The glorious now

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Craft used to mean strength. The original word in German and Scandinavian languages meant power, or might, but it was in Old English that the meaning was expanded to include dexterity or a skill in art or science. Modern use – and abuse – of the term by food marketing firms has led to it becoming almost completely without meaning, but it still resonates. It suggests a more human product, as though somehow machines make soulless goods, and only the touch of a human hand can somehow magically imbue a product with a greater flavour, personality or depth of character.

All over the world, whiskey producers are angling to leverage the word craft to their advantage. Somehow the romance of small firms, individual brands, and the idea of the distilling auteur have embedded in the minds of consumers. But what does craft actually mean? That was the question posed by Alexandre Ricard in late 2014. The CEO of Pernod Ricard said he was struggling with the term, and questioning what defined a craft spirit – was it a question of scale, or of skill? The firm’s more recent explorations of the term included buying Smooth Ambler, thereby buying into two categories they were underexposed in – ‘craft’ spirits and bourbon. But even as he asked the question, Ricard already had plans to explore craft on his firm’s own terms, and on its own ground.

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The micro distillery in Midleton opened with much fanfare in late 2015 just as the sales of Jameson really hit their stride, charging past the five million case mark. The micro distillery was a departure for Midleton, bringing operations back to the site of the old distillery for the first time in four decades. It also eschewed automation and digital displays in favour of levers and dials. Since opening, it has served a dual purpose; as a showpiece for the tours of the distillery, and also as an incubation space for experimentation.

The sheer scale of the main plant is breathtaking, but not especially romantic. Its vast size also means that experimentation is a challenge, as any new methods or ingredients would see the company forced to commit to working with large quantities. Great if you have a success, not so much if you create a dud. So the microdistillery has become a breeding ground for experimentation, a fact celebrated recently under the umbrella of the Methods & Madness range. As part of that range’s launch, a select group of whiskey bloggers, journalists, influencers and one clueless local (me) were invited to the Irish Whiskey Academy for a tasting of some of their experiments with Master Distiller Brian Nation.

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Like everything in life worth doing, creating new distillates in the microdistillery wasn’t the easiest task, given that the wash is still being made in the main plant, a fact they hope to rectify by building a brewhouse within the microdistillery building: “We’re hopeful – we’re applying in the next year for some form of brewing and it’s a little bit up in the air at the moment whether we try to put a brewing facility up above and send the wash down into the microdistillery, or whether we install a full brewhouse down into the micro,” Nation explains.

“Preferentially we would like to see the brewhouse down there but what it does mean is that you have to bring a lot of grain handling down to the building and that brings its own issues around ATEX and dust zones. We have a building alongside the micro that we need to see if we can house all of that, but that would be the ideal for us.

“Because then you have the whole place compact in one area, you can play around with your cereals – we spoke a little while ago about playing around with different yeast types and you really have the opportunity to explore what is possible from the micro.”

But main plant’s brewhouse is not micro – it is macro.

“That is part of the problem. So you are taking a brew through a mash filter and putting just one or two into a fermenter, but then you have to make sure that you get the wort up above the cooling coils of the fermenter, because if you don’t then you actually kill it all off, so it is actually quite difficult at the moment.

“What we’re doing is to try and use as much of the time available to us without having the brewing capabilities, so hopefully by the end of next year we should have something.

“When we had opportunities in the main plant we tried different cereals, and they are the next whiskeys that we are going to taste. The first thing we’re going to taste is what we were making when we were in the microdistillery this morning, which is a barley and malt mash – about 60% barley and 40% malt.

“If you were to compare it to the pot still distillate that we produce up in the main plant, it has a lot of those characteristics, but for us it tends to have a little bit more character in it, it has a bit more spice and more fruitiness and for me I tend to get a little bit of clove and liquorice coming through it as well.  This is at 40%; obviously we run the pot stills down there at 84.4% but we watered it down as we didn’t want to overwhelm you.

“For a new make spirit – and this is coming back to the triple distillation process but also coming back to the use of unmalted barley – you have creaminess on the mouthfeel as well, and I feel it’s good to showcase to people that you get that creaminess in the new spirit as well, it’s not a really harsh whiskey to take, even thought it’s a new distillate.”

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Next up was the rye. Typically associated with the northeastern United States, rye whiskey is undergoing a global resurgence after almost completely disappearing during and after Prohibition. A typical rye whiskey will be at least 51% rye, with malted barley and corn. Midleton’s take is slightly different: “So this is a mash bill of rye and malted barley so we effectively replaced the barley with rye and we put it through our batch brewing process above, fermented it and brought it down here where it was distilled.

“It’s typically about 60/40 (rye/malt). What we found  from the distillate is that on the nose it seems a harder note coming through it, a little less creamy. You know sometimes the way sometimes when you taste something it brings back a memory rather than a scientific taste? For me this reminds me of some boiled sweets that you used to get – the rhubarb and custard ones. But you can see – this has gone through the same process and it actually is quite different (from the pot still spirit) in taste and flavour, there’s still the spiciness there as well, and for me you tend to get that malty characteristic coming through as well.”

Midleton are obviously keen on this spicy new distillate, as they have committed to another aspect of the craft movement – the idea of grain to glass traceability.

“We’re quite excited about the rye. We have sown a hundred and 60 acres of rye in Enniscorthy – two different types of rye, and that should be harvested in September of this year, and the plan is to use that for distillation. We’re quite excited about that – because we saw how good this rye turned out. And were actually looking at doing this on our grain side, our column side.”

