As a species, we have become completely estranged from what we consume. Over the last few centuries we have transitioned from living on locally grown, native foods to barely being able to tell what we are eating, where it came from and what has been done to it. The quote that inspired William S Burroughs’s Naked Lunch hold a lesson for us – it suggested a frozen moment when every person truly saw what was on the end of every fork for what it was. Burroughs was suggesting a moment of existential dread, but he might as well have been talking about what we eat and drink – we currently have no clue what is on the end of every fork, and, perhaps even more so, what is at the bottom of every glass.
The whiskey world is awash with the smoke and mirrors of marketing – terms like artisan, small batch, craft; they mean absolutely nothing, yet are attached to each new brand as though they are reinventing the wheel. All over Ireland and the UK there are brands that are making misleading and often false claims about what they are, who made it and where. All of this is seen as simply being part of ‘the game’ – a comfortable untruth that most of the industry goes along with. However, there is one man who has been battling for more than a decade in his attempts to reconnect us with the origins of our spirit.
Mark Reynier was a third generation wine merchant on a cycling holiday in Scotland when he decided to visit the home of one of his favourite whiskies – Bruichladdich distillery on the island of Islay. Reynier cycled up to the gates of the distillery, only to find them locked with a sign reading ‘plant closed – no visitors!’
Spotting a security guard patrolling the yard, Reynier waved to him and asked if they could have a look around. The guard’s reply was a succinct ‘fuck off’. And off Reynier did fuck – but when he returned, he came with investors, capital, the keys to the plant and a dream to bring the distillery back to life using 200-year-old methods. Enlisting the help of local distilling legend Jim McEwan, he created one of the most iconic whisky brands of the modern era – a spirit born of centuries old distilling methods, yet fresh, brash, brave and bold.
However, the most revolutionary ethos of Bruichladdich was its dedication to terroir – a term previously used mostly in wine circles, meaning the microclimate that leads to differing flavour profiles of different vineyards. Reynier experimented wildly with Bruichladdich, but it was his celebration of the humble barley grain and the land that bore it that was the most memorable of all.
Bruichladdich’s legend grew and grew, and eventually the fiercely independent brand was sold to drinks giant Remy Cointreau. But, in typically contradictory fashion, Reynier voted against the sale – even though it made him a wealthy man. He wasn’t ready to sell, he said at the time; he still had more to do, more to give the distilling world. Shortly after the sale he disappeared, like Kaiser Soze, with no one knowing if the whisky world had seen the last of him. That he reappeared some time later was not the big shock; it was rather, where he reappeared that caused the most surprise.
Nestled on the south-east coast of Ireland, Waterford is the country’s oldest city. A compact and bijou urban space situated above the confluence of the Three Sisters, it is a city of outsiders: Settled by the vikings in 932AD, its name is derived from the Nordic ‘Vadrarfjordr’ – the fjord of the rams, a fitting name given that this city is home to its own indigenous herd of feral goats. The goats do not go back that far, but rather came with the Huguenots three centuries ago, along with the city’s legendary Blaa, a type of doughy roll. The goats live on Bilberry Rock, a high outcrop overlooking the city, and right beneath their hooves lies Mark Reynier’s new project; Waterford Distillery.
Reynier bought the old Waterford Guinness brewery from Diageo for a sum that is rumoured to be considerably smaller than the 40 million it was worth. What he got for his money was a recently renovated brewery, which he then converted into a distilling powerhouse in a few short months, rehiring some of the staff who had been laid off by Diageo. On his Twitter he posted regular updates from the redevelopment, and proved that his success with Bruichladdich had not lessened his ability to be an uber enfant terrible. In interviews he bemoaned the lack of ‘mindfuckery’ in Irish whiskey, slammed the monopolies by massive firms, and generally rattled cages and ruffled feathers in a scene that was previously rather chummy. Just as he did on Islay, Reynier revelled in his outsider status – like Camus’s anti-hero Meursault, he came across as a man who had enough of the lies, the deceit and the conceits. But beneath all the bluster, there was a very serious plan being put in place.
As the plant was being re-engineered, Reynier was out walking through fields and talking to farmers about grains, soils, yields and dreams. He put in place a network of farms along the east coast who would supply him with barley for his spirit, taking his twin ethos of terroir and provenance to an almost forensic level. But which came first – the desire to make whiskey in Ireland, or the lure of the deal of the century?
