In 1996, a documentary film named Microcosmos was released. Eschewing the norms of nature documentary making, the French team behind it didn’t focus on loveable mammals, noble sea creatures, or elegant avians – they filmed bugs. They captured all the highs and lows of invertebrate life – love, peace, and war. Using specialist cameras they captured the raging battles that go on under our feet, unbeknownst to us. I think of these tiny battles when I see people arguing online about terroir in whisky. Whiskey fandom is niche enough without disappearing into a micro-universe of debate. There are some things in this whiskey-soaked world we inhabit that are worth arguing about, and terroir ain’t one of them.
The debate over whether whisky is all about terroir or all about the wood is akin to the debate about nature versus nurture; are we who we are because of genetics, or is it shaped by who nurtures us? To its true believers, terroir is the DNA of a whisky – those initial flavour elements we can taste when it rolls off the still are as a result of the place where the barley was grown (amongst other factors in the distillation process, obviously). Terroir tells us that the gestation of the barley in the earth shapes how the whisky will taste; that is the time in the womb; it is nature.
Nurture is the rest – the distilling, the time spent in cask; the socialising and rounding of the spirit into a complete and mature entity. This is, of course, just my take on it – your mileage may vary and your opinion may well differ. That is ok. I don’t really care that much about it. Obviously, Mark Reynier cares rather a lot – after selling Bruichladdich on Islay to Remy Cointreau he bought an old Guinness brewery in Waterford, transformed it into a distillery, and then built a remarkable brand. I have written extensively about this distillery and its owner, but here is a recap.
From the outset, Waterford was all about the barley. All about the farmers, the field, the soil, the grain. They singled out farms, and fields within those farms, grew barley on them and then distilled field by field. They claim that different soil types and the respective microclimates that nurture them give barley a unique flavour. So far so good. But why not just make a loaf of bread out of the barley to see if this field differs from that field? Or just eat some kernels and see how they taste? That was too simple, and besides, this was about flavour survival; this was about those unique compounds being evident after the various brutalities of the distilling process; the crushing, mashing, brewing, boiling and condensing. How could any unique flavour survive that?
To back up their claims about terroir Waterford Distillery took part in a Teagasc-backed scientific study into the existence of terroir in whisky which found that it does exist (although the study was on new-make rather than mature whisky). While this was heralded by terroir’s true believers as a momentous occasion, I’m not entirely sure that there were many who outright denied that terroir in whisky existed. Most of the arguments I have encountered against the concept were based on the fact that terroir would be of minimal importance, especially when compared against key flavour-defining aspects of the distilling process such as fermentation times. And of course, casks have to be the ultimate kingmakers in dark spirits – the idea that the 90 days or so barley spends growing in soil leaves more impact than the five, ten, or 20 years that distilled spirit spends in a cask would, understandably, be something of a stretch for some within the industry. You can say that those who get sniffy about terroir have some industry-led agenda; you could just as easily say that of course Waterford’s research into terroir proved its existence. Cynicism is a healthy thing, in moderation. But I often think of this excellent point by Alistair:
Which was followed some months later by this tweet from Mark Reynier;
Reynier reminds me of Hazel Motes, the disillusioned antihero of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, travelling the land preaching to the masses of his Church Without God, trying to lift the scales from their eyes and teach them to live without faith. Motes learned the hard way that faith is inevitable, and we all fashion our own personal religions eventually. Everything about Waterford appears to be rejecting the norms of whisky – from the obsession with barley, to the hyper-modern branding, the medicinal-blue bottles, the coloured glass stoppers, even the rejection of the standard spelling of Irish whiskey. But just as Hazel Motes’s church without god was still a church, Waterford is still a distillery, and Reynier is still a very successful drinks entrepreneur, one who is still making good, old fashioned single malt whisky, just with a slightly different production process (or brand narrative, depending on your level of cynicism).
But there are many great things about Waterford’s new testament: It has written a new origin story for whisky – it no longer begins with the distiller, or the maltster, but with the farmer. It celebrates the individuals who grew the grain just as it celebrates the grain itself – terroir is about people, as much as place, and the hand that guides the plough and sows the seed is, to my mind, as important as which way the wind blows or the elevation of the soil. Farmers were a footnote in whisky for many years, now they are a core element of Waterford’s brand. Polarising as Reynier’s persona can be – and I’m not here to defend either terroir in whisky or its most ardent champion – what he has done to celebrate the labour of Irish farmers is remarkable.
He also gifted smaller non-distilling producers with a remarkable way to be part of what they produce; anyone who can grow barley can get it distilled under contract at Great Northern and claim it as theirs, without the vast expense of having to build a distillery. I’m old enough to remember when indie bottlers and random brands across Ireland tried to claim that their local water, used to cut their sourced whiskey before bottling, gave them authorship of the release. It was always a weak claim, but now they can show provenance and ownership through a bit of farming, a contract to distill, and terroir. If you have a field and a bit of barley, you can have your own whisky.