As for what a rye spirit from a column still would go into: “It’s going to be something new – we have a few ideas but we’re not going to divulge that at the moment; but effectively what we’re going to do, or at least what we are aiming for, is that instead of going for the 60/40 split it would be 100% rye.”

While they haven’t used a malted rye yet, they may in the future depending on the yields from the harvest in the autumn. Part of the narrative of the foundation of the microdistillery was the discovery of a lost recipe book belonging to John Jameson II.  So did Jameson The Second have any rye recipes from 100 years ago?

“There  are some John Jameson recipes that show an inclusion of rye in it so that’s one of the reasons that we actually started looking at rye, but now we are looking at different ways of doing a full rye just to see what it’s like.”

As for the taste of the rye distillate, it differs slightly from its pot still mixed mash cousin: “What I like about what we are producing here is that even on the taste – because of the triple distillation and the smoothness of the triple distillation they are quite palatable even as a distillate on their own. What we have here is straight off the stills, but what we have done with some of it is put it straight into casks – we kept very little of the distillate, the last of the distillate is effectively gone today what we have tried to do as well is to see how well they are going to mature – we are laying out stocks in normal barrels but we are also trying to put them into smaller barrels because you tend to get a faster maturation time there and it gives you a better feel for how maturation is going to progress on a bigger scale as well so we are quite happy with that at the moment.

“The other side of it as well is that when we – and again this is a learning process for us – when you decide to take something like rye into your plant and you try to mill it using equipment for barley, if you have a hammer mill, it’s amazing the impact it has on your capacity and the speed at which you can mill material through and that was a big learning curve for us because you assume a hammer mill will do what it needs to for any grain but depending on the type of grain, depending on the density of the grain, depending on the size of the grain, it’s going to have an impact, so we are seeing that as we go along as well.”

But if the rye was a challenge to distill, the next sample was the fruits of some very intensive labours. Oats may make an incredibly healthy breakfast cereal, having been recently proved to aid gut and heart health, but they did little good to Brian Nation’s health as he struggled to distill them.

Historically oats would have been used in brewing in the Middle Ages, but very few distillers use them to make whiskey, save Silver Western Oat whiskey from High West – another craft distillery that was on Pernod’s shopping list in the run up to the Smooth Ambler acquisition, before High West ultimately succumbed to Constellation Brands.

As Nation discovered, there is a reason few people distill with oats.

“What we found with the oats is that they are a nightmare to process through the plant because it has such an amount of husk on it and it is quite a light grain, it was unbelievable what we went through, when you have gristbins  that are filling up with half – say we took six tonnes into a gristbin of barley, and the gristbin was full, three tonnes of oats would fill the same space, and they were choking the mills. We thought this would be easy – it’s simple, it is such an easy grain to deal with – and then we tried to process and brew and it was quite difficult. Again, another learning curve.

“I would probably say that we are fairly unique in this (the use of oats) at the moment. Normally what you would have found is that oats would have been put into a mash bill at a very small percentage for a lauter tun or a mash tun because what it did was it aided filtration.

“It didn’t really add anything to the flavour at the time but it was more of an aid for ensuring that your filter beds had enough of a grist of oats in it to allow the drainage to come though, whereas we are using it now at a much higher percentage to see what the impact on the flavor is. We were pleasantly surprised with it.

“This is a mash bill of malted barley and oats, again replacing the barley with the oats so again it’s a 60/40. What we felt with the flavour from this is that it tends to come across a little bit lighter but you do tend to have this oatmeal, cereal-bar notes coming through. Still has creaminess – not the same level of fruit as the rye or pot still, but still a quite interesting distillate. A dryer finish, and that cereal note following through but again you can see the difference that the cereal has made on the overall distillate side.”

Of course, the three distillates were just a sample of what has been taking place in the microdistillery: “At this stage I think we have 11 types of distillate that we have produced. Not all of them fantastic, but we are seeing how they mature because sometimes you might produce a distillate that that on its own may be too heavy or whatever, but when you put it into a barrel and mature it a little and see what the impact is there; it might actually combine very well. That’s what we have done with anything we have produced at the moment.”

And while they have used traditional-size casks, Nation explains how they also use micro-barrels for their micro distillate.

“Three to five-litre barrels. We get them specially made. It sounds small, but you have to remember the volume of distillate that we are producing down here compared to up there (in the main plant). The maximum output for this plant is 50,000LA on a five day operation a year, obviously if you went on a 24 hour period you would double that or maybe get it to 120,000LA. For us to be able to put away some of it in normal barrels and then use the three or five litre barrels to see how it gets on.”

Along with planning to create a brewhouse at the site of the microdistilery, they are also considering a maturation space in the same historic buildings, meaning that you have the full cycle of whiskey making in one historic place. As for the main distillery, they just took delivery of another three massive pot stills from Forsyths. Nation talks about the stills and how they were so large they had to be shaped by hand, as the machines could not accommodate their extraordinary size. He talks about being in Rothes and seeing one coppersmith inside the still and another outside, hammering every spot on the surface of the stills. “That is skill; that is craft,” he says.

He is right: Craft isn’t about size, but about skill. The craft of Midleton Distillery goes back to the traditional meaning of the word – strength in art, science and technology. The chronophobia of the whiskey scene – boosted by over-eager marketing departments – has led to a situation where a stunning feat of modern engineering like Midleton is treated like a mild embarrassment. It’s an attitude that brings to mind the quote from Paul Valéry’s Pièces sur L’Art at the start of Walter Benjamin’s Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction:

“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”

Valéry wrote those words in 1931, but they might as well have been written today, as they express the same, timeless fear – that scientific advancement means the death of the soul. The team in Midleton have shown that it is their technological might that enables them to experiment and find new ways to practice an age-old skill. As the Jameson juggernaut rolls on, it will be in the trials and errors of the microdistillery that some of the most interesting work takes place. As noted Jameson lover Samuel Beckett wrote: No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

 

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Midleton Distillery Master Of Science Dave Quinn in the lab. 

Science is something of a dirty word in the whiskey business. Consider the life and work of Aeneas Coffey. After risking life and limb as a gauger, he applied all he knew about distilling (and a lot of what Scots inventor Robert Stein knew) to a new type of still. It was cleaner and more efficient, and was rejected wholesale by the distillers here. The Scots, however, were more receptive to his more efficient and cost-effective invention, and the rest is history.

In Ireland, Coffey’s still was seen as an affront to whiskey, making silent spirit that had no tongue to speak from whence it came – or, to put it another way, it was so pure that you supposedly had no idea what was in it.

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An ad for a Cork distillery rejecting column stills and all their works.

To this day, the spirit produced by the Coffey still is seen by whiskey drinkers as the child of a lesser god, rather than the result of a brilliant invention. Of course, its purity does give it a lighter flavour profile in comparison to single malt or the spicy mixed mash of pot still whiskey, but it’s still an example of how the scientific advancement of distilling is not always welcome.

Modern ‘advancements’ haven’t helped the average whiskey drinker change their quasi-Luddite minds – accelerated aging techniques, which range from spirit mixed with wood pellets, to ultrasound used on barrels, to the oldschool sherry hack of paxarette, are really just ways of cheating time. And time, as any human being will tell you, cannot be cheated.

But what is it that makes a whiskey great, beyond any subjective preferences, beyond any labels or marketing? What is the secret to a great whiskey? 

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Dave Quinn in the Irish Whiskey Academy during the Method & Madness press trip to Midleton.

If you wanted to ask someone, Dave Quinn is a good person to start with. He was part of that first generation of distillers who focussed on the idea of whiskey as a molecular event that needed to be explored – people who saw distilling as a science as much as an art.

From Longford, he went to college in Galway where he studied biochemistry and then biotechnology. Moving to Cork he started working with Irish Distillers in the 1980s, before transferring to Bushmills – then owned by IDL – in 1996, before transferring back to Midleton in 2002, where he is now their Master Of Science. But what exactly is the science of whiskey?

“Science is just a way of saying we are trying to find a better way of understanding what’s happening right down at the molecular level – understanding the link between what we describe as flavour and taste, and what are the congeners, what are the flavour compounds that actually contribute to that, to what you perceive as taste, flavour, aroma, and we have a certain level of understanding of that but not a complete one by any manner or means,” he says.

Of course, making whiskey isn’t a one step affair – and parts of the process are easier to understand than others, particularly those at the front end.

“It’s easier to understand the biochemistry of brewing and yeast fermentation, what happens to the yeast, the compounds it produces. Where things start to get a bit more tricky is when we get into wood maturation. We have an understanding of some of the wood compounds that contribute but there is a lot of other wood compounds that we don’t fully understand or know about.”

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Dave Quinn and Dagmara Dabrowska in a promo image for the Method & Madness range. 

But long before the spirit comes into contact with wood, Quinn and his colleague Dr Dagmara Dabrowska have a way of studying distilling. Squirrelled away within the Midleton campus is a pilot plant – effectively a fully functioning scale model of the distillery, in the style of Derek Zoolander’s school for ants. Initially created as part of their proposed energy saving programme, it began life as a 1/2000th version of the grain columns, and it is here that much of their work takes place.

“We have a pilot plant up there, where we have small pot stills and a column still so we can work on them there without even coming down here to the microdistillery. The pilot plant is very much more … automated isn’t the right word, but with more places where we can take samples and monitor a lot of the variables like temperature and pressure. With the energy saving programme we did a lot of that work in the pilot plant.”

The energy saving was one of the most impressive feats of an already impressive operation in Midleton. The pilot plant was commissioned to conduct R&D into the proposals, which saw them shave 20% off their energy use. Dr Dabrowska is credited with much of the success of that project. As Head of Analytical and Technical Development, she helped find new ways to transfer energy between the columns – a piece of equipment that, Aeneas Coffey would be delighted to know, produces more spirit than any other part of Midleton distillery. Their colossal grain output was finally celebrated with the recent release of both the 31-year-old and 11-year-old single grain bottlings, the distillery’s first under their own name (the Irish Whiskey Society released a Midleton grain bottling two years ago).

Launched under the Method & Madness incubator brand – a space for IDL to experiment with their output – the grain whiskeys were a striking departure from the heritage pot-still brands like Redbreast and Yellow Spot to a more modern aesthetic and an embracing of science. But whiskey is all science, despite what the marketing department might tell you. The modern distillery tries to site itself in a romantic pastoral dreamscape, where the distiller hand operates all aspects and divines the perfect cut using only his senses. The truth is rather different. Modern distilleries have more in common with pharma plants than the sort of thatched-cottage scenes on their labels. Distillers are – and always have been – scientists. But it is in the collision between the quantifiable perfection of science and the beautiful chaos of human nature that some of the most interesting interactions take place, as Quinn points out.

“For example, somebody is doing a sensory evaluation trying to use normal everyday words to describe the flavour that they are seeing or feeling, to try and take that –  say somebody saying I get a nice hint of floral note, a bit of rose petal and a bit of leather, and cigar tobacco in the background – there is no way that you could say well that is due to ABCD or E, as different people will have different terminology and different language to describe what they perceive as flavour.