“Ireland,” he says immediately; “and I’m enjoying every minute of it here. It was two things that brought me – one was an old boy at Bruichladdich, Duncan McGillivary. I can vividly remember him sitting on a wall on a sunny afternoon, saying that the best barley he ever saw in his career – and he had been there for 35 years – came from Waterford port. And it always stuck in my mind. Of course, here you are two hundred miles nearer the equator than Islay – Cambridge is on the same latitude. The climate is milder, so barley was the big draw.
“Scotland, whisky-wise, I had been there, seen it, done it. So there was a chance to make a mark in Ireland, because the whisky industry seems to me to be just all over the place. So all that was intriguing and seductive – and at least it’s not like the 110 major distilleries in Scotland.
“Finally, of course, it was to do with this extraordinary place being available. It took us just a year and four days to get going – it would take three years at least to set up a distillery from scratch. But I came here for the barley primarily.”
And as for the culture shock of moving to Ireland, he was well prepared: “Having dragged my wife and son from Sussex up to Bruichladdich, on the remote, wild and windy Hebridean island of Islay – a Gaelic island – not Scottish, Gaelic – that was pretty difficult; an extreme contrast. The parameters which define oneself, the habitat, the ecosystem, friends – they all go out the window; we basically said goodbye to our previous life.
“The way I explained it once was, it is a bit like you have been invited as the star guest appearance on Eastenders, and you turn up on set, but you have never watched Eastenders, you have no idea who’s having sex with who; who was murdered, beaten up or shunned, who is cohabiting, or has those ‘extended family’ connections with who, because you have never seen the previous episodes, let alone the last series. It’s of course one-sided because everyone knows everything about you.
“And it’s not just a few months but hundreds of years. One time, I wanted something delivered to my house, and it never got delivered and I couldn’t understand why. It turned out that the delivery guy, his grandfather had once an argument with the person who owned the track to my house, and he wouldn’t travel down it. And this was a hundred years later. I still have a house there in Islay and I love being there, we all do.
“But one of the best things about here is that I have had so much fun with these guys, where one can just talk and joke without fear of offence. And that has been a really rewarding experience. We started here implementing what we wanted to do, right from day one, with an enthusiasm, open-mindedness and alacrity.”
Reynier has now started distilling individual spirit from individual farms, and can track the differences accordingly; in a scene filled with obfustication and untruths, he is now in the unique position of being able to say ‘this is the field, this is the grain, and this is the spirit they created’.
To emphasise the focus on barley, Waterford Distillery has no master distiller – but it does have a master brewer. Lisa Ryan was one of the staff laid off by Diageo when the brewery closed, and her rehiring meant Reynier brought in someone not just with experience of high-end brewing, but who would be a system native; there would be no learning the ropes, just down to work from day one. Reynier says his structure is a more realistic, practical arrangement: “We have a distillery manager, head brewer, chief engineer and head distiller. Each relies on the other – buildings, barley, machines, spirit – and the responsibilities are equally divided.”
The plant had been used by Diageo to create the concentrate from which overseas Guinness is made, so it obviously needed some adjustments – the largest of those adjustments being the acquisition of stills. But this was another piece of the puzzle that slotted into place. When Reynier was in his early days with Bruichladdich, a friend of his known as Demolition Dave (a slight misnomer as he is now one of the investors behind Waterford Distillery) tipped him off about something special lurking within the soon-to-be-levelled Dumbarton grain distillery.
Secreted away inside this massive industrial grain-distilling operation were two small pot stills – known as the Inverleven stills. Reynier saw an opportunity, bought the stills and shipped them to Islay, where he intended to use them to revamp and restart Port Charlotte distillery, close to Bruichladdich. They never made it there, but one did adorn the front garden of Bruichladdich – with a pair of wellie boots sticking out the top. So when he bought Waterford, he knew where to get two stills to skip the potential three-year wait for Forsyths of Rothes – the Rolls Royce of still makers – to create new ones. Forsyths did play a hand, upgrading and mending the stills, and then they were installed, and brought to life, in the south east of Ireland, all ready to make a spirit that reflected their design – elegant yet full-bodied, delicate yet strong.
“Every distiller likes to have their own-designed stills, it’s the personal flourish of any new distillery, but we know what these stills can do – we know what the style will be we can determine what goes in, of course, how the stills are run, but the weight of the spirit is determined by that still shape.
“If you have very tall, narrow-necked stills, you will produce a very floral, elegant spirit. If you have very short, dumpy stills you will have a heavy, oily spirit – and there is nothing you can do about it. Laphroaig, for example, can never ever ever produce a light, floral spirit because they have short, dumpy stills. You can’t change it. That is how it’s going to be. We know that these Inverleven stills are going to produce a floral spirit, because of their shape. So then the question is – how are you going to run them? And we have the facilities here to produce very, very good-quality wort and wash, clinically the best – you can’t do anything better. So then it is a question of how slowly we run those stills, and because we have all this space and the control we can run everything exactly as we please.”
