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Interview Mark Reynier, Waterford Distillery

Mark Reynier made a name for himself resurrecting Bruichladdich, now he’s working on something very special at Waterford Distillery in Ireland.

Never one to really care what others think, Reynier rebuilt Bruichladdich his own way, building upon the knowledge he attained during his tenure as a wine merchant. Never before did we see as many wine finished and matured whiskies, and never before did we see a distillery embrace the concept of terroir in the way Bruichladdich did.

After Bruichladdich was sold to Rémy Cointreau in 2012, Reynier could no longer see himself being part of the future of his company. Reynier voted against the take-over, but his vote alone wasn’t enough. So he left. “It’s too painful,” Reynier once said about returning to his former home. “I find it hard to forgive and forget.”

Some years later Reynier made his way back onto the whisky scene. In 2014 he bought a former Guinness Brewery in Waterford, a modest city in southeast Ireland. Within a year he converted the brewery into a distillery, and Waterford Distillery was born.

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His philosophy on terroir plays a much MUCH bigger role in his new Irish venture. At Waterford Distillery he wants to highlight different types of barley and the soil on which they’ve grown. To do this, they’ve contracted 46 local farmers to grow barley for them on 19 different types of soil.

The barley from every farm is distilled in batches, separate from the harvest of other farms. This essentially leads to Waterford producing over 40 types (the six organic farms are distilled together) of new make spirit. It is an impressive operation. I wrote about it in length a couple of days ago. You should read it.

Reynier was kind enough to sit down and talk in-depth about Waterford Distillery. Outspoken, inspired and with a chip on his shoulder. He is once again ready to take on the rest of the whisky world.

Barley is king at Waterford. But there’s more to making whisky. Why emphasize so much on barley?

“I mean, why not? Barley, yeast and water, what more is there to it? Waterford is 210 miles further south from Islay, which is why we’re here. It’s a milder climate and a much better place to grow barley. [Former Bruichladdich-manager] Duncan McGillivray once told me that the best barley he’s ever seen came from this part of Ireland. That always stayed in my mind.

At Islay you’ve a short growing season fraught with difficulties. Whereas here you’ve got a normal season. So it’s much easier to get good quality barley on a regular basis here. The downside is that no barley farmer has really bothered to try very hard. And with two customers, Pernod Ricard or Diageo, they had a ready market all the time. It’s only been about yield, not about quality.

Now where saying that it is about quality. We want the right protein levels in our barley, and that means you can’t just go around whacking down industrial volumes of nitrate, because that raises the protein levels, and that fucks up our mash filter and reduces the yields of alcohol. We need the farmers to actually farm.

It’s an educational thing. We entertain them here regularly. It’s about agronomy. Sure, you need to fertilize, but the main point is that if you do it at the right time, you need less volume. You use a lot less if you do it at the right time. Which gives you as a farmer a greater margin. But try explaining that to someone who has been told to increase volume to get more pay.”

What barley types do you distil at Waterford? That seems quite an important choice to me. However, on Waterford’s website only the soil types are specified, not the barley types.

“The varieties are less important at the moment than the terroir. That’s partly because of the varieties available here in Ireland, which goes back to the duopoly of Pernod Ricard and Diageo. And they’ve got very little to do with flavour.

By this time next year we will be able to definitively proof the relevance of terroir. Something which has been apocryphal until now. We know it’s established in the wine world. But as far as whisky is concerned, terroir is folklore. It doesn’t exist. We would beg to differ.

People say: barley is barley. But it isn’t! It’s a bloody grass! If you put roses against a wall where it is nice and sunny they’ll grow wonderfully and flower beautifully. Now put them on a north facing slope, and they won’t grow at all. Gardening is terroir. Farming is just big gardening.”

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You can taste the difference in the different new makes you produce. Isn’t that all the evidence you need?

“It is, to people like you and me. But the trouble is that the Diageo’s of this world like to poo-poo it with their power and might. You’ll see in magazines: ‘There’s no scientific evidence to prove that terroir matters or that barley varieties matter’. It drives me up the walls. Normally the spokesman is doctor Somebody, someone who looks authoritative and has worked in production for years. But actually you find out it’s some joker with a white coat in some distillery somewhere.

The problem is that the statement is true. There is no scientific evidence. No one has done it. Because all the research is based on how to make whisky quicker and cheaper. Not how to make it better. Partly because the technology hasn’t existed until now. A mass spectrometer has existed for some time, but the sensitivity is much greater than before.

You can link it with sensory perception. Not only do you have a map of the flavour compounds of the spirit in question, but you can also match it to the sensory perception by putting one map on top of the other. Therefore working out what gives you which flavours. This has not been done before. Cork University has the equipment, and together with an American scientist where going to prove once and for all that terroir matters.”

There’s a movement putting a lot of importance on yeast, believing that some of the great flavour from whisky past stems from the different yeast varieties used back then. What do you think about that?

