Ghost In The Machine

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. 

  • Mark Reynier of Waterford Distillery speaking in 2016 

How much thought do we want to put into our whisky? How far down the rabbit hole of chemistry and engineering do we need to go to make sure that we fully know a whisky? Waterford is already pushing the terroir debate – that the location barley is grown in plays a part in the flavour of whisky – centre stage, so that is their focus. But what about stills – if you can argue that barley retains a unique geographic identity, even after enduring the various tortures of malting, milling, brewing and distilling, not to mind X number of decades in wood, then surely you can claim that stills play just as central a role. Or, maybe you don’t. Maybe it simply doesn’t matter, and that this is the great thing about whisky – without wanting to sound pretentious, it is a drink for thinkers, but it is also a drink for drinkers; you don’t need to lose yourself in some desperate search for meaning when you can just drink it and get pleasantly toasted. 

It’s like Johnny Cash. You can love him for his music, or you can love his music for him – love it that little bit more because you understand the myth and the man, the outlaw – all his songs then take on deeper meanings, about growing up poor, the desperation and anger. Consider his cover of NIN’s Hurt – a song written about self loathing, isolation, and living with trauma – which he transformed into a song about regret, sorrow, loss, and frailty. You can just turn up the radio when it plays, and as a bonus you can spend the ensuing ten minutes thinking about your own mortality.

Whisky, in the end, only has meaning because of us – we make it, we drink it, we write about it, we dream it into being; until that bottle is opened and consumed it is Schrödinger’s stupid cat. So you can argue about agronomics, still design, yeast and all that glorious technical detail, but we are the ghosts in the machine, bringing our unique tastes and thoughts and meaning to every drink. 

So a brief history of the Inverleven stills – tucked away inside the vast Dumbarton grain distillery, they became redundant in the early Noughties and Dumbarton was set for demolition. Enter Demolition Dave, who spotted the stills, told Mark Reynier, who then bought them. The stills – wash, spirit and a Lomand known as Ugly Betty – were dismantled and shipped to Islay, where Betty made The Botanist gin and the wash and spirit became garden ornaments. 

Reynier then sold Bruichladdich, bought Guinness’s Waterford Brewery, and after a quick polish, the Inverlevens became the Waterfords, the brewery became a distillery, and Demolition Dave became Dividend Dave, as he is now an investor in Waterford. So the question is this – will Inverleven spirit taste in any way similar to Waterford? Will those stills create some kinship between the vast Dumbarton and the bespoke Waterford? Probably not, as Reynier continued that quote I opened with thusly: 

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.

So I can drink this and try to trace some parallels to the samples from Waterford that I have, or I can abandon my romantic notions and stop trying to forge connections that only exist in my imagination. I’m sure still shape and design plays a role in flavour, but I would imagine it to be considerably less than inelegant elements like yeast. 

Anyway – to the whisky. Distilled in 1987, casked in Bourbon hogsheads, disgorged into 240 bottles in July 2015 at a healthy 53.9%. On the nose it is spicy and sprightly, the official notes speak of tropical fruits but I get more vanilla, spice, biscuit, mace and its more popular cousin nutmeg. On the palate; dry, then lots of honey, custard creams, but the heft of that strength has me adding water to a whiskey for what actually might be the first time in my life. Manuka honey, mead, meadows, liquorice. On the finish – long, possibly longer with the water added, but with that spice element all the ways through. More biscuit, malt, a whisper of summer fruits. 

I honestly didn’t know what to expect with this whisky – it’s worth a few quid and was given to me as a gift by a very old friend, so I could never sell it. I planned to open it for the launch of Waterford Distillery’s prog-rocking new release, but the plague put an end to that. 

So here I am on World Whisky Day, sipping it instead. It has meaning to me – it symbolises friendship, kindness, love. It’s greater meaning stretches beyond that – that something beautiful and special can thrive in an ugly place, persevere, and then return to life in another world. The Inverleven stills are dead, long live the Waterford stills, and here’s to the resurrection. 

The War On Terroir

Can terroir exist in whisky? I like to think it can, but that’s because I choose to. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. The idea makes sense to me; but then, I have zero understanding of science, zero understanding of the destructive forces of distillation. So maybe I should take a backseat and shut the hell up, which is what I did when I got this email. I can’t remember the context, but the person who wrote it seemed pretty straight – considering they were using a fake name and fake email address. They had worked in distilling for decades (which in Ireland narrows it down to a few dozen potential candidates, thus necessitating the hidden ID) and just wanted to say their piece about their own experience of terroir in whiskey, so here it is:  

“We played with that more than a decade ago and took three separate strains of barley and made three totally different malts. The taste difference was notable as new make, but this was expected as most new make batches will have a slight difference in taste and aroma. However, we put them into three very similar casks (all ex-bourbon from the same distillery with the same fill and disgorging date) as identical as possible considering a casks variance, and all the whiskies tasted the same after five years. The barrel is far too overpowering for the tiny incremental changes the terroir supporters suggest. In my opinion, terroir in whiskey is 100% a marketing ploy as I’ve tested both ways – identical whiskey from the same batch in different casks and the opposite test with different whiskies in as identical as possible barrels and on both tests the barrel comes through by a huge country mile. The barrel does the vast majority of the flavour, definitely 70% or more depending on the barrel.

“Try buying a charred or toasted cask, add plain spring water to it and even after 48 hours of the water in the cask, remove some water and taste it and you’ll get those unmistakable whiskey flavours. The cask is honestly the big difference in whiskey. 

“Think of how many medals Cooley won prior to the sale to Beam. John Teeling couldn’t give his whiskey away at the time (which is why he had so much mature stock). And then all that stock got sold to brands and they did some unique finishes (Teelings 24 year old is a recent example finished in Sauternes casks), Hyde is another and plenty more world awards from that stock. All the same whiskey as Noel never did much to change the mash bill at Cooley. 

“The difference came in the finish, which was 100% from the cask. Every single brand in Ireland has known the importance of the barrel for hundreds of years. Even think of Redbreast in 1903. Gilbeys were wine merchants as were the Mitchell brothers with the Spot family. They had leftover wine casks and got them filled by Jameson. It resulted in some of the world’s best ever whiskey.”

Mysterious anonymous email endeth.

In the new make I tasted in Waterford, there were massive differences between farms – but give those different distillates ten years in a barrel, and then we shall see. New make exhibiting what seems like terroir is very different to a 15 year old spirit exhibiting terroir, because how do you eliminate the effects of the cask from your deductions? Do you sell each bottle with a sample of the new make so you can discern which flavour elements are down to where the barley grew, and which are down to the wood? Or is all this completely besides the point? Waterford Distillery has taken the focus off wood and placed it farther back in the process, to an element of whiskey that had been relegated to a walk on part in the narrative. If quality wood programmes are so important, why not grain also? And beyond that – why not yeast, why not fermentation times? Why not people? Reynier’s persona is central to this debate – he is as much part of the terroir of Waterford’s whisky as the grain. This was all his mad idea, his vision. You can criticise him, mutter about people ‘coming over here’ telling us how to make whisky, write it all off as marketing, or some zany experiment – but as experiments go, it is a remarkably grand one, and whether or not you believe in whisky terroir, or choose to believe or not, it is still exciting. 

For a more scientific, less nonsensical take on terroir: