The Heretic

Mark Reynier believes the Vikings invented whisky. The nomadic distiller claims that, contrary to the common belief that it was Irish monks who discovered it, it was the Vikings who first started to distill barley to make the water of life. Why would monks make such strong spirit, Reynier counters to anyone who objects to his interpretation of history – surely for men of God it would be heresy? Whatever about his take on the origins of distilling, few can doubt that he is an expert on heresy. 

A third-generation wine merchant and independent whisky bottler, Reynier was the driving force behind the resurrection of Bruichladdich Distillery on the Hebridean island of Islay. He bought the mothballed distillery, transformed it into a gloriously wild experiment in the somewhat staid world of Scotch whisky, and then sold for stg£54 million it in 2012. After the sale, Reynier took some time off and went fishing. Many in his position would have simply retired, but Reynier was to prove that his work on Islay was laying down a template for what would follow, as he brought his unique approach to whisky to its spiritual home – Ireland.  

Whilst on Islay, Reynier became obsessed with barley. The central ingredient of any single malt, it somehow ended up with a walk-on part in distilling – large firms place almost all the emphasis on casks, claiming that up to 80% of flavour comes from the wood the spirit ages in. Ever the heretic, Reynier queries why, if wood is so important, they don’t just use neutral spirit to make whiskey, or indeed simply water? Why bother with barley at all, if it has so little input? He decided that barley was the key to everything, and that local barley the most important of all. 

While many larger distillers quietly imported their barley from warmer climes to ensure supply (and keep costs down), Reynier started using locally grown barley. His background in wine meant he knew about the importance of provenance and terroir – the unique microclimate that makes the wine from one vineyard completely different to wine from one alongside it. So he brought out whiskies that were distilled from certain strains of barley, or from certain farms. 

Duncan McGillivray, former general manager of Bruichladdich, happened to mention to Reynier that the best barley he had ever seen was from the south east of Ireland. Fortuitous indeed then that shortly after the sale of Bruichladdich, Reynier managed to snap up the state of the art Guinness brewery in Waterford, the capital of Ireland’s sunny south east, for a bargain 7.5 million euro. He rehired many of the former Diageo staff who were let go when Guinness pulled out, and while he transformed the brewery into a distillery, his staff transformed from brewers to distillers. Now all he needed was some grain. 

Barley grower Trevor Harris.

Reynier put in place an unprecedented network of farms to supply his barley, with a forensic level of detail – Waterford Distillery can track their spirit from grain to glass, and tell you about soil types, field locations, barley strains and even a short history of the farmer who grew it. Their storage facility was named the ‘barley cathedral’ and the distillery itself became a kind of techo-pagan temple created solely for the adoration of grain, with Reynier as chief celebrant. There were to be no white spirits – no vodka, no gin, no poitin – no single pot still whiskey, a traditional Irish style, and no grain whiskey. This is about single malt and nothing else. With a solid business plan and the confidence of his backers – among them Waterford native and pharma mogul Seamus Mulligan – Reynier is in no hurry to get his product out. Yet while many distilleries play it safe in those shaky early years, Reynier is taking his spirit of experimentation to the roots of whisky itself. 

Mark Reynier, on right, with Irish biodynamic barley farmers John McDonnell and Trevor Harris at the biodynamic vineyards of Jean-Paul Zusslin in Alsace.

From one aspect or another, all interests of human life belong to Agriculture.

Rudolf Steiner, speaking in the Agriculture series of lectures in 1924

Reynier was the first person to distill Irish whisky from organically grown barley. But this wasn’t enough – how do you enhance terroir to the highest possible degree? The answer lay in some of the world’s great vineyards, and the writings of the occultist philosopher Rudolf Steiner. In 1924 a group of farmers were concerned about the impact of modern farming methods on their soil. They enlisted Steiner’s help, and he gave a series of lectures which went on to form the central strut of biodynamics. This modern-sounding agricultural philosophy sees the farm as an organism, one which is self contained and does not need outside interference. Fertilizer should come from the farm itself through a series of preparations – one of which is a cow horn packed with manure and buried for a period of time, while a spray for aphids comes from water that nettles have been soaked in. 

Steiner was the father of anthroposophy – a philosophy led by the belief that there is a spiritual world accessible to us all through inner development. With biodynamics, he drew on this and the teaching of mystics from the 16th century, and thus some of the guidelines of biodynamic agriculture are somewhat left of field. To quote some of the instructions on the Biodynamic Association website: The six compost preparations are made from specific herbs: yarrow flowers, chamomile blossoms, the whole areal portion of the stinging nettle while in flower, oak bark, dandelion blossoms and valerian flowers. Four of these six preparations are enveloped in sheaths of animal organs. All are made with a sensitivity to the rhythms of the sun and zodiac. All but one are buried in the ground for a specified period of time. When the preparations are finished, they have the appearance of well-ripened compost, with the exception of the valerian preparation, which is in a liquid form. 

Whilst much of biodynamics is an engaging form of holistic agriculture, the use of ‘sheaths of animals organs’ and lunar phases as a guide for planting is a stumbling block for many. However, Steiner’s views on agriculture may cause furrowed brows, his thoughts on other issues, such as race and education, raise even greater questions about his deductions. 