That space may be getting a little smaller, as there are plans to order four more stills from Forsyths over the next five years. Clearly, this is not a short-term venture.
What strikes you first about Waterford Distillery is the scale of it – on approach it is dwarfed by the hulking, quartz-riddled presence of Bilberry Rock. But once you get close, you begin to grasp just how massive it is. A modern, elliptical frontage houses much of the current operation, while to the rear is an old brewery, crying out to be transformed into a visitor’s centre.
Beyond is the Barley Cathedral, where the grain from each farm, each field has their own storage space. This allows Waterford to create a single field, single farm, single cask, single distillery, single malt. You could probably throw ‘single master brewer’ in there too, given that one of the farmers supplying them is Lisa Ryan’s father. And as they have the capability to propagate their own yeast, you might as well throw in ‘single single-celled fungus’. Although that might not look so appealing on the label.
Along with all those capabilities, they also have an evaporator – with which they can make single grain spirit. So is he going to?
“No. Single malt is what I want to do – single malt, single malt, single malt.”
And no pot still whiskey, or as he calls it, mixed-mash: “Why would you want to mix the mash, when you’ve got the greatest barley in the world? Why on earth do you want to compromise it?”
Maybe as a nod to Ireland, or even just as a cash-in, I suggest.
“Who says it’s a nod to Ireland?”
Isn’t it an Irish tradition, a traditional style of whiskey made here?
“A tradition which they also use in Canada, America, and all over the world. So there is nothing unique about it at all. The fact that Pernod say this style of whiskey ‘is’ Ireland, is purely for their marketing, they want to own it because they have most of it. There’s no real evidence that this is the definitive Irish style, we know that people were making single malt back in the 19th Century too. Besides, the terminology is a nonsense; internationally, what does “pot still” mean to a whisky consumer? It means an inanimate, dumpy copper vessel used for distilling whisky rather than a mix of malted and cheaper, unmalted barley with some maize or rye bunged in.
“But it’s an intellectual proposition – why do you want to make a dumbed-down version? Why?”
So that is how he sees pot still whiskey – a dumbed-down single malt?
“Single malt is the most complex spirit in the world, flavour compound wise. If you drink a blended whiskey, all that flavour you get isn’t the grain whiskey, the grain is there to stretch the flavour. Analytically, we know that single malt is the most complex spirit. It is the reason why kids, when they drink spirits when their parents are away when they are 16 and get hammered, they never touch whiskey ever again. They will drink vodka again; they drink cognac again; they drink calvados again; but they won’t touch whiskey because the flavour – their brain remembers it, because there was so much of it. You don’t see winos hoovering down single malt whiskey – or whiskey. You see them hoovering down vodka.”
So if he had been offered a third still for free, so he could triple distill – again, in the Irish style – would he have taken it?
“No, no, but you can triple distill with two stills too. We might do a bit for fun. But by distilling up to 80% rather than 70% you are just losing more body and flavour. We triple-distilled a bit at Bruichladdich and several Scottish malts are triple-distilled. Anyone can do it.
“In Ireland you have that habit of beer and chaser – that’s how whiskey was enjoyed – so the more straight-forward, accessible it was, the better. Perhaps the lowland Scottish distilleries got the custom of triple distillation from 19-century Irish immigrants? Whereas you don’t see people in pubs drinking single malt, even in Scotland – unless they’re tourists. It is a more elite, expensive thing. But it used to be primarily a component of blends. Very few people back then drank it as a single malt and if they did it was as new spirit straight off the still.”
So the evaporator may not be used for single grain; it will be used another way – to reduce the pot ale for shipping as pig feed. Less water in it means less weight, ergo less cost.
“We have a fancy vacuum-operated column still called a Sigmatec. I didn’t really know at the time I bought the place what it was. Guinness used it to de-alcoholise – or strip – stout. Talking with engineers I asked if it could do the reverse and they said yes. With a few tweaks and adjustments, some re-piping, and voila: a state-of-the-art column still. But my interests don’t lie there. This project is intellectually and financially focused on single malt. However, it’s a reassuring back-up to have up your sleeve.”
Likewise there will be no white spirits, and definitely no selling sourced whiskey under his own branding, a tactic used by the majority of new distilleries in Ireland to generate revenue. However, it is also a practise that has been abused, with some independent bottlers playing fast and loose with their marketing material, and striving to create the illusion that they distilled the product themselves.