“So one of the things we do in our sensory science lab is to try and standardise the language a little bit so that if somebody does say leather or cereal notes or whatever, we try and ensure that everyone uses the same language to describe that particular attribute in the whiskey. And then we might try and see if we can determine what is causing or what is contributing to that.”

But while the pilot plant and sensory science lab may be akin to the Large Hadron Collider, there is no one illusive God Particle that can create a particular flavour.

“Invariably it is not just a single congener – it could be the effect of multiple congeners coming together to give you a single sensory effect. You have some compounds that on their own … – you find a single compound and put it into neutral alcohol and increase its concentration so you get to a point where you could actually perceive it as an aroma , and then if you go below that minimum level and you don’t get it then that is deemed the flavour threshold – in other words, you have some compounds that have very high flavour threshold, in other words you need a lot of them for you to perceive it.

“But then some are very low flavour thresholds, levels that you can barely measure, but you can still pick it up on the nose. And it is those compounds that are the key ones in terms of bridging that gap between identifying the sensory act of compounds and identifying them and relating them to a particular character.

“What can happen is that you can get small individual compounds that might be below the flavour threshold; in other words, theoretically you should not be able to pick them up. But there’s a few of them that are sometimes present together that can almost act synergistically so that individually you wouldn’t be able to detect them but when they are combined together they give you a flavour and perception. And then you are getting into an area that can be very difficult to fully explore.”

That ‘area’ is us. Our perceptions are based on a combination of nature – the senses we are born with – and nurture – the tastes we develop as we grow, which are impacted on by the culture and environment around us.

“Different people will have different preferences, different likes, even different sensitivities to flavors so there will  be some elements of flavour that some people will pick up readily and other people cannot perceive them at all.”

Quinn’s work with Irish Distillers is less about stripping the soul from whiskey than it is about understanding how to make the best whiskey possible. It may seem like a eugenics programme, where error and, thus, personality, are eliminated under the jackbooted march of lab technicians in white coats, ruthlessly striving for a dystopian purity. In reality, it is what science always aims to be – about doing better.

“We are trying to understand distilling at a molecular level. The key is – the more you can understand, the more you can make informed decisions about what influences the taste or the character of whiskey. But it is also about what aspects don’t affect it. If you don’t have some level of understanding then you can’t really go and do the same distillation with confidence. You can only do this if you have a good understanding of the technical, science element of what you’re doing, because if you’re just relying on old wives tales and superstitions about not changing anything in the distillery, then you will never be able to develop something unique and interesting.”

Quinn knows a thing or two about doing unique things, given that, along with Peter Morehead, he was one of the chief drivers of the runaway success that is Jameson Caskmates, inspired by a spirit of innovation, experimentation and adventure.

But while the Method & Madness brand has the space for more mad-scientist style experimentation with wood and distillate styles, in both the main distillery and micro distillery, part of Quinn’s work is to ensure that as the Irish whiskey category explodes worldwide, a consistent standard is maintained, not just of quality but also of flavour profile. Distillers used to be full of superstition, where any change to the process – even the cleaning of cobwebs in the stillhouse – was deemed to be bad luck in case it affected the spirit, a culture of what a scientist might refer to as ‘poppycock’.

“You can keep doing the same thing over and over again but if you have a better understanding of what the fundamentals are then you have a much better opportunity of directing your research and your experiments in a path you know will change the spirits, and you can say ‘let’s try it’ and know more or less what the outcome is going to be. You go from a chancing-your-arm, needle-in-a-haystack approach to having a far more focussed approach.”

The distillery in Midleton is one of the most impressive, modern facilities in the world, and it has shown that you can be the biggest and also be the best. While the public facing side may be one of heritage and tradition, scientists like Dave Quinn, Dagmara Dabrowska and the rest of the Masters and their apprentices have shown that they are getting ever closer to unlocking the secrets of a perfect dram and entering a brave new world of truly great whiskeys.

  • Footnote: There is an excellent interview with Master Distiller Brian Nation in the Engineering Journal, which you can read here. It goes into some depth on the energy saving programme. There is also a recent presentation by Dr Dabrowska which you can read here, which goes into her work on the column stills. 

L’Étranger

My Movie 31

As a species, we have become completely estranged from what we consume. Over the last few centuries we have transitioned from living on locally grown, native foods to barely being able to tell what we are eating, where it came from and what has been done to it. The quote that inspired William S Burroughs’s Naked Lunch hold a lesson for us – it suggested a frozen moment when every person truly saw what was on the end of every fork for what it was. Burroughs was suggesting a moment of existential dread, but he might as well have been talking about what we eat and drink – we currently have no clue what is on the end of every fork, and, perhaps even more so, what is at the bottom of every glass.

The whiskey world is awash with the smoke and mirrors of marketing – terms like artisan, small batch, craft; they mean absolutely nothing, yet are attached to each new brand as though they are reinventing the wheel. All over Ireland and the UK there are brands that are making misleading and often false claims about what they are, who made it and where. All of this is seen as simply being part of ‘the game’ – a comfortable untruth that most of the industry goes along with. However, there is one man who has been battling for more than a decade in his attempts to reconnect us with the origins of our spirit.

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Mark Reynier was a third generation wine merchant on a cycling holiday in Scotland when he decided to visit the home of one of his favourite whiskies – Bruichladdich distillery on the island of Islay. Reynier cycled up to the gates of the distillery, only to find them locked with a sign reading ‘plant closed – no visitors!’

