls of soil and they'd see the difference

Her role is working with (and sometimes convincing) farmers to grow the type of barley the distillery needs to build up a complete picture of flavour profile and yield.
They have already distilled barley from 100 farms; that’s 12 barley varieties across 19 soil types. The malted barley from each farm is carefully kept separate in their ‘Grain Cathedral’ so as to ensure no contamination, all but the biodynamic harvests which are so small they are combined. I’m told the farmers get quite competitive when they can taste their own grain distilled.

Grace noted that, “the more engaged they are with the end product, the better the grain they grow for us”.

I asked her what she said to people who don’t believe that terroir really exists in distilling.

“If I have them in the distillery, all you have to do is taste new-make spirit. I don’t know much about tasting whiskies but for me as a layperson all you need to do is taste. There’s lots of differences, so what other reason can there be except terroir?”

She added: “If I was in a field, I’d bring the person to two different farms, and I’d give them two handfuls of soil and they’d see the difference.”

And what do I think?

I respect the quest these folks are on. It seems both unnecessary and then utterly necessary at the same time. As Mark put it, “what I’m doing there, which no distillery in the world can do, is create a single malt whisky from an unparalleled source of mini single malt whiskies – single, single malt whiskies.”

Their inaugural release of extremely small batch, single field whiskies allow those interested and sceptical to see for themselves. To compare and contrast bottlings which will be entirely identical in make up apart from the type and origin of the barley.
I would have to say that from my own experience, after having the opportunity to try three of their first releases, I’m converted. The Overture barley grown on the southern coast of County Wexford, with its seasalted, sandy soils is completely distinct to the Taberna barley grown west of the River Barrow in County Laois, and when you think about it, of course they are. Does that make it the world’s greatest whisky? Not yet, but perhaps one day there is potential.

Waterford Distillery bottles are selling so fast that I didn’t do tasting notes, as you won’t actually be able to buy the exact liquid I’ve tasted. I suggest tracking down future releases, making up your own mind and creating your own collection of Waterford Distillery tasting notes.

After all, it’s what Mark Reynier would expect of you.