Waterford Gristers – a tale of terroir

Here’s a guest piece from Lee ‘Connas’ Connor – the Distilled Consultant, who you may know from his work with The Whisky Lounge and Scotch Malt Whisky Society – looking into the wonders of Waterford Distillery.

There can be no doubt that when Mark Reynier announced his return to distilling at Waterford, the whisky community was braced for a veritable wave of provenance-centred propaganda. And who can blame him, given his huge success in the regeneration of Bruichladdich Distillery and their ongoing obsessive commitment (even post-Reynier) to transparency in their whisky making process? From a purely commercial point of view, he would be a fool to tweak his trademark outspoken and irreverent image at this point.

What we were perhaps not expecting was the gaping abyss between how Bruichladdich and Waterford make whisky. Yes, it is what is in the bottle that counts, but you would be hard pushed to find two more contrasting single malt distilleries.

Compare and contrast…

The picturesque Bruichladdich is on Islay, nestled on the road to Port Charlotte and overlooking Lochindaal. It has highly recognisable whitewashed walls and aquamarine livery. Their emphasis is on the traditional whisky-making craft born out of the well-established skills of their local community. It is arguably reflected by the famous “Bruichladdich Computer”: a chalkboard in the mill house which the staff update periodically by hand.

Waterford, however, is a vastly different proposition.

Situated at Gratton Quay to the west of Ireland’s oldest city, the first point worth noting is that Waterford is not pretty. Forget picture-perfect, postcard-worthy scenes framed on the walls of local guesthouses, this is a factory – a brutal and echoing hall of mirrors in stainless steel, designed with a clear and direct purpose: brewing beer, specifically, Guinness. 

Beer to whisky, the hard way

Diageo invested €40 million in the brewery in 2004 and as you would imagine, it is a state-of-the-art facility. A bastion of efficiency and precision fed by three springs, and capable of storing 350 tons of barley – enough for three and a half weeks of production. Up until 2013 the original staff were still learning how to the operate brand-new, tailor-made equipment. Then, out of the blue, Diageo decided to consolidate operations at an expanded facility in St. James’ Gate in Dublin, and mothballed the site.

A year later, after being shown around the facility by Ned Gahan and Paul McCusker – both brewery employees who have since returned to the distillery – Reynier’s “Renegade Spirits” purchased the site. It cost €7.2 million and they put aside a further budget of €2.4 million to convert it into a distillery.

Mark Reynier, CEO
Ned Gahan, head distiller
Paul McCusker, distillery manager

The distillery is based around the philosophy of producing a terroir-driven, fully traceable spirit. The team focus on flavour divergence produced by individual barley harvests of individual strains from individual farms.

So how does the distillery enable this? The short answer is ‘technology’.

Engage warp drive

Before even considering the equipment used to actually make the whisky, a huge part of the traceability element of what Waterford are looking to achieve is down to bespoke software that was developed in-house.

It incorporates a comprehensive track-and-trace facility (imagine that!) which reports on at least 8000 data points for each individual-harvest run of barley: weather stations report on ongoing conditions at each farm; and apparatus feeds back fermentation temperatures and times, and warehouse temperature conditions. On top of all that, they record a breakdown of the casks in the final vatting of finished whiskies before bottling. In short, Waterford logs a bewildering amount of information, all accounted for in acute detail.

The machinery is also on another level. It is all specially engineered with precision automation, capable of conversing with each other to adjust and improve production.

They are well-prepared for potential expansion with fifteen fermentation vessels – only four of which are currently used – and a glycol refrigeration plant to allow accurate temperature control. There is even a self-cleaning system which can run in tandem with production without interfering with whisky making at all.

Neil Conway, Waterford’s head of production gives some detail on the potential for output: “We actually have a column still in the background that we don’t even use. Guinness used it to strip their concentrate for export all over the world. If we wanted to become a 5-million-litre distillery, we would just need to refurbish with some new copper, and we’d be able to accommodate that without a problem.”

WATERford

Perhaps the most standout juxtaposition that Waterford offers in the way of production is their potentially unique pairing of a Meura Hydromill and mash filter.

In the Hydromill, temperature-controlled milling takes place underwater between two tungsten plates, producing an evenly hydrated mash solution. Once milled, it is transferred to a conversion vessel, eradicating the need to combine grist and brewing water separately.

