CRYSTAL CLEAR MADNESS :: WATERFORD DISTILLERY
Full disclosure: I have written, erased, re-written, erased and written again what feels like 100 times for this post. What I experienced at Waterford was something truly out of this world, and was nothing close to what I expected it to be. Putting it into words is already hard, but it felt like I just wasn’t ready to talk about what is happening there. I needed to take time to digest what I learned, and have it actually make sense to me in other avenues of this industry. Anyone can go visit a place and be moved and become an instant believer. Thats easy. But I wanted Waterford to really MEAN something to me. I wanted what I learned there to not be a phase, or a blip in time where it made sense to me in that moment. I wanted to really remember the words, the smells, the sounds, the taste of that place. Sometimes I think I sound insane when I talk about whisky, gushing on about them like a great romance, but whisky is romantic to me. The stories are intimate, and full of joy and love and pain. Waterford is all of those things. It is intimate, yet grandiose, it is full of hope and joy, and much like those romance novels, a little heartbreak too.
When I first got the email that I was being invited out to Waterford, I was literally freaking out. FREAKING OUT!! I remember telling my husband about the email, trying to keep my cool, but inside I was losing it. You see, I’m a massive Bruichladdich lover. It is the ultimate romance novel. Three prince charmings (Mark Reynier, Simon Coughlin, and Jim McEwan) literally breathed life back into this sleeping princess, giving her a life she could have never imagined. Over the next 11 years they love her, nurture her and help her rise from the ashes. They don’t rid her of her old and tattered pieces, but instead they find value in them, knowing they could create magical whisky. And that they did. They made magical whiskies. And they did so while riding out the waves of any great relationship. There were highs, and great moments of joy and success. There were lows, with fights and disagreements. But they each played a vital role in the success of their beloved princess. Then there was temptation. And it was too strong to resist. In 2012, Rémy Cointreau made an offer that couldn’t be refused by two out of the three. The divide happened, the end of an era had come. Against the better wishes of Mark Reynier, Bruichladdich was sold. His beloved princess had been taken away. All that he had implemented and dedicated to the rise of Bruichladdich was now gone.
Those times would be easy to sulk, crawl under a rock and never been heard from again. Those moments can really make or break someone. I’m sure we have all felt a great loss in our life. We know THAT feeling, the one that makes it feel like your insides are going to burst. Its ugly and painful, but at some point you have to make the decision to either quit, or keep going. And if you choose to keep going, where do you go? What do you do? Well, I’ll tell you. You leave Scotland, go to the oldest city in Ireland, buy a former Guinness brewing factory, and you do it all over again.
In 2004, Diageo built a massive $40 + million euro brewing facility to make Guinness. It was shut down in 2013 and then bought by Mark Reynier in 2014 for $7 million! He spent the next year converting it to a distilling facility and clicked the switch and started making whisky. Waterford has contracted out over 70 Irish farmers to grow barley for them, on 19 different soil types. Each farmer’s crop is harvested, stored, malted and distilled separately, with full traceability to showcase the provenance, and to one day hopefully prove to everyone that terroir does, in fact, exist in whisky!
I arrived to Waterford by train the evening before I was supposed to meet at the distillery. I checked into my hotel, which was a stone’s throw from the distillery gates and did a little walking around Waterford. Founded in 914 AD (yes, it is THAT OLD) by Vikings, Waterford is most famously known for being the home of Waterford Crystal. The quaint little seaport town, full of character, was very welcoming and full of delicious food (I ate my body weight in porridge at The Granary Cafe). I walked about admiring the beautiful wall art that seemed to be on every corner, and the cozy little homes tucked down narrow little streets.
On my way back to my hotel, I walked by the gates of the distillery. Clad in a blue, somewhat reminiscent to a long lost love, the gates held the words “WATERFORD DISTILLERY” in a perfect arch. Standing there at those gates , with the massive facility behind them, was a real Charlie Bucket moment for me. I stood there thinking to myself “Holy shit Jenna, tomorrow you’re going to walk through those gates, and into a world of pure imagination!” And much like Charlie Bucket, I did just that!
My first day at Waterford was not spent at the distillery. Ned Gahan, their head distiller, gave me a brief tour and then loaded me up into a car with Mark Newton (who is also their head of communications), Megan Kiely (their right hand woman who wears many hats, and also happens to be a professional track and field star), and Grace O’Reilly (Head Agronomist and supermodel) and sent us on our way to Trevor Harris’ farm in County Kildare.