“Well this is Ireland’s big problem. And it isn’t going to solve itself, I fear. There isn’t the interest or the will within the industry it seems to me to do anything about it. There isn’t the money to enforce regulations, even ones for the common good, because at present you have only Pernod Ricard, Jose Cuervo, William Grant and that’s it. The IWA (Irish Whiskey Association) isn’t anywhere near as powerful as the Scotch Whisky Association (which incidentally represents the whole spirits industry, not just Scotch). I don’t see it having the mandate or the power to bring much-need discipline to labels, presentations, marketing material and claims, that will build the much-needed credibility of the Irish whisky sector.
“Abroad, if you ask whisky drinkers about Irish whiskey I’m afraid you’ll find there is not a great deal of trust. That confidence has to be earned. Sure there is a huge enthusiasm now in the Irish whiskey sector, but there is also perhaps, shall we say, a certain naivety, too. In the absence of clearly defined, acceptable practices, there are some bottlers that play fast and loose if not with the actual rules (there aren’t yet many) but certainly the spirit of them.
“If you go to the duty free at Dublin Airport and they have more than 100 Irish whiskeys, but they are from just three distilleries, but you’d swear blind with all the master distillers listed on those labels there were at least fifty distilleries producing all that hooch.
“But I’m a libertarian at heart. Look – to a degree I can understand all this wild-west approach, after all I used to be an independent bottler myself once. Ours is a heads-down, get on with it no nonsense operation and sod ‘em all.
“In Scotland, an authoritative SWA provides the necessary guidelines to protect the reputation which every one for the greater good follows. It isn’t onerous or police state stuff; it is common sense. I certainly had my run-ins with them when we didn’t see eye to eye. But here it is a wee bit more freestyle, more individualistic shall we say, and I don’t really see it changing any time soon. But it needs to.
“I can already hear the “coming over here telling us what to do” complaints, but there is a truly great opportunity for Irish whiskey. A reset button has been pushed. These are exciting times. But equally a regulatory framework needs to be constructed too, to guide, to keep us all on the straight and narrow. It isn’t onerous; it’s not finicky; it ain’t Big Brother. It is for the greater glory of Irish whiskey.
“Some of the marketing spin is mere over-exuberance, some of it is deliberately disingenuous, and some of it is naivety. Some of it is outright fraudulent. But I don’t see anybody having either the will, the foresight, the authority or the money to challenge it. That’s why I am focussed on what we are doing here, doing my own thing.”
But given that Ireland is in a ‘wild west’ state – being as it is in a state of rapid rebirth and expansion, a new frontier for this generation – Reynier has some suggestions on what a new sheriff might look like.
“The Irish Government should say ‘right, we shouldn’t get involved, because we are short-term politicians, here today, gone tomorrow; equally, the industry should not be involved because they have got interests that are non compatible – remember the banks and self-regulation? – but we should do what France does with Champagne; create an apolitical body in between the industry and the politicians which is a civil servant-run to represent the long-term interests of Ireland and not powerful industry players nor biddable politicians’.
“It says ‘Product of Ireland’ and “Irish Whiskey” on the label, so somebody should be representing Ireland’s interests.
“This council would agree with the Irish Whiskey Association with a set of guidelines and procedure – the SWA has it all already – which should be applied to the whole industry, It is important to get this sort of thing sorted now it will be much harder to retrofit once the horse has bolted.”
Given the startling quality of his barley network, it comes as no surprise that his wood policy is equally ambitious – and just as honest.
“We don’t need to experiment with casks, I know exactly what is needed. We have the same policy for every farm, so again it is experience – I know what works. At Bruichladdich we had to do a lot of remedial work because when we first started we couldn’t afford good oak and our accountant undervalued the influence of the oak, or rather good-quality oak, and if you haven’t got the money to buy the barley then you haven’t got the money to buy good oak – it’s an industry-wide issue. Wood is the first thing that gets cut from a struggling budget. And of course wood values in recent years has doubled. The importance of good quality oak is now more important than ever.”
Important – yet expensive, and across the industry there are plenty of ‘innovations’ in the area of wood that no one dares talk about: “Ultrasound, music, heat, oak essence, de-charr, re-charr, tannin injection – all sorts of remedial shortcuts are available – and caramel of course.”
You can assume he isn’t going down that route: “Certainly not! So we set this company up with a very healthy budget for wood – almost the same as the barley. Now if you go back a few years ago, wood represented 10% of production costs, it is more than 40% for us, and I defy you to find anybody in the whole whiskey industry that has that budget ratio. I know from experience there is no shortcut for great quality raw ingredients and time. And that includes the wood.
