Though we’re yet to welcome Waterford Distillery’s first release, the Irish distillery has already garnered a reputation for its terroir-centric approach to whiskey-making. Here, CEO and founder Mark Reynier – the man who resurrected Islay’s Bruichladdich – reveals how he set about creating the first-ever biodynamic Irish whiskey…
How and where its raw ingredients are grown has been key to the Waterford philosophy since the distillery was founded back in 2014. The team sources barley from 61 different farms; harvesting, storing, malting, distilling and ageing them separately to capture their provenance.
Now, they’ve taken the notion one step further by distilling 75 tonnes of biodynamic barley – equivalent to around 25,000 litres of new-make or approximately 170 barrels – grown by local farmers John McDonnell from County Meath, and Alan Mooney and Trevor Harris from County Kildare.
Biodynamic agriculture was conceived in 1924 by Austrian philosopher Dr Rudolf Steiner, but its principles date back centuries. The movement really started taking off in the late eighties and nineties, particularly in the wine industry, piquing the interest of then-wine merchant Reynier.
“I spent half my career buying the wines of Burgundy and being in and out of all the cellars,” he explains. “I was intrigued to see the effect biodynamics had on these great terroirs and wines, and how they were taken to another level by following this principle.”
What exactly is biodynamic agriculture, then? “It’s the culmination of 10,000 years of farming know-how,” Reynier tells me. “The idea is that a farm is self-sufficient; everything you need to run it effectively is already there. If you go back 500 years, Fred Flintstone didn’t nip down to B&Q to get his agricultural insecticide – he had to make do with what he had.”
To do this, farmers cultivate a “living soil” free from chemicals and heavy machinery; instead relying on a combination of home-made fertilisers and naturally-occurring plant pesticides. These are called ‘preparations’, and they’re the main reason biodynamic agriculture gets a fair bit of stick.
One preparation requires the farmer to fill a cow horn with crushed powdered quartz, bury it in spring, dig it up in autumn, dissolve it in water with a specific stirring motion and then spray it on the plants. Another sees yarrow flowers encased in a stag’s bladder, which is hung up in a tree over summer, then buried over winter.
“These days that just sounds barking mad” Reynier admits, “but in the old days it wouldn’t have been. We called them wives tales or folklore, but it wasn’t to our forefathers, it was accepted knowledge.
“A lot of the preparations are preventative treatments rather than reactive. In the vineyards, they found that the vines became a lot more resilient and able to self-heal when attacked by moths and insects. It’s a bit like antibiotics today. People are given antibiotics all the time and therefore the ability to resist infections is reduced.”
Another important (and often equally ridiculed) aspect of biodynamic farming is the lunar planting calendar. Farmers plant, cultivate and harvest the crop based on both the phase of the moon and the zodiac constellation the moon is passing through.
“This might sound crazy – but in fact, sailors predict spring tides and neap tides because of the phases of the moon,” asserts Reynier. “Gardeners will know that if you prune a rose when the moon is rising the sap will flow, making it more likely to get an infection.”
There is method, it seems, in the madness. And it can’t all be for nothing – of the top 15 greatest winemakers in the world, two-thirds are following biodynamics. So, just how different is his biodynamic barley when compared to the regular stuff, and how does he expect the resulting whiskey to taste?
“Biodynamics, for a variety of reasons, ends up producing fruit which is more expressive, more interesting than conventional agriculture,” he notes. “When you compare the biodynamically grown barley with traditionally grown barley – looking at it, there’s a subtle difference; the grain [of the former] is slightly rounder, the shade of colour is slightly different. But when you smell them it’s chalk and cheese. [The biodynamically grown barley] is sweeter, richer, nuttier, maltier; it’s dramatically different. So I would expect the spirit to be more overtly flavoursome than usual.”
It’ll be some time yet before we see the results of this unusual experiment (which, FYI, will be repeated every year!) and for now the distillate will come of age in Waterford’s standard virgin American oak, French oak, and ex-Vins Doux Naturels (VDN) cask mix.
It’ll be super interesting to compare and contrast the resulting whiskey with Waterford’s core range, when that also arrives! We await the bottlings with bated breath.
What do you think about biodynamics in whiskey-making? Can we look forward to über-flavoursome expressions, or is it just expensive hocus pocus? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below…