Spotting a security guard patrolling the yard, Reynier waved to him and asked if they could have a look around. The guard’s reply was a succinct ‘fuck off’. And off Reynier did fuck – but when he returned, he came with investors, capital, the keys to the plant and a dream to bring the distillery back to life using 200-year-old methods. Enlisting the help of local distilling legend Jim McEwan, he created one of the most iconic whisky brands of the modern era – a spirit born of centuries old distilling methods, yet fresh, brash, brave and bold.

However, the most revolutionary ethos of Bruichladdich was its dedication to terroir – a term previously used mostly in wine circles, meaning the microclimate that leads to differing flavour profiles of different vineyards. Reynier experimented wildly with Bruichladdich, but it was his celebration of the humble barley grain and the land that bore it that was the most memorable of all.

Bruichladdich’s legend grew and grew, and eventually the fiercely independent brand was sold to drinks giant Remy Cointreau. But, in typically contradictory fashion, Reynier voted against the sale – even though it made him a wealthy man. He wasn’t ready to sell, he said at the time; he still had more to do, more to give the distilling world. Shortly after the sale he disappeared, like Kaiser Soze, with no one knowing if the whisky world had seen the last of him. That he reappeared some time later was not the big shock; it was rather, where he reappeared that caused the most surprise.

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Photochrom of Waterford in 1900 via the Library Of Congress.

Nestled on the south-east coast of Ireland, Waterford is the country’s oldest city.  A compact and bijou urban space situated above the confluence of the Three Sisters, it is a city of outsiders: Settled by the vikings in 932AD, its name is derived from the Nordic ‘Vadrarfjordr’ – the fjord of the rams, a fitting name given that this city is home to its own indigenous herd of feral goats. The goats do not go back that far, but rather came with the Huguenots three centuries ago, along with the city’s legendary Blaa, a type of doughy roll. The goats live on Bilberry Rock, a high outcrop overlooking the city, and right beneath their hooves lies Mark Reynier’s new project; Waterford Distillery.

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Reynier bought the old Waterford Guinness brewery from Diageo for a sum that is rumoured to be considerably smaller than the 40 million it was worth. What he got for his money was a recently renovated brewery, which he then converted into a distilling powerhouse in a few short months, rehiring some of the staff who had been laid off by Diageo. On his Twitter he posted regular updates from the redevelopment, and proved that his success with Bruichladdich had not lessened his ability to be an uber enfant terrible.  In interviews he bemoaned the lack of ‘mindfuckery’ in Irish whiskey, slammed the monopolies by massive firms, and generally rattled cages and ruffled feathers in a scene that was previously rather chummy. Just as he did on Islay, Reynier revelled in his outsider status – like Camus’s anti-hero Meursault, he came across as a man who had enough of the lies, the deceit and the conceits. But beneath all the bluster, there was a very serious plan being put in place.

As the plant was being re-engineered, Reynier was out walking through fields and talking to farmers about grains, soils, yields and dreams. He put in place a network of farms along the east coast who would supply him with barley for his spirit, taking his twin ethos of terroir and provenance to an almost forensic level. But which came first – the desire to make whiskey in Ireland, or the lure of the deal of the century?

“Ireland,” he says immediately; “and I’m enjoying every minute of it here. It was two things that brought me – one was an old boy at Bruichladdich, Duncan McGillivary. I can vividly remember him sitting on a wall on a sunny afternoon, saying that the best barley he ever saw in his career – and he had been there for 35 years – came from Waterford port. And it always stuck in my mind. Of course, here you are two hundred miles nearer the equator than Islay – Cambridge is on the same latitude. The climate is milder, so barley was the big draw.

“Scotland, whisky-wise, I had been there, seen it, done it. So there was a chance to make a mark in Ireland, because the whisky industry seems to me to be just all over the place. So all that was intriguing and seductive – and at least it’s not like the 110 major distilleries in Scotland.

“Finally, of course, it was to do with this extraordinary place being available. It took us just a year and four days to get going – it would take three years at least to set up a distillery from scratch. But I came here for the barley primarily.”

And as for the culture shock of moving to Ireland, he was well prepared: “Having dragged my wife and son from Sussex up to Bruichladdich, on the remote, wild and windy Hebridean island of Islay –  a Gaelic island – not Scottish, Gaelic – that was pretty difficult; an extreme contrast.  The parameters which define oneself, the habitat, the ecosystem, friends – they all go out the window; we basically said goodbye to our previous life.  

“The way I explained it once was, it is a bit like you have been invited as the star guest appearance on Eastenders, and you turn up on set, but you have never watched Eastenders, you have no idea who’s having sex with who; who was murdered, beaten up or shunned, who is cohabiting, or has those ‘extended family’ connections with who, because you have never seen the previous episodes, let alone the last series. It’s of course one-sided because everyone knows everything about you.

“And it’s not just a few months but hundreds of years. One time, I wanted something delivered to my house, and it never got delivered and I couldn’t understand why. It turned out that the delivery guy, his grandfather had once an argument with the person who owned the track to my house, and he wouldn’t travel down it. And this was a hundred years later. I still have a house there in Islay and I love being there, we all do.

“But one of the best things about here is that I have had so much fun with these guys, where one can just talk and joke without fear of offence. And that has been a really rewarding experience. We started here implementing what we wanted to do, right from day one, with an enthusiasm, open-mindedness and alacrity.”

