A Suir thing

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The best interviews are the ones carried out over a period of time, across a series of encounters. A mutual understanding is achieved, a certain level of trust established –  a basic human connection made (the incredible R. Kelly piece in GQ recently is a good example). I had intended to try and interview Mark Reynier since I first heard he was after buying the site in Waterford – but time passed, and, after a few nationals gave him small bits and pieces of coverage (the exception being the excellent piece in the Sunday Times), and I felt there wouldn’t be much opportunity.

So I shelved my plans and instead just invited myself down to Waterford to see the distillery and have a nose around. I didn’t expect to meet him, not to mind spend a couple of hours chatting with him, and so it was on the way back I started to scribble down some notes and somehow ended up with five thousand words of overblown, pretentious waffle. I wondered what the hell to do with it, contemplating flogging it to one of the Sundays in a tighter form. But one of the points Mark made struck a chord with me – a lot of whisky writing, a lot of journalism generally, is bought and paid for by big firms. Everyone has a bias, an agenda, be it dedicated self interest or just paying the bills, and ultimately everyone compromises. So I thought, fuck compromise – I can write something for Average Joe Newspaper Reader, with lengthy explanations of malt tax, alembic stills, and grain spirit, or I can write something that assumes a certain amount of knowledge on the part of the reader,  in my own pretentious style and in my own self-indulgent way, with my choice of images and on my own blog. Granted, almost nobody will read it, but fuck it, at least it will be done my way. And so it was, and although it really is far too long, I was happy enough with it. It reminded me of why I loved blogs, and was also a timely reminder I was blogger first (on MySpace, no less) and a journalist much later.

Recently I’ve seen quite a few bloggers claiming to be journalists: If you ever worked in a newspaper, you would know that really being a journalist is not a whole lot of fun, nor something you would aspire to be. You will spend your career compromising, constantly seeing your work cut up and pulled apart over fears of litigation, business interests or simple personal grudges. At least bloggers get to speak in their own voice (albeit to a tiny audience) and have a certain amount of autonomy. Of course, they also suffer from a lack of accountability, but at least having worked in a newspaper I have a fair enough grasp on the difference between truth and fact. 

I digress. There are a few other posts around the web I’d like to point to if you’re interested in reading more (tightly edited) pieces about Waterford Distillery. First up is the post by David Havelin of Liquid Irish, which I tend not to even think of as a blog anymore. Read by industry and consumer alike, it is consistently excellent – insightful, balanced, thought provoking; really it is so much more than a blog. His piece on Waterford has some incredible detail on the plant site, and is a great read.   

There are also a couple of interviews with Mark Reynier you should read – I like this one in particular, as he tells the story of how he finalised the deal on Bruichladdich the day his son Ruari was born.  If you’re wondering why his son has such an Irish name, it’s possibly because Mark’s wife Maureen is from Sligo. Another factoid I discovered when I was with him was that his maternal grandmother’s family came from Cavan, which in turn might explain why he is a Catholic who was educated by Benedictine monks. No doubt the monks would be delighted to know their former pupil is distilling a few hundred years from Ireland’s oldest Catholic cathedral. All this info sorta threw my ‘mysterious stranger’ angle on him into a cocked hat, and I was tempted to rewrite the whole piece as ‘local lad Mark O’Reynier comes back to the old country’. But I stuck to my guns and hammered out a load of existential nonsense instead. Hooray for blogging.

The excellent Malt Review also interviewed Mark not so long ago, and that is well worth a read, mainly as it is considerably more tightly edited than my post. Malt Review is one of the better whisky sites, and is fantastically, brutally honest at times. There is a storm raging at the moment about bias on blogs, with brands being seen as having too much influence. But again, this is something that has been a problem in the media for years, but especially so now that most print titles are haemorrhaging money – consider the housing crisis here in Ireland. It was bizarre to see editor after editor of national titles turning up at the recent State inquiry into the banking crisis, all claiming that property sales had no influence on their editorial stance. The only thing you need to know in this regard is that the Irish Times – the paper of record, the benchmark of Irish journalism, the title by which all others in this country should be judged –  splashed out 50 million euro on a property sales site. If they were hooked on property supplement revenue, everyone else was already at a Rick James level of addiction, and no one wanted to call the cops to the party and have their dealer busted. 

