Spotlight on: Waterford

In December just gone (2021), I attended my first official tasting at Cut Your Wolf Loose. It’s hard to believe that CYWL is only in its first year.

The evening was hosted by Speciality Brands Whisk[e]y Ambassador, Nathan Shearer, and boy does he know his stuff. My scribbles here represent fragmented snapshots of the wealth of information Nathan imparted throughout the evening.

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TWENTY-SOMETHING YEARS AGO

When at Bruichladdich, Mark Reynier had asked Duncan McGillivray, where the best barley comes from. “Ireland”, he replied. After Bruichladdich was sold by its shareholders to Remy Cointreau in 2012, it was time for Mark Reynier’s next passion project purely on his terms.

Bruichladdich Distillery 2013

Serendipity had it that Diageo had just completed a multi-million-pound expansion of their plant in Waterford, as part of a plan to expand the Guinness market[s] in South Africa. The move was a flop for Diageo. Having acquired the site in 2004, it’s reported they [Diageo] spent £40 million on the plant before halting production in 2013 and selling the site a year later to Mark Reynier’s Renegade Spirits Company for a fraction of its worth.

Indeed, Irishtimes tells us: ‘the man behind the renaissance of the highly regarded Scottish whisky distillery, spent just €7.2 million to acquire a former Guinness brewery in Waterford that was previously valued at €40 million‘.

WATERFORD DISTILLERY

Once acquired, a further £2.4 million was spent converting the Waterford facility from a brewery to a distillery, a process that involved the installation of that old Inverleven still that sat outside on the lawn at Bruichladdich for a number of years [see pic above].

Our first dram of six is served.

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1] Waterford Grattansbrook 1.1 [2021] Ob. UK Exclusive Single Farm Origin 50% WB84.90[13] WF90 WLS85 WN84

Grattansbrook farm is located approximately 50 miles from the distillery.

  • N: A coppery savoury-sweet light oily all-grain [Jura/Balvenie/Balblair-esque] style of whisky with additional notes around nutty plastic-y banoffee-like banana [aka isoamyl acetate, also known as isopentyl acetate: an organic compound that is the ester formed from isoamyl alcohol and acetic acid and described as similar to both banana and pear].
  • T: Same again on this light savoury-sweet barley juice style accompanied by new wood which eases its way in slowly.
  • F: A delicious savoury creamy finish of finesse. You can tell the brewing process [and the barley itself] is at the heart of Waterford.
  • C: Aged 3.5-4 years old, I’m in admiration of this exacting naked style – not dissimilar to SMWS’s Chita G1.1 [WB] in that regard and on the quality-front also. Grattansbrook will remain a firm favourite throughout the flight.

Scores 88 points

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2] Waterford Lakefield 1.1 [2021] Ob. Single Farm Origin 50% WB84.20[89]

Terroir-wise, Lakefield farm enjoys more rocky soil than Grattansbrook.

  • N: This floral fruity sweeter nutty [Blair Athol-esque] number is a fun/easy reader. Furthermore, some barrel charring suggests a distant [Caol Ila-esque] phenolic quality.
  • T: Far less talkative than the nose, and in comparison to the Grattansbrook, this Lakefield is saltier and < spicy.
  • F: Remains fairly guarded to the last.
  • C: This one didn’t grab me as a single malt in its own right, but from a blender’s perspective, I can imagine this being a fabulous structural malt.

Scores 84 points

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3] Waterford Hook Head 1.1 3yo [2021] Ob. Single Farm Origin [30066 bts] 50% WB83.75[88]

Hook Head farm produces a “thin skinny” barley.

  • N: A characterful [Cornish seaweed] vegetal-like malt if also rather similar to the Grantansbrook in certain respects.
  • T: There’s a subtle quirkiness to this one coming out from salty maritime idiosyncrasies coupled with a winey lactic note. A tricky one to pin down.
  • F: Vanilla < cream in keeping with the Grattansbrook.
  • C: Characterful at first if becoming a bit same-y by the end, especially with the addition of water.

Scores 85 points

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Distillery practices & features at Waterford include:

  • Barley from each farm remains separated in the ‘Cathedral of Barley’ [see pic]. This ‘Cathedral’ is made up of 35-40 [reports differ] separate bays that each hold 75-100 tonnes of grain. Separation allows individual malting and fermentation specifications for each farm’s grain.
  • Mashing; ‘we convert starch into sugar in a Mash Conversion vessel prior to filtration sophisticated Meura Mash Filter, a series of pneumatic plates that separates wort from the draff by pressure. We call it the terroir extractor, and it is at this stage – prior to distillation – where our spirit gains more mouthfeel and polyphenols‘ – website.
  • Using standard Mauri yeast[ for now], fermentation is 120~130 hours as standard.
  • Despite the hi-tech nature of Waterford’s infrastructure, distillation is a manual process – small cut, large copper contact.
  • To date, barley from 105[+] individual farms has been distilled, with 28 of them going into Waterford’s Cuvee [coming up].