Reynier has now started distilling individual spirit from individual farms, and can track the differences accordingly; in a scene filled with obfustication and untruths, he is now in the unique position of being able to say ‘this is the field, this is the grain, and this is the spirit they created’.

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Lisa Ryan, head brewer at Waterford Distillery, with a sample of barley from the farm of Leonard Ashmore.

To emphasise the focus on barley, Waterford Distillery has no master distiller – but it does have a master brewer. Lisa Ryan was one of the staff laid off by Diageo when the brewery closed, and her rehiring meant Reynier brought in someone not just with experience of high-end brewing, but who would be a system native; there would be no learning the ropes, just down to work from day one. Reynier says his structure is a more realistic, practical arrangement: “We have a distillery manager, head brewer, chief engineer and head distiller. Each relies on the other – buildings, barley, machines, spirit – and the responsibilities are equally divided.”

The plant had been used by Diageo to create the concentrate from which overseas Guinness is made, so it obviously needed some adjustments – the largest of those adjustments being the acquisition of stills. But this was another piece of the puzzle that slotted into place. When Reynier was in his early days with Bruichladdich, a friend of his known as Demolition Dave (a slight misnomer as he is now one of the investors behind Waterford Distillery) tipped him off about something special lurking within the soon-to-be-levelled Dumbarton grain distillery.

Secreted away inside this massive industrial grain-distilling operation were two small pot stills – known as the Inverleven stills. Reynier saw an opportunity, bought the stills and shipped them to Islay, where he intended to use them to revamp and restart Port Charlotte distillery, close to Bruichladdich. They never made it there, but one did adorn the front garden of Bruichladdich – with a pair of wellie boots sticking out the top. So when he bought Waterford, he knew where to get two stills to skip the potential three-year wait for Forsyths of Rothes – the Rolls Royce of still makers – to create new ones. Forsyths did play a hand, upgrading and mending the stills, and then they were installed, and brought to life, in the south east of Ireland, all ready to make a spirit that reflected their design – elegant yet full-bodied, delicate yet strong.

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The Inverleven stills in situ in Waterford.

“Every distiller likes to have their own-designed stills, it’s the personal flourish of any new distillery, but we know what these stills can do – we know what the style will be  we can determine what goes in, of course, how the stills are run, but the weight of the spirit is determined by that still shape.

“If you have very tall, narrow-necked stills, you will produce  a very floral, elegant spirit. If you have very short, dumpy stills you will have a heavy, oily spirit – and there is nothing you can do about it. Laphroaig, for example, can never ever ever produce a light, floral spirit because they have short, dumpy stills. You can’t change it. That is how it’s going to be. We know that these Inverleven stills  are going to produce a floral spirit, because of their shape. So then the question is – how are you going to run them? And we have the facilities here to produce very, very good-quality wort and wash, clinically the best – you can’t do anything better. So then it is a question of how slowly we run those stills, and because we have all this space and the control we can run everything exactly as we please.”

That space may be getting a little smaller, as there are plans to order four more stills from Forsyths over the next five years. Clearly, this is not a short-term venture.

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The main gates; the old brewery is on left, the new distillery on right.

What strikes you first about Waterford Distillery is the scale of it – on approach it is dwarfed by the hulking, quartz-riddled presence of Bilberry Rock. But once you get close, you begin to grasp just how massive it is. A modern, elliptical frontage houses much of the current operation, while to the rear is an old brewery, crying out to be transformed into a visitor’s centre.

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The inside of the old brewery.

Beyond is the Barley Cathedral, where the grain from each farm, each field has their own storage space. This allows Waterford to create a single field, single farm, single cask, single distillery, single malt. You could probably throw ‘single master brewer’ in there too, given that one of the farmers supplying them is Lisa Ryan’s father. And as they have the capability to propagate their own yeast, you might as well throw in ‘single single-celled fungus’. Although that might not look so appealing on the label.

Along with all those capabilities, they also have an evaporator – with which they can make single grain spirit. So is he going to?

“No.”

Definitely not?

“No. Single malt is what I want to do – single malt, single malt, single malt.”

And no pot still whiskey, or as he calls it, mixed-mash: “Why would you want to mix the mash, when you’ve got the greatest barley in the world? Why on earth do you want to compromise it?”

Maybe as a nod to Ireland, or even just as a cash-in, I suggest.

“Who says it’s a nod to Ireland?”

Isn’t it an Irish tradition, a traditional style of whiskey made here?

“A tradition which they also use in Canada, America, and all over the world. So there is nothing unique about it at all. The fact that Pernod say this style of whiskey ‘is’ Ireland, is purely for their marketing, they want to own it because they have most of it. There’s no real evidence that this is the definitive Irish style, we know that people were making single malt back in the 19th Century too.  Besides, the terminology is a nonsense; internationally, what does “pot still” mean to a whisky consumer? It means an inanimate, dumpy copper vessel used for distilling whisky rather than a mix of malted and cheaper, unmalted barley with some maize or rye bunged in.

“But it’s an intellectual proposition – why do you want to make a dumbed-down version? Why?”

So that is how he sees pot still whiskey – a dumbed-down single malt?

“Single malt is the most complex spirit in the world, flavour compound wise. If you drink a blended whiskey, all that flavour you get isn’t the grain whiskey, the grain is there to stretch the flavour. Analytically, we know that single malt is the most complex spirit. It is the reason why kids, when they drink spirits when their parents are away when they are 16 and get hammered, they never touch whiskey ever again. They will drink vodka again; they drink cognac again; they drink calvados again; but they won’t touch whiskey because the flavour – their brain remembers it, because there was so much of it. You don’t see winos hoovering down single malt whiskey – or whiskey. You see them hoovering down vodka.”