Like I said, we all operate on a certain amount of dedicated self interest – if something makes your life better or even just a little easier, it can be very easy to blind eye to the ethics or the morality of it – be it flogging overpriced property to the working poor, shilling products on your blog, or pretending that lying to the public is really just ‘clever marketing’. Let’s all just hope that the Age Of The Influencer is coming to a close and blogs can get back to being what they were always meant to be – an angry jerk’s shortcut to getting fired.

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Although my trip to Waterford had many highlights – meeting Lisa and Mark, seeing the distillery, eating my first Blaa (above) – there were a couple of disappointments. Firstly was the fact that Henry Downes pub was not open. They have their own brand of whiskey which they claim to blend in the basement of the pub. I was keen to get in there and see this blending space, as frankly I wanted to call bullshit on it. Surely modern health and safety law would prohibit such odd carry on? However, one of the locals said it was highly likely the did actually do the blending in there, as ‘nobody would tell the Downes what to do’. That said, my source on that was no less credible than ‘the guy working in Tully’s pub’. He also told me that Waterford brewery was bought for seven million euro. Sher I could have bought that meself with my confirmation money.

Tully’s is nice, so here are some terrible photos: 

Second on my list of Pedantic Disappointments was that I never got to see the Bilberry goats. There is something so bizarre about a load of feral French goats living on a rock overlooking a distillery that I really had to see it for myself. Fun fact: The hilly area just beyond Midleton distillery’s warehouses is also called Bilberry, and it is where I was from, which led me to introduce myself at parties as ‘Bill from Bilberry’ when I was a kid. Thankfully I didn’t get invited to many parties.

However, I did get to take this photo:

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That’s my bottle of Dumbarton single malt, in front of one of the stills that made it. Dumbarton really was hideous, and is no less hideous now, so it’s great that Mark saved the stills from extinction, and finally found a use for them. And he really is fantastic company – he held court on so many subjects, and he gave me plenty of food for thought. I didn’t necessarily agree with all his points, and I don’t think he would want me to. But he was spot on about a lot of things, specifically a tightening of the regulations governing labels and sourced whiskey. There are so many firms now who are selling sourced whiskey and trying to create some grand illusion about its origins that the mind boggles. It’s fine for the geekier whiskey fan, who knows that they are all Cooley, but what about the novice who is trying to expand their tastes? How will they feel when they discover that all those different brands they were trying all came from the same distillery? Cooley make some great stuff, but Jesus there is too much of it floating around in various ridiculous forms – it is basically Count Olaf from A Series Of Unfortunate Events, randomly showing up all over the place with a fake beard, terrible accent and shit backstory.

Count Olaf disguises

Arr I’m Cap’n Sham, and I be westing by sextant to the land of marketing makebelieve.

A little bit of honesty would go a long way – where the whiskey came from, what was done to it to make it that colour, was it chill filtered; these things don’t really matter to the average consumer, so they won’t hurt sales – but it would mean a lot in terms of trust with the more devoted fans. It’s unlikely that this is going to happen, but with a new era of whiskey making here, newcomers are bringing fresh ideas – you can read whiskey bonder Louise McGuane’s fantastically vitriolic post about a similar subject here. It raises some important points about ethics – mainly that what is best for Irish whiskey producers might not necessarily be best for Irish whiskey, or its consumer. It’s great to hear a growing chorus of dissenting voices in the sector – individuals like Louise McGuane and Mark Reynier who are willing to shout ‘no pasaran’ – because accountability is never a bad thing. And that’s coming from someone who once almost got fired over a blog he had on MySpace.

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