“The yeast relevance in whisky compared to wine is different. You can have hundreds of yeast types. You can have your own indigenous yeast. Some would argue that some distilleries have their own indigenous yeast. While they may be adding yeast, they have wooden washbacks and there’s residual domiciled yeast. Possibly that’s true. But you use steam to clean, so I’m not so sure.

I think the barley is most important. And while yeast intrigues me, it is secondary. If you haven’t the right barley with the right nitrates and protein levels in the first place, it doesn’t matter what you do with yeast. It is not some miracle thing that’s going to change a shit wash to a good one.

At the moment we use two or three different varieties of distillers yeast. But this brewery has got a whole yeast propagation site. We’ve got a complete self-contained, air-locked section. So I fully expect to play with yeast, but that’s probably for further down the line. Its something I very much like to do.”

You’re basically distilling over 40 different types of new make. Will we see 40 different types of Waterford whisky being released in the future?

“We’ve been able to set things up right from the beginning with this unparalleled barley supply chain. Which is also linked to a wood policy the likes of which no distillery has ever seen. We’re spending 30 percent of our cost of production on wood. Each farm goes into the same wood profile, making each farm potentially a stand alone bottling of Waterford.

But the ultimate aim is to assemble them so you have layer upon layer of complexity. Because each one has its own mapping of flavour compounds, and many will be shared, but there will be extra ones too. With layering it like this, the aim is to make the most profound single malt whisky that’s ever seen. Of course one or two we’ll bottle on their own. To compare and contrast and see the differences. But that’s not our aim.”

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What were some of the big lessons learnt at Bruichladdich, that have come in handy at Waterford so far? Things you would definitely do again or mistakes that you don’t want to make a second time?

“The biggest one is to start out and doing it properly right from the beginning. At Bruichladdich it took me a long time to convince colleagues, shareholders, the board and my accountant that this is what I wanted to do. I had to drag everybody kicking and screaming into doing these things. Industry people would say: ‘That’s not what would we do and not how distilleries work’. And that’s why the whisky industry is so dull. Trying to get agreement to do these things at Bruichladdich was very difficult.

Here it’s unfettered, there’s no resistance. Instead of pushing a ball uphill, I’m running after the ball going down the other side. Using the proper wood from the beginning is part of that. At Bruichladdich we just used what everyone else used. Then after some time we realised this was a big mistake. Then we spend years decanting barrels into proper wood. That sort of mistake we have been able to avoid in doing it properly right from day one.”

Waterford is a high-tech distillery. What are the pros or cons compared to a traditional distillery like Bruichladdich that’s been around forever?

“That’s part of what you get when buying a state of the art brewery. There are things that you don’t need, things you wouldn’t bother putting in. But they’re here, so let’s use them. Not for what they’re intended, because a lot of it is for efficiency, speed and conformity. But you can still use the same toys. It just depends what you’re attitude is.

We could do it really quick and with a lot of speed. Or you can do it the other way around. Turn it all down and use it for different purposes. The mash filter was designed for efficiency, and what we use it for is to extract every last drop out of those different barley varieties. You could never get the same extraction from an old-fashioned mash tun. I know, because I’ve used one for the last 15 years.

In Bruichladdich you couldn’t automate a thing. You don’t want to. It’s very simple and well-designed in 1881 and it’s a testament that it can still be run the same way. At Waterford it’s the opposite. We’ve got every bell you can think of. To actually know in real-time what’s going on during fermentation, wow! We wouldn’t have a clue at Bruichladdich, but here you know exactly. If you’ve a fermentation that’s taking off too quickly, we can control it. It is incredibly refined and nuanced.

But you can’t love Waterford, not after something as wonderful as Bruichladdich. It’s too precise, so I don’t have an affiliation with it. But I respect it and admire it for what it can do. It’s a thoroughbred. We call it the facilitator.”

What impact do you hope Waterford will have on the whisky industry?

“We’re in Ireland and we have a fantastic facility here. But am I fussed about the Irish whiskey industry? Not really, it’s a bit of a Wild West. What is Irish whiskey? Is it triple distilled or does it have a mixed mash bill? It’s pretty vague. At Waterford we’re doing something which transcends the Irish category. I’m making a whisky. A single malt. I don’t really care what anybody else does. It’s a world whisky I suppose. And I aim to make the most profound whisky that’s ever been seen. Hopefully it will also be the best. But that may not be the same thing.”

Finally, you’ve secured 20 million euro from investors a few of months ago. Why was it necessary to find investors?

“It is phase two of our project and was anticipated. Our plan was to buy the brewery, convert it and lay down one year worth of stock. And then get financiers for years two through five. Phase three is where we bring it to market. What it hopefully shows people is that all that money is for distilling. It’s for barrels, barley, labour and wood. And that’s to do a million litres a year. It’s an expensive business. There are other things we could do. We have a column still. We have a brewery. But that’s a distraction. And I don’t want distraction, I just want to distil, distil, distil.”

Mark Reynier Waterford

Excerpts from this interview were included an article I wrote for the summer issue of Whisky Passion, a Dutch publication.

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