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Tag: Terroir in whisky

Waterford Cuvée and the future of whisky

Last week we met with Mark Reynier from Waterford and tried the latest release. Called Waterford Cuvée, it’s the ‘big whisky’ from this innovative distillery, and it might just change…

Last week we met with Mark Reynier from Waterford and tried the latest release. Called Waterford Cuvée, it’s the ‘big whisky’ from this innovative distillery, and it might just change how we look at premium whisky forever. 

Two of the most-read things on the blog this year were the post on changes to Japanese whisky regulations, and an article on research sponsored by Waterford in Ireland into terroir in whisky.

At first the two don’t seem to have that much in common but they both beg the same question: what makes a particular country’s whisky unique? If whisky can be made in Scotland but for years lauded as Japanese then what is Japanese whisky? Or indeed what is Scotch? 

The expanding world of whisky

The whisky world is rapidly expanding, thanks in a large part to itinerant Scots like the late Jim Swan. Around the world, there are Scotch-style whisky distilleries right down to the stills made by Forsyths of Rothes. They might well be using Scottish malt. At the moment the Chinese are buying Macallan by the boatload – but what happens when they develop their own luxury whisky brands as they surely will? See this article by Ian Buxton on the subject. 

Scotch has something of a problem among luxury products in that the raw materials are the same for the cheapest single malt to the most expensive. It’s all barley that could come from Scotland, England, Canada or Ukraine. Sure, there’s expensive sherry casks and all that time, skill and rarity. But compare with wine, Cognac or Cuban cigars which are rooted firmly in a specific place, and you’ll see that the legacy whisky countries in particular have a problem.

Grace O’Reilly - Waterford Distillery 1

Grace O’Reilly in the barley

The Waterford story

Which brings us neatly on to Waterford in Ireland which is just about to launch its Cuvée whisky, a blend of various sites. I met with Mark Reynier and agronomist Grace O’Reilly (don’t call her the barley queen, she warned) for lunch at Berry Bros & Rudd in London. An apt venue for a whisky inspired by wine.

You can read a full article on the distillery but first a brief recap. It was founded by Mark Reynier and some of the team behind the revived Bruichladdich with a mission to show that terroir in whisky exists as it does for wine and Cognac.

He was told that the “best barley in the world comes from Ireland,” so with his backers he acquired a state-of-the art former Guinness brewery in Waterford and equipped it with stills from-now closed Lowland Scotch distillery, Inverleven. Reynier described it as “the facilitator”. It’s a purely functional building, “I don’t love it like I do Bruichladdich,” he said.

Each batch of barley is malted, fermented, distilled and aged separately. The local farmers are paid extra for their grain. Waterford gives them the “confidence to grow barley so it’s not just a commodity,” Reynier said. Last year we finally got to try the fruits of all that work. Both the new makes we tried and the two Waterford Single Farm Origins do taste highly different. And though everything is not done exactly the same for each whisky regarding malting, fermentation times and oak, it is a pretty convincing demonstration of how different sites affect flavour. They are also superb whiskies, justifying their high prices, in my opinion for such young spirits, by the quality and sheer amount of work that goes into each of them. 


Meet the facilitator

Grand vin de Waterford

The point of the Cuvée is to do something different. Reynier quoted the winemaker at Krug who said that for the vintage wines, it’s God’s work, but for the multi-vintage Grand Cuvée, “I am God!” With the Cuvée, Reynier gets to play God, a role he clearly relishes.

The other inspiration is Bordeaux. To make the Cuvée, “we don’t just stick all the barley in at once”, O’Reilly explained. Instead just as Latour takes lots of vineyards and grape varieties, and blends them into a Grand Vin, distiller Ned Gahan blended 25 separate single farm origins, which remember, have been malted, fermented, distilled and aged separately, into the Cuvée. Reynier described it as “the essence of the Waterford project.”


Mark Reynier, he has opinions

It’s the barley, stupid

For Reynier, distillation and ageing are the least interesting parts of the process. “It’s the barley, stupid,” he said, and the fermentation, “that’s where the flavour comes from.” I mentioned to Reynier that a very well-known blender had told me that 80% of whisky’s flavour comes from casks. “That’s bullshit”. Reynier went on to tell me that this very blender’s famous Highland malt got its rich flavour from gallons of molasses. He was also bracingly frank about the classic job of Scotch whisky blender: “they’re all finished” he said, mentioning some of the biggest names in the industry. 

Of course, wood is still important. Waterford uses a mixture of first-fill bourbon, new American oak, first-fill French wine and fortified wine casks. They play a supporting role to the barley, however, the team are not looking to get as much cask flavour as possible into the young spirit. In the small dining room at Berry Bros, the air positively hummed with the smell of barley. There’s fruit and flowers and spice and stuff – full tasting note below – but what stands out is the sheer cereal flavour, and the length and texture in the mouth. It’s bottled at 50% ABV with no chill-filtering or additions. The complexity is astonishing for such a young, around four years old, whisky. It’s exciting to think what subsequent releases will be like.

