The Boozy Backstory: Reinventing Irish Whiskey
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021/2022 print issue of Quench Magazine.
WHEN I VISITED IRELAND’S WATERFORD DISTILLERY THIS FALL, THE FIRST PERSON I MET WAS GRACE O’REILLY — THE HOUSE AGRONOMIST.
I’ve been to more than my fair share of distilleries, but this was a first for me; I’ve never even heard of a farmer on staff. Sure, you meet people who buy the grain and know a lot about agriculture, but O’Reilly, a fifth-generation farmer from County Meath (north of Dublin), isn’t just there to test the grains for proteins. Her role is to work with the (roughly) 100 independent farmers the distillery sources from and help them grow the best barley possible. And if their grain makes the cut, they’ll get a special reward — not only will they be paid a premium for the barley, the farmers’ names will go on the bottle.
This might sound like a gimmick. It’s not. At our first pub in Waterford, before we met O’Reilly, the bartender at Tully’s asked us which farm we wanted our whisky from. All her bottles were single-farm expressions. And, you know what? They do all taste distinct.
Which is the very point Mark Reynier, Waterford’s founder and owner, is trying to make with his “barley-forward” whisky. Waterford is firmly committed to moving this noble Irish grain back to the centre of the story, as well as change the conversation about whisky so that it includes words like “microclimate” and, of course, “terroir.”
That’s a real 180 degree turn. For years now, we’ve talked about casks, yeasts and, in some cases, peat, as the primary drivers of flavour in brown liquor. To many, grain is mainly seen as the fuel to be converted into alcohol.
“Well, that’s really the whole problem, isn’t it?” says O’Reilly, as we drive north of Waterford to visit a barley farm. “When Mark first came here and told us what he wanted to do, I thought he was nuts. Once we started to understand the project, though, it all made perfect sense.”
Reynier, who owned Scotland’s Bruichladdich distillery from 2000 to 2012, is often credited for the re-invention of Islay whisky (with the help of master distiller Jim McEwan, of course) with small-batch expressions, mini-mal use of peat and bold ideas, some of which surely grew out of his experience in the family trade as a wine merchant. When Bruichladdich was sold to Remy Cointreau in 2012 (despite Reynier’s objections) he left the company, taking two copper stills with him. Both stills now live in Waterford, where, for the past six years, Reynier has been working on making the world’s most “profound” single malt.
I’m not sure about profound, but I can say that this delicious whisky revived my flagging interest in a category that often feels like it’s lost its way, thanks in part to the emphasis and reliance on oak for so much of the flavour.
So, can Reynier reprise his success on Islay and re-invent the single malt? I think he might already have.
Feature Photo: Spring barley on Robert Milne’s farm in Co. Wexford, Ireland, bound for Waterford Distillery | Credit: supplied