In their first year of releases, Waterford Distillery managed to put out 27 unique bottlings. Understandably, given the volume of bottlings, reception was mixed. Perhaps expectations were too high – perhaps all the sturm und drang didn’t help; perhaps people were happy to tear it down given Reynier’s jousting in the media, where they might have been kinder to another, more low-key operator. Reynier’s claims that he was going to make the most profound single malt ever created may have played well with his Jobsian acolytes, but for some it was a gauntlet being thrown down – it’s not hard to see some thinking, well, let’s see about that before they had even opened a bottle. Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion – and the zealots raving about the liquid are as valid a voice as those saying it was overpriced and too young.
But this is Reynier’s style – adversarial, quixotic, divisive. There is an excellent piece on horticulturist Claire Vokins’s blog about a tasting hosted by Reynier which gives you an idea of how polarising he can be. However, it is impossible to separate him from Waterford, frustrating as his detractors may find it. It stands apart, because he does.
There are some very positive reviews of single farm bottlings, and some less so. The negative ones raised the question – what if the terroir of a field produces poor flavours? What if its most pronounced note is decay, or sulphur, what if it’s just bland, and in no way profound? Who do we blame then – the farmer? The distillery? When the whisky is crap, who takes the hit? And if it is crap, why was it even released? Terroir doesn’t automatically mean good, or better. It means different, and given the reliance Irish whiskey has had on the output of only three distilleries over the last 30 years, difference is welcome. Bad whisky, however, won’t do anyone any favours.
Some reviews made the point that the whisky is young, but outside of the big three – Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley – almost all Irish whiskey is young. Even Dingle isn’t even ten yet. Also, if you wanted to celebrate terroir as a component of flavour, a younger whisky would be the way to showcase it. Reynier says that the next step in the Waterford project is tracking how terroir affects the spirit as it matures, but you would have to assume that as time goes on, terroir will take a backseat to discussions around their wood programme – I very much doubt they spent all that money on quality casks just so they could keep mum about it. So this is terroir’s time to shine (or not). Perhaps in future the terroir of the trees used to make the casks will be considered, or the terroir of the people making the whiskey. For now, it’s barley, and the Irish countryside.
I was sent two bottles for review – Hook Head 1.1 and Grattansbrook 1.1, the latter a UK exclusive, and it is there I will begin.
Terroir is a facet of the drive towards transparency. That is the T that matters here – there is a code on the back of every bottle and when you enter it on their website you get a barrage of information about the farm, the farmer, the field, the soil, the barley, the distillers’ names, the casks, the age. It is remarkable. But all that info does not make it taste better, so what of Grattansbrook – on the nose, mace, star anise, tea. On the palate, manuka honey, nutmeg, cola cubes. The finish lingers. It’s okay…ish. It wasn’t the first one I opened, but the first one in this review for the purpose of decency as the next bottle is, in my opinion, vastly superior.
Hook Head 1.1
Grattansbrook has a lot of dryness, Hook Head has earthiness. I will spare you my notes on Hook Head 1.1 but suffice to say the bottle is long gone, and I’m not the only one to have a fierce thirst for it – it won best Irish whiskey and best irish single malt at the San Francisco spirits awards last year. So if there is an entry point to Waterford, this is as good a place as any.
As we trundled to the end of year, the releases kept coming – limited, hyperlimited, and other. A slight scaling back on the 27 in 2020, last year only saw them put out 16. It can still be overwhelming just to keep track of the releases, and I would imagine that, if there are zealots out there trying to catch ‘em all, it is something of a pain in the ass. And while there are true believers who will do it, there are people I know who will not drink Waterford. The message on the website which proudly states that Waterford ‘is not for everyone’ before adding that this is for ‘the cognoscenti, the intrepid and the curious’. Perhaps implying those who do not like your whisky are dull of mind is not the best way to change their opinion. The indigo-eyed tricoteuse who adore Waterford and will fight to defend terroir may delight in this microcosmic battle, but I certainly don’t. I came to whiskey for community, not some endless argument about soil.
Biodynamics is the next experiment in the Waterford project, another concept adopted from viticulture. There does come a point in this where you have to stand back and consider all the elements of Waterford that were taken from wine production – terroir, biodynamics, even the rejection of the aesthetic norms of whisky packaging in favour of those blue bottles and hyper-modern design – and ask if this is a whisky that wants to be a wine; if it is praying for a miracle of transubstantiation to take it away from all these base brands with their addiction to orthodoxy. Is it such a shameful thing, for a whisky to look like a whisky? I still think Waterford is a fascinating brand and what they are doing is remarkable. I look forward to future releases, and seeing how the project develops over the years. But for the time being, I am renouncing my faith.