The whole of the milling run is then passed through a mash filter. This separates and compresses the wort through a series of 42 pneumatic plates, automating the removal of spent grains altogether. It ‘squeezes out’ the wort as opposed to percolating multiple waters through one set of grains in a mash tun.

The result is greater efficiency and control over distillery processes, and greater likelihood that the desired clear wort will be achieved.

The Human Touch

It would be easy to be fooled into thinking that Waterford’s whisky is made by some kind of industrial robot incapable of free thought and empathy. However, the human element is essential.

Neil explains: “Each batch of malted barley that comes into us is from one farm and one harvest. [The grain] is different sizes, it grows in different terroir. We do adjust parameters: I have eight brews for each batch that comes in, so I have to focus on each of the brews to ensure we’re getting maximum flavour and yield from each subsequent spirit run.

“Our fermentation time is a minimum of 120 hours, which allows some malolactic fermentation. Farms can be different – we have organic, bio-dynamic and heritage barley varieties that react differently during fermentation so times will be adjusted accordingly.

“We have density and temperature meters on the stills, so we have full visibility on our software in the background. But each run is different depending on the farm we’re using. So, our distillers’ will nose and taste until they are familiar with all of our separate batches. And when they feel it’s right, they make the spirit cut.”

Everything old is new again

Almost paradoxically, the newest addition to Waterford was commissioned in 1968: the copper pot stills stills.

They stand where a pasteurisation unit was once housed. Originally, they were used at now-closed Inverleven distillery and arrived via Bruichladdich. Their output is controlled though a traditional spirit safe, with a manual lever control. Quite simply, this means that not a single drop is captured without the say-so of the individual distiller.

The resulting 40,000 litres of new make from each batch is then split into 50% first-fill American-oak casks, 20% Virgin American-oak casks, 15% premium French casks and 15% ‘Vin Doux Naturel’ casks for maturation.

tEIREoir

This is all well and good. But what does it mean? Has ‘Project Terroir’ been a success? What’s next?

The term ‘terroir’ stirs a plethora of passionate responses in the whisky industry. In recent history, maintaining a distillery style has been the priority. Producers take great effort to override any idiosyncratic characteristics held in the barley in order to deliver a trademark spirit. Where the barley was planted and how it was grown is of no concern, as long as it has the component requirements to fulfil its task.

Waterford are arguably applying significantly more energy (not to mention, money) than necessary, to expose individual points of difference in the raw materials within the whisky-making process. To the point where every bottle arrives with a code which gives access to a ridiculous amount of on-line information on the journey the barley has taken to get there, and which, they fully admit, few people will even look up. At the very least, they are supplying substantial evidence for their case.

Same old, same old…

After all, although they are using cutting edge equipment and state of the art analysis. What Neil and his team are doing is using the same processes to celebrate the fact that their raw materials are not consistent, and each batch has unique qualities which they are choosing to highlight. Therefore, why would you expect homogeneity in their product?

And thus far, homogenous it most certainly is not. At the time of writing, the web is atingle with discussions on counterpoints in flavour between the various releases, each of which consist of whisky that can be actively traced to one specific farm. Which brings another potential hurdle: if what is in the bottle is forever changing, why would the whisky buying public dedicate a portion of their hard-earned budget to the purchase of Waterford’s whisky?

Neil clarifies: “Terroir is to understand the raw material makes a difference to the flavour of the spirit that goes into the cask.

“When Ned puts a Single Farm bottling together, what we’re doing is introducing people to the individual characteristics of one farm. Our ultimate aim is to then produce a ‘cuvée’, which is layer upon layer of different complexities from multiple different farms, and cask types. In the words of Mark himself ‘A mind-f**k of a Whisky!'”

Read more about Waterford’s terroir research >

The future – Waterford and beyond

As awareness improves, perhaps we need to think about redefining how we view, assess, and, ultimately, discuss making whisky. If any lesson can be taken from the transparency employed at Waterford, it is that there is more than one way to use a distillery to make whisky. Clearly, it would be irresponsible to ignore the fact that – for better or worse – since the ‘dark times’ of the 1980s the whisky market has been built in no small way on a foundation of consistency in its output. However, there is growing consciousness around creativity and the ability to use the distillery as a colour palette for originality, as opposed to a paint-by-numbers kit. Surely, there can be room for both?

What is worth noting is that contained in all of the bluster and excitement around what they are doing at Waterford, a priceless and debatably even irreplaceable ingredient has been created at the distillery.

A story.

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