Barley Cathedral floor plan (from Twitter):

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The general cask program at Waterford is not dissimilar in feel to practices seen at Raasay [WLP]. In general, Waterford’s current maturation policy looks like this:

  • 50% US ex-bourbon
  • 20% Virgin US
  • 15% French Wine
  • 15% Fortified wine [port/sherry,…]

We’ve known the utilisation of wine casks in the whisky industry has been on the horizon for decades, so should it be of any surprise that folks such as Mark Reynier at Waterford or Alasdair Day at Raasay – both from wine backgrounds – should be whisky pioneers at this time, both deploying wine casks in their whisky-making with great effect.

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4] Waterford The Cuvee 1.1 04yo [2021] Ob. [40000 bts] 50% WB84.59[133] M-R11/10 WoW87 WN86

  • N: Coming across as a combo of the three previous malts – a convergence – we’ve another salty~seaweedy fruity dram with a slight lactic & sherry/wine pong [almost a funk].
  • T: Somewhat more rounded on the palate, we’ve a leathery greasy [Raasay=Ardnamurchan-like] mouthfeel. The wine and fortified wine elements occupy plenty of space on the palate – driving yet well managed,…
  • F: ,… though it’s not long before the return of that underlying cohesive creamy barley spirit base. An accomplished finish, given the tender age, the grape elements bringing an illusion of maturity beyond its years.
  • C: Comparitively, I miss the purity of the previous single barley presentations – so some things lost, some things gained. At its earliest stages, Cuvee 1.1 gives us an idea of where Waterford is headed. Whereas I regard this as a great starting point, the consensus amongst tonight’s crowd is certainly divided.

Scores 86 points

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Springbank aside, the film Water of Life [review to follow in due course] argues Mark Reynier & Jim McEwan kickstarted the local barley & bere barley trend at a time when these two mavericks were at the Bruichladdich helm. Further reading: SW

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5] Waterford Gaia 1.1. 2016/2020 Ob. Arcadian Series Organic [24000 bts] 50% WB83.76[210] WF90

This organic creation – Ireland’s first – and the biodynamic release [up next], are both a part of Waterford’s experimental outlook. Like at Bruichladdich, Reynier’s Waterford Distillery is “pushing the envelope out”. First of all, the fermentation time for this release is a staggering 181 hours – that’s over 7.5 days! Cask-wise, Gaia was matured in:

25% sherry, 19% red wine, and the rest – ex-bourbon or virgin US casks.

  • N: Sweeter, oilier,.. salty, not dissimilar to Bruichladdich’s 2011/2021 10yo Bere Barley [WF90] – with a bottle report to follow in due course.
  • T: Wow yes,… everything from the nose translates on the palate. There’s a “precision”, says Nathan.
  • F: Banana-ey~bourbon-y [little vanillin], cocoa chocolate.
  • C: Compared to the last four, I find this one the most spirit-faithful.

Scores 86 points

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We finish tonight’s tasting with the world’s first biodynamic whisky. Waterford beat Bruichladdich’s biodynamic release by just two months, though Bruichladdich’s is a 10yo [WB].

6] Waterford Luna 1.1 2018/2021 3yo Ob. Arcadian Series Biodynamic [21000 bts] 50% WB85.70[49]

Waterford’s Luna adds a further 9 hours to Gala’s already impressive fermentation time – 190 hours in total.

  • N: Such honey, and at this slender age?! Furthermore, it’s a little greasy,… and bourbon-y but in check.
  • T: More honey into cocoa, again, with similar pongy funk seen in the Cuvee. 
  • F: The oak’s influence itself I noted as ‘powerhouse’, the virgin wood bringing a neutral if spicy zing.
  • C: On the one hand, there’s less going on here than the organic barley release. On the other hand, here, we’ve a less obtrusive cask programme that could have masked the painstakingly-grown biodynamic barley spirit.

Scores 85 points

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With thanks to Nathan, Seb, and the CYWL team. The Foz rightly declares it “,.. a masterclass of masterclasses”. Tonight’s takeaway: Waterford = Bruichladdich and beyond = groundbreaking. Further reading:

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There’s more? There’s always more! Now at a generic bar en route home, I try:

  • The Sexton [Bushmills] [WB]: Still surprisingly ‘fine’ since I first enjoyed a dram on a double-decker bus in Edinburgh 2019.
  • Laphroaig 10yo: What has happened to this? So disappointing. Thankfully, Laphroaig’s 10yo Sherry Cask [WB] is firing [atm], albeit at a slightly higher price bracket.
  • Talisker 10yo: Easily the best of the three. With Lagavulin 16yo now premiumised, this is now the go-to malt when you find yourself out & about [limited].

This typical experience only goes to further highlight where Waterford is in comparison to the global standard fare. Waterford is making cracking whisky and their journey has only just begun.

thedramble: ‘When it comes to a triptych of transparency, traceability and terroir, the whisky industry has only just started to walk up a hill. Look beyond the horizon and you’ll see there’s a whole mountain range left to explore‘.

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END

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2 thoughts on “Spotlight on: Waterford

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