Not everyone is convinced, however. Some, such as Andrew Jefford, have expressed their scepticism about whether whisky can have terroir in the same way as wine. But whether you accept all of Reynier’s claims, there’s no doubt that Waterford is creating a new model for premium whisky, or rather, reviving an old one. It’s not based on sherry casks, or esoteric stills shapes, or lyne arms, or the time Captain so-and-so founded an illegal distillery in 1797. It’s based on high quality produce from a specific place. That’s something that can’t be imitated. 

Waterford Cuvée will be landing at Master of Malt soon, RRP £70. See the range Single Farm Origin whiskies here

Waterford Cuvee

Waterford Cuvée tasting note

Nose: Barley all the way, strong, creamy cereal note. It’s malty with floral honey, gingerbread and fresh apple. Just deliciously fresh. 

Palate: Super creamy. It’s all about feeling that texture in the mouth. Then there’s cloves, cinnamon and custard, with peach and apple. Beautifully balanced.

Finish: It’s that cereal note going on and on and on. 

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Terroir in whisky exists, say scientists

The results of a peer-reviewed paper into terroir in whisky funded by Waterford in Ireland have just been announced. It seems that where barley is grown does indeed have a…

The results of a peer-reviewed paper into terroir in whisky funded by Waterford in Ireland have just been announced. It seems that where barley is grown does indeed have a noticeable effect on the chemical composition and taste of the resulting spirit. Here’s the full story:

It’s one of the most contested questions in whisky, does where the barley is grown have a noticeable effect on the finished product? Many in the Scotch whisky business have said no but Mark Reynier formerly at Bruichladdich on Islay and now Waterford in Ireland has always insisted it does. The first bottlings from Waterford we tried last year seemed to bear (or should that be bere this out?) this out, now a study published in Foods journal carried out by Oregon State University adds scientific weight to Reynier’s argument. 

Research funded by the Waterford Distillery

The research, which was funded by the Waterford Distillery, compared two barley varieties, Olympus and Laureate, grown on two farms in 2017 and 2018: Athy, Co. Kildare and Bunclody, Co. Wexford. 

Waterford Terroir in whisky infographic

There’s no need to read the whole article with this handy infographic

Each sample of barley was malted and distilled in a laboratory to produce 32 different whisky distillate samples. These were then analysed using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry–olfactometry (GC-MS-O) as well as tasted by a team of sensory experts.

Dr Dustin Herb, lead researcher and post-doctoral research at Oregon State University, explained: “This interdisciplinary study investigated the basis of terroir by examining the genetic, physiological, and metabolic mechanisms of barley contributing to whisky flavour. Using standardised malting and distillation protocols, we preserved distinct flavours associated with the testing environments and observed year-to-year variations, indicating that terroir is a significant contributor to whisky flavour.”

Another one of the international team involved, Professor Kieran Kilcawley, principal research officer at Teagasc (part of the Irish department of agriculture) added: “We utilised gas chromatography olfactometry which enabled us to discern the most important volatile aroma compounds that impacted sensory perception of the new make spirit. This research not only highlights the importance of terroir, but also enhances our knowledge of key aroma compounds in whisky.”

Noticeable differences in the new make spirit

The Athy farm’s terroir consists of limestone soil with high levels of calcium, magnesium and molybdenum, and a warmer and drier microclimate. According to the press release the new make “was characterised by toasted almond notes, and a malty, biscuity, oily finish.”

Bunclody farm, in contrast, has shale and slate bedrock containing high levels of iron, copper, and manganese with more volatile weather from its coastal position. The new make was reported to be “lighter and floral, with a flavour of fresh fruitiness.”

The tests discovered over 42 different flavour compounds, half of which were directly influenced by where the barley was grown.

When we asked about how much flavour variation may have come from different barley strains, we received the following reply from Waterford: “There was some flavour variance due to variety but the effect of environment was greater. We surmised that the low variance in variety maybe due to the fact that the varieties chosen share a similar genetic heritage. Many modern barley varieties are grown for yield and disease resistance rather than flavour. This is why Waterford’s starting to look at older barley varieties as potentially they may be more flavoursome.”


The night is dark and full of terroirs

Mark Reynier (above), founder and CEO of Waterford, was bullish about the results: “Barley is what makes single malt whisky the most flavoursome spirit in the world. This study proves that barley’s flavours are influenced by where it is grown, meaning – like wine and Cognac – whisky’s taste is terroir-driven. Critics claimed any terroir effect would be destroyed by the whisky-making process, saying there is no scientific evidence to prove that terroir even exists. Well, there is now.”

It certainly looks promising for Reynier but it’s early days for the project. The first stage of the research only looked at new make spirit. The second stage will look at what differences survive the maturation process and is due to be published in 2022. The debate isn’t over yet.

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