Trevor is one of the biodynamic farmers that Waterford has partnered with to grow barley for them, and he kindly showed us about and taught me many great things about growing biodynamically. We walked through his fields, where he showed us soil types and explained their compositions, and the benefits of farming in a biodynamic fashion. In a nutshell, biodynamic farming was founded by Rudolph Steiner, and was essentially the first modern organic form of agriculture. It is achieved by a series of preparations and methods that work to connect the entire farm in a harmonious cycle, to foster a diverse biosphere. From the soil, to the seed, to the animals, to the farmer, every single element counts and is vital to the health of the entire farm. Trevor explained it as “connecting the cosmos to the earth”. A lunar calendar is used to aid in timing for sowing and harvesting. Horn manure, or 500, is a vital preparation. Cow horns are stuffed with manure from a lactating female cow and buried underground for the winter months and is said to enhance the life of the soil, once it has been mixed with rainwater and sprayed on the fields. Horn silica, or 501 is another preparation that increases plant immunity, strengthens photosynthesis, enhances ripening, and is prepared from ground quartz crystals buried in a cow horn over the summer months. Trevor was able to show and explain both of these preparations to us, and even let us hold some. Yep, I held lots of poop that day. Not to fret, there is no smell to poop that has been buried underground in cow horns for months! While I learned a great deal about biodynamics, the tour of his farm gave me so much more. I hadn’t even had a single sip of whisky at this point, and I was on cloud 9. I got to walk through fields in wellies, breathe in all of those farmly smells that I grew up with, and hold a wee lamb, all while learning about something I knew very very little about. I wasn’t sure how this was going to translate into the whisky quite yet, or if I would be able to truly taste a difference in barley grown in this way, but I was super keen at this point to put my taste buds to the test.
That evening, when we returned to Waterford, I had the opportunity to meet Mark Reynier. I had been told by others that the minute he opens his mouth, be ready to take it all in because it is an avalanche of information. And its true. We went to a small pub before dinner and had a beer, where he flooded me with information and history and facts and opinions and it was truly a moment I wont forget. I’ve heard people say that Mark Reynier is kind of whacky and is trying to pull the wool over our eyes with this mission to prove that terroir exist in whisky and that its all a publicity stunt and blah blah blah. I will say this. I don’t believe it is a publicity stunt. I believe that terroir does exist in whisky. I can see how people could think otherwise. We have been spoon fed a script that tells us that the grain doesn’t matter, that the distillation process kills off most flavor , the water is what makes it so smooth, and that the barrel is what gives whisky a majority of its flavor. I’ve heard this number be as high as 90%, which is mind blowing to me. IT ALL MATTERS!! Just from visiting Trevor’s farm , and listening to Mark speak his truth in this, I believed it more. But, I believed it before I landed in Waterford. In the time I did spend with him, I will say there is this beautiful madness about him. He teters on the edge of madness and sanity, but it is the combination of someone who is both brilliant and humble. He has this very “why the fuck not” attitude about him, and I respect that. There shouldn’t be a reason why you cant achieve something you want bad enough, regardless of what others are saying about you. If its your passion, then make it your damn mission and go for it.
The next day was tour day at the distillery and warehouses in Ballygarran, and most importantly, tasting time! I spent the day with Ned Gahan, their head distiller, who has a heart of gold and an infections passion for what Waterford is creating. When Waterford was the Guinness plant, he was a brewer making concentrate for Guinness to be sent to Africa. When the plant closed, he lost his job, but Mark brought him back on as head distiller. **(Important side note: when Mark opened Waterford, he brought back a very large majority of the people who lost their jobs when the Guinness plant closed. When the head distiller position was looking to be filled, he had the option to bring in someone from Scotland, but instead felt it was only right to bring in someone who was local and brought back Ned and his 18 years of experience. I promise you it was the best choice!)
From the second I met him, he was bursting with pride and excitement about sharing Waterford with me. Waterford has two polar opposite sides to it, literally. On the left you have an old brewhouse from the 1900’s with all of the original equipment inside. It hasn’t been in production for many many years, but it serves as a reminder of how far the industry has come. I believe it will one day serve as a museum of sorts, and is worth seeing if you ever visit.
On the right you have a state of the art, highly technological facility that houses their stills and creates the whisky. The stills inside of Waterford are the old Inverleven stills that were outside of Bruichladdich for all those years. They are beautiful, hoisted high on stilts, cranking out beautiful Irish Single Malt. But other than those two shiny copper pot stills, there isn’t much else inside of the distillery that tells you whisky is being made.
What Mark and his team did was utilize almost all of the brewing equipment and use it in the whisky making process. A Hydromill is used to grind down the barley into a grist. The kicker is that its all done underwater. The Hydromill uses internal discs that grind it down while water is being added at the same time, starting the mashing process. It then goes into a conversion vessel, not quite like a mash tun, but does the same job essentially converting the starches to sugars, and then is sent to be squeezed. Yes, squeezed. Typically this is where the wort would be drained, but at Waterford it is sent through a mash filter. These are typically used in breweries, not so much distilleries (although there a few who do have them). The mash is sent into the filter and then the mash filter mechanically separates the wort from the spent grains with pressure and cloth filters. Its like a massive accordion style french press of sorts. It looks like something from a good sci-fi movie, but serves to be incredibly efficient. After this, temperature regulated washbacks become the home for fermentation. Waterford likes to do things slowly, with distillation and fermentation taking quite a long time. Nothing is rushed here. NOTHING.