So if he had been offered a third still for free, so he could triple distill – again, in the Irish style – would he have taken it?

“No, no, but you can triple distill with two stills too. We might do a bit for fun. But by distilling up to 80% rather than 70% you are just losing more body and  flavour. We triple-distilled a bit at Bruichladdich and several Scottish malts are triple-distilled. Anyone can do it.

“In Ireland you have that habit of beer and chaser – that’s how whiskey was enjoyed – so the more straight-forward, accessible it was, the better. Perhaps the lowland Scottish distilleries got the custom of triple distillation from 19-century Irish immigrants? Whereas you don’t see people in pubs drinking single malt, even in Scotland – unless they’re tourists. It is a more elite, expensive thing. But it used to be primarily a component of blends. Very few people back then drank it as a single malt and if they did it was as new spirit straight off the still.”

So the evaporator may not be used for single grain; it will be used another way – to reduce the pot ale for shipping as pig feed. Less water in it means less weight, ergo less cost.

“We have a fancy vacuum-operated column still called a Sigmatec. I didn’t really know at the time I bought the place what it was. Guinness used it to de-alcoholise – or strip – stout. Talking with engineers I asked if it could do the reverse and they said yes. With a few tweaks and adjustments, some re-piping, and voila: a state-of-the-art column still. But my interests don’t lie there. This project is intellectually and financially focused on single malt. However, it’s a reassuring back-up to have up your sleeve.”

Likewise there will be no white spirits, and definitely no selling sourced whiskey under his own branding, a tactic used by the majority of new distilleries in Ireland to generate revenue. However, it is also a practise that has been abused, with some independent bottlers playing fast and loose with their marketing material, and striving to create the illusion that they distilled the product themselves.

“Well this is Ireland’s big problem. And it isn’t going to solve itself, I fear. There isn’t the interest or the will within the industry it seems to me to do anything about it. There isn’t the money to enforce regulations, even ones for the common good, because at present you have only Pernod Ricard, Jose Cuervo, William Grant and  that’s it. The IWA (Irish Whiskey Association) isn’t anywhere near as powerful as the Scotch Whisky Association (which incidentally  represents the whole spirits industry, not just Scotch). I don’t see it having the mandate or the power to bring much-need  discipline to labels, presentations, marketing material and claims, that will build the much-needed credibility of the Irish whisky sector.

“Abroad, if you ask whisky drinkers about Irish whiskey I’m afraid you’ll find there is not a great deal of trust. That confidence has to be earned.  Sure there is a huge enthusiasm now in the Irish whiskey sector, but there is also perhaps, shall we say, a certain naivety, too. In the absence of clearly defined, acceptable practices, there are some bottlers that play fast and loose if not with the actual rules (there aren’t yet many) but certainly the spirit of them.

“If you go to the duty free at Dublin Airport and they have more than 100 Irish whiskeys, but they are from just three distilleries, but you’d swear blind with all the master distillers listed on those labels there were at least fifty distilleries producing all that hooch.

“But I’m a libertarian at heart. Look – to a degree I can understand all this wild-west approach, after all I used to be an independent bottler myself once.  Ours is a heads-down, get on with it no nonsense operation and sod ‘em all.

“In Scotland, an authoritative SWA provides the necessary guidelines to protect the reputation which every one for the greater good follows. It isn’t onerous or police state stuff; it is common sense. I certainly had my run-ins with them when we didn’t see eye to eye. But here  it is a wee bit more freestyle, more individualistic shall we say, and I don’t really see it changing any time soon.  But it needs to.

“I can already hear the “coming over here telling us what to do” complaints, but there is a truly great opportunity for Irish whiskey. A reset button has been pushed. These are exciting times.  But equally a regulatory framework needs to be constructed too, to guide, to keep us all on the straight and narrow.  It isn’t onerous; it’s not finicky; it ain’t Big Brother. It is for the greater glory of Irish whiskey.

“Some of the marketing spin is mere over-exuberance, some of it is deliberately disingenuous, and some of it is naivety. Some of it is outright fraudulent. But I don’t see anybody having either the will, the foresight, the authority or the money to challenge it. That’s why I am focussed on what we are doing here, doing my own thing.”

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But given that Ireland is in a ‘wild west’ state – being as it is in a state of rapid rebirth and expansion, a new frontier for this generation – Reynier has some suggestions on what a new sheriff might look like.

“The Irish Government should say ‘right, we shouldn’t get involved, because we are short-term politicians, here today, gone tomorrow; equally, the industry should not be involved because they have got interests that are non compatible – remember the banks and self-regulation? – but we should do what France does with Champagne; create an apolitical body in between the industry and the politicians which is a civil servant-run to represent the long-term interests of Ireland and not powerful industry players nor biddable politicians’.

“It says ‘Product of Ireland’ and “Irish Whiskey” on the label, so somebody should be representing Ireland’s interests.

“This council would agree with  the Irish Whiskey Association with a set of guidelines and procedure – the SWA has it all already – which should be applied to the whole industry, It is important to get this sort of thing sorted now it will be much harder to retrofit once the horse has bolted.”

Given the startling quality of his barley network, it comes as no surprise that his wood policy is equally ambitious – and just as honest.

