With only two distilleries responsible for all the world’s Irish whiskey for much of the second half of the 20th century, the category as a whole was seen as dull and homogeneous. Now it’s been reborn, and one of the projects spearheading Irish whiskey’s next generation is the wildly innovative and ambitious Waterford Distillery. Founded by Mark Reynier in 2014, the distillery’s raison d’être can be summed up in a single word – terroir – though fully grasping what that means for whiskey, and how that’s put into place, is far more complex.
By and large, barley used in the production of whiskey has been considered mere fodder. The higher the yield and the greater the consistency, the better, while factors such as barley variety, flavors and region of origin are ignored. For Reynier, it’s a staggering failure and oversight.
Reynier began exploring such concepts when he bought and resuscitated Bruichladdich, a Scotch distillery on Islay, in 2000. With Waterford though, he’s created an entire purpose-built operation from the ground up, all in the name of that magic word – terroir.
Consider that Waterford works with 40 farmers in a given year, and altogether has worked with a total of 72, including a number of organic farms and even a handful of biodynamic ones. Each farmer grows a particular type of barley – over a dozen have been used – and represents a different type of soil – 19 so far – each producing approximately 100 tons of grain to be malted.
That barley is tracked and kept separated in a special facility Waterford has dubbed “the cathedral,” and is then distilled for a full week, producing an equal volume of spirit. All aspects of malting, fermentation and distillation are kept precisely similar, and the spirit is placed into a spectrum of barrels in the exact same ratio as each other weekly batch. The result is an enormous array of unique, individual expressions, variable specifically by barley variety and soil type, each a distinct color on the painter’s palette to be wielded in the creation of a final whiskey.
“When we taste the spirit at the end, we want to be able to say that came from the field,” says head distiller Ned Gahan.
If all of this talk of terroir and soil types sounds more akin to what you’re used to hearing from wine, it’s not a coincidence. “Exactly half my career has been spent in wine, and half in whiskey, as of this year,” Reynier says. “There’s no reason terroir should only be a property exclusive to this one plant, the vine. There’s been this lobotomy in the drinks industry.”
It’s one thing to make whiskey terroir a talking point. It’s another thing to prove it, though, and that’s why Reynier has gone to great – extreme, even – lengths to track, quantify and analyze the whole process, with a high-tech logistical and data-keeping system. “The tech is our terroir-enabler, and it’s necessary,” he says.
There’s a staggering quantity of data provided by rigorous records-keeping at every step of the process, from a seed of barley being planted all the way through to maturation in the barrel warehouse. Scan a bar code on a barrel, and the face of the farmer who grew the barley that would become that particular whiskey is displayed on an app.
Terroir is only the first of what Reynier refers to as the “3 T’s”, along with the traceability to prove it, and the transparency to show it. “Provenance is zippo without those 3 T’s,” he says. “It’s just a buzz word.”
The distillery keeps “passports” on every farmer and their barley, hardcover books containing every nugget of information that can be gleaned. Meanwhile, inside the distillery, a massive wall-hanging pinpoints the location of each farmer they work with, depicting soil types and who’s in production at a given time. A book of flavor profiles has also been created, analyzing each distillation run they’ve completed and how the spirit showcases particular flavors and qualities, and in turn, how these individual distillates can be stacked together, layer upon layer, to build a robust whole that’s even greater than the sum of its parts. Here, Reynier looks back to the wine world, drawing inspiration in the form of what you’d call a grand vin or cuvée.
“The grand cuvée has always been the target,” Gahan says.
“To create the ultimate Waterford single malt whiskey, the grand vin,” Reynier adds. “That will be our calling card.”
That won’t be ready for the world until 2021, though. In the meantime, expect a series of compare-and-contrast bottlings, showcasing whiskey from different farmers and different barley varieties, shouting to the world once and for all that yes, whiskey can have terroir. “This is unprecedented,” Reynier says. “We can show it, and we can prove it.”
Waterford isn’t the only exciting entrant in the world of Irish whiskey. Teeling Distillery was the first to bring active distillation back to the city of Dublin, and has been joined by the likes of Pearse Lyons Distillery and the Dublin Liberties Distillery, while elsewhere in the country, additional names to know include Slane Distillery, Dingle Distillery and Glendalough Distillery.
Explore Waterford Distillery and a selection of the others in the photo gallery above. Waterford Distillery accepts guests by appointment during operational hours but does not yet formally offer tour times. More information can be found at WaterfordDistillery.ie.
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