After my tour I was invited into the secret lab, where all of Ned’s experiments are. WHAT A WONDERLAND!!! In dozens of clear bottles sat “almost whiskies” of every color of the rainbow. I say “almost whisky” because none of them were legally aloud to be called whisky yet as none of them had reached 3 years yet. There were hues of gold, amber, rust and pink. Yes pink. There were samples pulled from Chestnut casks (YUM!), Andean Oak, Cherrywood, lots of French Oak, and my beloved Sauternes. This is where they house samples of the new make from a selection of their 70+ different farms and 19 different soil types, along with samples pulled from casks and experimental blends. Each farmer has a diary of sorts where every single ounce of information is kept. Along with their custom tracking system (built for them to trace every single ounce of information on every single run, down to the weather of each day the grain grew) they are able to trace each run from seed to bottle. This information will help to further prove that terroir in whisky does exist.
Now it was time to taste. This was the moment it could all come crashing down. What if they all taste the same? Then this whole movement becomes a sham. I was told to pick three farms, all of the same varietal. I chose the Olympus 2017 varietal. One was from Meadow Lodge Farm, Ballymorgan, and Tubritt Agri (Saltmills). All three of these, of the same varietal had been sent through the exact same process from harvest to bottle. The only difference was where they were grown. Not only were the nose on each of them very different, the taste and mouthfeel of each varied DRASTICALLY. It was such a huge moment, realizing that it would be nearly impossible to present these to anyone and for them to say they all tasted the same. IMPOSSIBLE!! The Saltmills new make was salty and coastal, which makes sense as the location is coastal. The Meadow Lodge comes from smack dab in the center of Ireland and was earthy and smelled like a farm. In my head I was chanting “ITS TRUE. TERROIR IN WHISKY DOES EXIST!! “ After that revelation and confirmation I was desperately looking for, we had some fun and tried some beautiful samples pulled from amazing casks. I tried samples of the same varietal, but grown biodynamically and organically. Again, obvious differences. We tried a full biodynamic flight of Olympus in different cask types. Then we blended. Ned and I blended a special whisky I have here with me now, and its called “Assless Chaps”. One day, I hope they bottle it and call it such, but it is a blend of a little bit of everything and it is truly beautiful.
After tasting through upwards of 20+ samples, we went out to visit Ballygarran where their warehouses are. Waterford had these warehouses built, which again added to the local economy, and is continuing to build more as we speak. The warehouses are much like any other, but are JAM PACKED with the most French oak I have ever seen in my life! You see Mark Reynier doesn’t just believe that you should have your focus on just exceptional grain. But, you should have exceptional casks to match it. Waterford’s largest expense is on wood. They are sourcing some the most incredible casks. I guess that whole wine thing Mark did years go is paying off! We bounced around the warehouses pulling samples straight from the cask and I swear to you these “almost whiskies” are better than many actual whiskies I’ve tasted. The complexity and mouthfeel and richness is out of this world.
Once these are released into the world, it’s gonna be a mad shake up of the industry. I’ve never tasted anything even close to what I tasted at Waterford, and simply CAN NOT wait to have these bottles on my shelves. I haven’t been this jazzed up about a brand in a while, well since the Queen B (ruichladdich) .
Over the past few weeks I have made trips to some other distilleries here in the states, and spoken to a lot of different people in the industry. The term terroir keeps coming out of a lot of different mouths. Even on my recent trip to Kentucky, numerous distillers spoke of shifting their focus to the grain. How the grain is farmed and how it is distilled. It is spreading. It’s real. If you’re not on board yet, thats ok too. But I encourage you to research and read and explore this whole terroir business.
This is the part of the story where the heartbreak comes in. I had to leave, and go back home. When I say that I have never felt more at home on ANY distillery trip or visit I have ever been on, I mean that. The team of people at Waterford are making such an extraordinary whisky, but are so damn humble about it. Every single person was so wonderful and kind and felt like an instant friend. I still miss them and its been months. I dare say if a job ever open up we may be packing our bags! I encourage you to go follow Waterford on the gram and visit their website and read up about what they are doing over there in that old ass viking village! Are you on board the terroir train? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Oh, and yes, it is spelled W-H-I-S-K-Y.
The small print: My flight and accommodations were provided by Waterford. I am in NO way influenced by that to share my opinion.
A MASSIVE MASSIVE MASSIVE thank you to Mark Newton for facilitating my trip and being so proper, yet humble and so willing to teach me. To Grace and Megan, who became sisters to me, and to Ian and Neil for teaching me the distilling ways and showing me the incredible ways you are able to trace EVERYTHING. And to Ned, who again, I can not speak highly enough of. I miss tasting whiskies with you and learning about your mysterious blending ways! And to Mark Reynier, thank you for the humbling moments and the plethora of information you shared with me. Your madness is magical and I hope to have a little bit of my own madness to create extraordinary whisky one day! I feel so lucky to know you all and to have been able to spend time with you! I cant wait to be back and to share with the world the absolute MAGIC you are making at Waterford!