“We are investing this huge sum because I know that if you are going unplugged, making natural whiskey, then there are no shortcuts – you’ve got to have good quality wood. We are making an artisanal, natural product, hence we have total traceability, beyond parallel, to prove everything we do. There is no compromise: What we say is what we do. We mean it.”
But all this dedication to the product is an added expense: “Of course it is. But by the time it gets into bottle, in five or ten years time, it is a relatively small amount; it has cashflow repercussions now, but by the time we get to market it will not make a difference in the bigger scheme of things.”
Looking into the future brings up the subject of just how many distilleries Ireland can take before it hits full capacity – clearly the full number touted by the IWA will not make it to production, many were pipe dreams that are already falling by the wayside. But there are currently roughly 20 either operational or getting there. So how many is too many? How many more can one island take?
“No more, in fact there are too many. There will be tears before bedtime. Some people optimistically think ‘oh wouldn’t it be nice to have a distillery’ but the cheap bit is building it, the expensive bit is running it, and the even-more expensive bit is bringing it to market. That’s where there will be a big reckoning: I wonder if the marketplace is big enough to handle not just Ireland’s start-ups but more from the US, the UK and other countries too.”
For anyone interested in the highs and lows of starting a distillery, they can look no further than Reynier’s Twitter feed. With typically caustic honesty, it presents the failures alongside the successes; if equipment broke during the refit, it was tweeted, along with information about disappointing yields from some grain, disagreements between head brewer and distillery manager over the characteristics of new-make spirit – all there for the world to see. His messages are the antithesis of the sanitised, corporate message from most distillers.
“Well you can’t separate the good from the bad, when things go right they go right, and then sometimes they don’t. For example, we were tasting some new spirits the others day, and some of them were good, some were very good, and some were a bit dull – well that’s fine and that is out there in the world.
“If you’re going unplugged – I can’t see how you can just go a little bit unplugged; you either are or you are not. Everything I have ever done has been unplugged – whether it was in the wine industry or Bruichladdich, so I think philosophically it is where I am happy at.
“I also think that globally there is an anti ‘big food, big drink’ thing going on; people have got too bored. You go out the door here to a pub and there is no-one in there, and you have no choice; either a stout or a lager, and you have to ask – why bother, if they are all selling the same thing, the same way? In the old days it was the craic that got the people in, but there is nobody in the pubs now.”
And just as the Irish pub has been struggling against a generational shift and the decline it has wrought, distillers lament the duty laws here, claiming they are crippling the industry. Not so, says Reynier: “It is higher than Scotland but it is the same for everybody – whether it is gin, vodka, poitín, it is the same. So you are only in a comparative field. It is what always makes me laugh every time there is a budget the SWA go on about duty and stuff and you think ‘well hang on a second, 90% of it is exported, so nobody pays duty on that at all’.”
Mark Reynier is extraordinary company, a complex spirit full of seemingly contradictory elements – profound yet profane, combative yet charming, witty and deadly serious all at once. He comes across as a man utterly frustrated with the spirits world whilst still passionately in love with it. Throughout the couple of hours I spent with him, he did not sit down once; he paced the room, gesticulating as he made his points, constantly moving, forever restless.
Mark Gillespie describes the maverick Texan distiller Chip Tate as being the Steve Jobs of the distilling world. If that is the case, then Mark Reynier is that world’s Stanley Kubrick; an auteur who refuses to work within the system, a creative visionary who is utterly unwilling to compromise, who is almost obsessively dedicated to craft, to the pursuit of perfection. He is a man intent on destroying the status quo, compelled to point out that the emperor wears no clothes. His attitude to life reminds me of the motto of another outsider who came here from Scotland to build a distilling empire; sine metu – without fear. When I ask him if he thinks he might have ruffled some feathers since his arrival here, he smiles and says “Oh I certainly hope so. I certainly hope so.”
Ultimately, what makes Mark Reynier an outsider is not where he comes from, but rather that – like Camus’s weary homme du midi – he is simply a man who is no longer willing to play the game. This project is about change, disruption, evolution: Why should he doff the cap, bend the knee or even spell whiskey with an ‘e’? His is a singular vision – of Ireland being the home of the world’s greatest single malt, and his distillery is celebrating the soil and grain of Ireland, the farmers who work the land.
Reynier firmly believes he is fighting for the pride of Ireland, and that the honesty and transparency of his whisky, when released in five years time, will offer us a novel experience – a frozen moment when every Irish whiskey drinker truly sees what is at the end of every glass, knowing exactly where it came from, who made it and why – and, for the first time in a long time, we will be able to enjoy a truly naked dram.