“We don’t need to experiment with casks, I know exactly what is needed. We have the same policy for every farm, so again it is experience – I know what works. At Bruichladdich we had to do a lot of remedial work because when we first started we couldn’t afford good oak and our accountant undervalued the influence of the oak, or rather good-quality oak, and if you haven’t got the money to buy the barley then you haven’t got the money to buy good oak – it’s an industry-wide issue. Wood is the first thing that gets cut from a struggling  budget. And of course wood values in recent years has doubled. The importance of good quality oak is now more important than ever.”

Important – yet expensive, and across the industry there are plenty of ‘innovations’ in the area of wood that no one dares talk about: “Ultrasound, music, heat, oak essence, de-charr, re-charr, tannin injection – all sorts of remedial shortcuts are available – and caramel of course.”

You can assume he isn’t going down that route: “Certainly not! So we set this company up with a very healthy budget for wood – almost the same as the barley. Now if you go back a few years ago, wood represented 10% of production costs, it is more than 40% for us, and I defy you to find anybody in the whole whiskey industry that has that budget ratio. I know from experience there is no shortcut for great quality raw ingredients and time. And that includes the wood.

“We are investing this huge sum because I know that if you are going unplugged, making natural whiskey, then there are no shortcuts – you’ve got to have good quality wood. We are making an artisanal, natural product, hence we have total traceability, beyond parallel, to prove everything we do. There is no compromise: What we say is what we do. We mean it.”

But all this dedication to the product is an added expense: “Of course it is. But by the time it gets into bottle, in five or ten years time, it is a relatively small amount; it has cashflow repercussions now, but by the time we get to market it will not make a difference in the bigger scheme of things.”

Looking into the future brings up the subject of just how many distilleries Ireland can take before it hits full capacity – clearly the full number touted by the IWA will not make it to production, many were pipe dreams that are already falling by the wayside. But there are currently roughly 20 either operational or getting there. So how many is too many? How many more can one island take?

“No more, in fact there are too many. There will be tears before bedtime. Some people optimistically think ‘oh wouldn’t it be nice to have a distillery’ but the cheap bit is building it, the expensive bit is running it, and the even-more expensive bit is bringing it to market. That’s where there will be a big reckoning: I wonder if the marketplace is big enough to handle not just Ireland’s start-ups but more from the US, the UK and other countries too.”

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For anyone interested in the highs and lows of starting a distillery, they can look no further than Reynier’s Twitter feed. With typically caustic honesty, it presents the failures alongside the successes; if equipment broke during the refit, it was tweeted, along with information about disappointing yields from some grain, disagreements between head brewer and distillery manager over the characteristics of new-make spirit – all there for the world to see. His messages are the antithesis of the sanitised, corporate message from most distillers.

“Well you can’t separate the good from the bad, when things go right they go right, and then sometimes they don’t. For example, we were tasting some new spirits the others day, and some of them were good, some were very good, and some were a bit dull – well that’s fine and that is out there in the world.

“If you’re going unplugged  – I can’t see how you can just go a little bit unplugged; you either are or you are not. Everything I have ever done has been unplugged – whether it was in the wine industry or Bruichladdich, so I think philosophically it is where I am happy at.

“I also think that globally there is an anti ‘big food, big drink’ thing going on; people have got too bored. You go out the door here to a pub and there is no-one in there, and you have no choice; either a stout or a lager, and you have to ask – why bother, if they are all selling the same thing, the same way? In the old days it was the craic that got the people in, but there is nobody in the pubs now.”

And just as the Irish pub has been struggling against a generational shift and the decline it has wrought, distillers lament the duty laws here, claiming they are crippling the industry. Not so, says Reynier: “It is higher than Scotland but it is the same for everybody – whether it is gin, vodka, poitín, it is the same. So you are only in a comparative field. It is what always makes me laugh every time there is a budget the SWA go on about duty and stuff and you think ‘well hang on a second, 90% of it is exported, so nobody pays duty on that at all’.”

Mark Reynier is extraordinary company, a complex spirit full of seemingly contradictory elements – profound yet profane, combative yet charming, witty and deadly serious all at once. He comes across as a man utterly frustrated with the spirits world whilst still passionately in love with it. Throughout the couple of hours I spent with him, he did not sit down once; he paced the room, gesticulating as he made his points, constantly moving, forever restless.

Mark Gillespie describes the maverick Texan distiller Chip Tate as being the Steve Jobs of the distilling world. If that is the case, then Mark Reynier is that world’s Stanley Kubrick; an auteur who refuses to work within the system, a creative visionary who is utterly unwilling to compromise, who is almost obsessively dedicated to craft, to the pursuit of perfection. He is a man intent on destroying the status quo, compelled to point out that the emperor wears no clothes. His attitude to life reminds me of the motto of another outsider who came here from Scotland to build a distilling empire; sine metu – without fear. When I ask him if he thinks he might have ruffled some feathers since his arrival here, he smiles and says “Oh I certainly hope so. I certainly hope so.”

Ultimately, what makes Mark Reynier an outsider is not where he comes from, but rather that – like Camus’s weary homme du midi – he is simply a man who is no longer willing to play the game. This project is about change, disruption, evolution: Why should he doff the cap, bend the knee or even spell whiskey with an ‘e’? His is a singular vision – of Ireland being the home of the world’s greatest single malt, and his distillery is celebrating the soil and grain of Ireland, the farmers who work the land.

Reynier firmly believes he is fighting for the pride of Ireland, and that the honesty and transparency of his whisky, when released in five years time, will offer us a novel experience – a frozen moment when every Irish whiskey drinker truly sees what is at the end of every glass, knowing exactly where it came from, who made it and why – and, for the first time in a long time, we will be able to enjoy a truly naked dram.

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