I had the absolute delight of a recent trip to the Waterford Distillery in Ireland. Here, everything is about terroir – the land, the soil, the climate and the character of the barley. There’s a real connection to the land, the farmers and the individual fields. There are a handful of Scottish distilleries doing similar interesting work with organic and/or local barley, but this is the central focus for Waterford. Mark Reynier of Bruichladdich fame has moved from Islay and has already set deep roots in Waterford. He’s even brought those old Inverleven stills that were once adorned with wellies from outside Bruichladdich. These old and battle-scarred stills have found new life and purpose in Ireland producing such intriguing spirit.
Waterford are producing whiskies only from Irish grains, including organic, biodynamic and heritage grains, which have not been grown for decades. I was lucky enough to try the Hunter grain variety which has not been grown in Ireland since 1979 due to its difficulty in harvesting. All of this creates a great deal of work, especially for Minch Malt at Athy Maltings who Waterford are working with to bring these grains from field to distillery. The whisky industry as a whole seems to have neglected the core ingredient of whisky, the humble barley grain. There has been a move towards higher yielding grains to make a more consistent barley for cost efficiency. It’s incredible to think possibly in the future you could have a choice of a small batch bottle of Waterford whisky from a certain barley or farmer, or maybe even an individual field. Waterford are aiming to have distilled 73 individual farms by the end of 2020, using a total of 9 different barley varieties.
There is a massive level of data input and traceability at the distillery. Even before the barley comes in, the amount of information captured is just staggering. Every farmer has their own passport style book which contains every conceivable piece of information about the barley they have produced and the land its grown on, such as the GPS location of their farm, the composition of the soil and the climate on their field. It’s just mindboggling how much information you’ll be able to learn about your whiskies from Waterford. In the tasting room it was wonderful to nose and taste spirits as young as 300 days old. Most of them tasted better than some much older single malts I’ve had before. Ned Gahan, Head Distiller made a beautiful mix of bourbon and premium French cask; this French cask gave the most beautiful pink hue to the spirit.
Every process takes that little bit longer at the distillery, it’s a long and slow process. The fermentation takes at least 90-100 hours, they also get five charges of the wash still per fermentation, each gradually longer, possibly up to 140 hours. The distilling process also isn’t in the classic Irish Whiskey triple distilled style, here Waterford only double distil in the Scotch style using those old Inverleven stills from Bruichladdich.
A lot of money is being spent on the wood used to cask their whisky. No corner is cut, no expense is spared in their quest to make the best whisky possible. Using Mark Reynier’s wealth of knowledge, having spent decades working in the wine and whisky industries, he’s chosen to spend about a third of the companies cost of production on the wood used to cask the whisky. Each farmers batch goes into a mix of 50% American first fill, 20% American virgin oak, 15% French premium cask, 15% vin doux naturel casks your sherry, port and madeira wine casks. There will be nothing added to the casks, it will purely be the work of the wood and the spirit. There will be no ‘finishing’ of the whisky, the casks used in this process should produce excellent whiskies that there’s no need to finish or boost the final output. There’s also going to be a marine influence to the final spirit due to their location in nearby Ballygarran during the maturation process. The salty sea breeze will be absorbed by the casks sitting proudly in their slumber.
Terroir is real. Just nosing and tasting the same barley variety from the exact same field but of a different year’s harvest you can notice some huge variations on nose and taste. Some smelt so completely different I was blown away. Ian kindly invited me back the next day after my grand tour with Ned to explore the terroir room, a library holding samples from every single batch from every farmer. Here, Ian ran around finding me batches to nose and compare with different years and different varieties, biodynamic vs organic farms. It was really just astonishing, I couldn’t help but smile and laugh as he produced me sample after sample.
It’s been a hugely enriching experience spending so much time over two days with Ned Gahan and Ian O’Brien. On our tour Ned said, ‘I can talk for Ireland, you don’t mind if I waffle on do you?’ I replied with pleasure, ‘Yes, please! Waffle away, give me as much time as you possibly can.’ On leaving the distillery it dawned on me that I was onsite for well over two hours. My eyes have been widened, my nose has been amazed, but most importantly, I’ve gained a wide smile on my face just from seeing the sterling work done at Waterford. A genuine warmth and love emanates from the staff. Everyone I met was so welcoming and happy to help in any way possible. There is a real life and soul to the distillery. I feel a deep connection to it, and also to Ian who with whom I have formed a mutual friendship and respect.
I’m so looking forward to their first release and subsequent bottlings. Apart from the obvious pleasure of drinking and sharing the exceptional whisky, I’m looking forward to seeing how the whisky community reacts to Waterford, both the consumer who will fall in love with their approach and execution and the industry as a whole. If you truly love whisky you must visit Waterford Distillery. You will experience something truly unique and special. I’m already longing to make my next trip to the distillery to see how things have moved along. Ian has even suggested a trip to Ballygarran to visit the casks sitting by the sea, possibly to coincide with their inaugural release. I’m positive that a group of The London Whisky Club members will make the visit together to celebrate this moment of whisky history with the Waterford staff.
Thank you so much to everyone at Waterford, especially Ned and Ian for their time, knowledge and generosity. You have made a fan for life.
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