The body which awards biodynamic certification, the Demeter Association, does not enforce the lunar calendar planting, but does ensure the preparations are as laid out by Steiner. Yet while biodynamics has its critics, it hasn’t stopped some of the great wine producers from using it – Domaine Zind Humbrecht, Romanee Conti, and Chateau Margaux all adhere to the rules laid down by the Biodynamic Association. 

As Reynier has shown consistently throughout his career, if it works for wine, then why not whisky – after all, he openly admits that he is making a whisky for wine drinkers. This is for those who want to delve deeper into the liquid, to understand its provenance and to answer the bigger question of ‘why’ – why does this drink have the flavours it does?

Reynier in front of the Inverleven stills in Waterford.

“Soil here is the medium,” Reynier says.  “It’s made from the subsoil which is made from the bedrock, which is filled with minerals, and the roots of whatever it is growing down into those different soils gets the most minerals. This is why we chose biodynamics – if you as a farmer keep putting nitrates on the ground, what incentive is there for the roots to go down, if they are just being fed on the surface? So the more fertiliser you use the less likely it is that the roots will dig deep.

“Most whisky drinkers are going to have no idea what we are talking about – I don’t care – but wine drinkers will. They will understand, or at least the guys I am talking to, will understand how biodynamics has influenced the greatest winemakers to take the ultimate step up. 

“Biodynamics is agricultural management philosophy that is the culmination of ten thousand years of farming know how – call it folklore, call it old wives tales, whatever. But this is accumulated knowledge of how to grow, and how to look after your land, from before a time when you could go to the shops and buy what you needed to care for the land, you had to use what you had on your land, and they knew that everything they needed was right there. 

Reynier with head distiller Ned Gahan.

“Fertilizers, pesticides, all naturally produced. Everything was done from within the farm. It was codified by Rudolf Steiner, who was approached by the farmers who felt that all this accumulated knowledge about caring for the land was being lost to modernity, and to the agro-chemical industry that really started after the First World War, when all these munitions firms went into selling chemicals to farmers.  

“You can see the results of this, where chemical oversude has created a pan in the soil, soil that is to all effects dead, thanks to all the chemicals. So the soil is dead, the erosion is high, the fertility is zero, it’s almost like hydroponics. It creates an ever increasing need to put more and more things like into the soil. 

“What Steiner realised was that what the old farmers knew actually worked. So he wrote it up in a code, which is called biodynamics. It’s more than organics –  biodynamics is a way of life. It is a way of keeping a live soil going.

“Vineyards are where you see it most – the biodynamically farmed vines become healthier, they are able to resist infection. Of course, this doesn’t mean a biodynamic winemaker will be a good winemaker – it just means you will produce very good grapes. But if you are a great winemaker, and you have the best terroir, then your biodynamic grapes will make an incredible wine. It’s no coincidence that many of the top ten or fifteen winemakers have  biodynamic vineyards. They don’t say much about it, perhaps because they are a little embarrassed by it – biodynamics is easy to ridicule, easy to pooh-pooh.”

The Mary Street cellar of Waterford Distillery.

Reynier says the roots of biodynamically farmed crops go deeper, the plants dig for nutrition as they are meant to, rather than relying on a shallow surface layer of regularly sprayed chemicals. His belief in biodynamics is overwhelming – he says that the lunar planting cycle makes sense, for just as the moon controls the tides, so too must it control fluid like sap within plants. 

As for Reynier himself, he is slower to put down roots. He still lives on Islay but commutes to Waterford on a weekly basis. If that seems like a trek, it is a short hop in comparison to the journey he undertakes to his latest project, a rum distillery on the island of Grenada, a development even more challenging than Bruichladdich and Waterford combined. But Reynier is undaunted. 

In Ireland he has encouraged farmers to resurrected heritage grains – two barley strains named Hunter and Goldthorpe – which haven’t been used commercially for decades, and were brought back from a seed bank. These strains of barley fell by the wayside in the agriculture industry’s shift away from choices based on flavour towards strains picked due to their yield. 

The distillery is also working with Dr Dustin Herb from Oregon State University to prove that terroir exists – first they have micro-distilled samples from two varieties, grown and harvested at two test sites independently, and Dr Herb now matching up the environmental data with independent sensory analysis. Then they will be sending the samples off for gas chromatography to get compounds/sensory/environmental data matched up, so they can interrogate environmental changes and the compounds that result from it. The full report is due towards the end of 2019. Until then, the great whisky terroir debate will rage on, with Reynier in the eye of the maelstrom, and relishing the role.

He seems to be driven by a desire to prove that conventional wisdom is a form of complacency, whether it is in his belief in terroir, biodynamics or his claim that the vikings invented whisky. Reynier’s detractors would say that he is an agitator who uses conflict to keep the conversation steered in the direction of his whisky project, that all the bluster is marketing – but his actions in Waterford speak far louder than any words. Waterford Distillery’s experiment in terroir has taken Irish soil, Irish grain and Irish farmers and placed them back where they belong – at the heart of Irish whisky. 

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