Before we start, this is a relatively lengthy whisky review, I don’t think there is any other way to approach these whiskies for the first time. Part of the enjoyment is in attempting to understand the project which the Waterford Distillery are undertaking and in coming to the realization that this is no ordinary distillery. Even before the Waterford Distillery’s stills had been commissioned, they were beginning to create hype, the depth of content they have made available through their website in the past 4 years is incredible, they’ve allowed the enthusiasts to follow their journey completely. If you’re an Irish whiskey fan and you aren’t impressed by the way they are creating whisky, I’d question whether you are a fan at all. Now whether you will be impressed by their first whisky releases, that’s completely up to you, continue reading for my thoughts below.
Waterford, a relatively small city in the south east of Ireland, a harbour town probably best known for the iconic Waterford Crystal glass makers who’s origins date back to 1783, although like many whiskey distilleries in Ireland, they’ve had a few sabbaticals since then. But now in 2020 it is not Waterford Crystal that has put Ireland’s 5th largest city firmly in the minds of Irish Whiskey consumers, collectors and enthusiasts world wide, it’s Waterford Whisky.
The Waterford Distillery founded by Mark Reynier in 2015 has set out to continue a journey which he started in Bruichladdich on Islay in Scotland, which is to unequivocally prove that Terroir exists in whisky, showcase the varietal variance and produce whisky that has the apex of provenance and transparency at it’s core, from farm to glass. In several interviews he has stated that the large amount of independently bottled brands available from just 3 distilleries in Ireland has created somewhat of a ‘charade and it risks doing untold damage to the industry’. When the distillery first launched he also caused untold controversy by openly criticizing the Single Pot Still category, as creating whiskey from a mixed-mash using an ‘inferior grain or unmalted barley’, implying the only advantage would be that it’s cheaper to make.
So all in all, he’s a man with an opinion (as am I to be fair) which he’s completely entitled to as we all are, and I will most certainly give him credit for his consistency and the fact that the Waterford distillery has been unwavering in their Terroir project. For anyone who’s interested in an insight into Reynier’s views and the project at Waterford Distillery from the beginning, Mark at Malt-Review did a great interview in 2016, click here.
Terroir or Téireoir as Waterford have trademarked it is a phrase which refers to the interaction between the soil, land, micro-climate and the effects these have on the evolution of the grape/grain which has grown in that specific place. They have set out to unequivocally prove that these factors influence the development of Barley and in turn impact the flavour profile of the final product. They have already proven that Terroir most certainly exists in whisky from a scientific stand point, through study of the metabolomic compounds (these influence how aromas/flavour present themselves in the whisky) transferred from the environment and soil to the whisky itself, but they have expressed that they are determined to fully understand this role in whisky production, you can read about their findings so far here.
Single Farm Origin Series
So enough babbling as I really feel there is no possible way I could express a complete understanding of this project without speaking to you all face-to-face. The 3 whiskies I am tasting today are the initial releases in Waterford’s Single Farm Origin, with each whisky made from ‘One Place, One Farm, One Spirit’. Working with 70+ farmers across Ireland, they have partnered with Minch Malt, to secure single harvests of barley, malted, brewed, fermented, distilled and matured as a single origin spirit from each particular farm.
Each bottle in the series has a Téireoir code which can be filled into their website and will bring you to a dedicated page giving full details of the specfic terroir, spirit production, and full maturation breakdown. Giving the most transparent view of whisky creation available in the whiskey world today. So without taking too much more of your time here’s my review:
Waterford Whisky S.F.O Ballkilcavan 1.1 50%abv 700ml €70.00
Single Malt Whisky produced from 100% Taberna Barley from David Walsh-Kemmis’ farm in Ballykilcavan, Co. Laois. Long fermentation time here of 150.5hrs and matured for 3 years 11 months and 18 days in a selection of 1st-fill American Casks, Premium French Casks, and Vin Doux Naturel (naturally sweet & fortified wine casks from South of France). Full breakdown of harvest, soil, production, maturation can be viewed using the Téireoir Code here.
- Nose: Initially distinctly malt character with balanced alcohol, incredibly grassy, lots of hay and straw notes, there’s also a sour note which isn’t agreeing with me. There’s a touch of lemon peels, herbs, spice and an aroma which I can only describe as similar to the aromatics and acidity present in Gewurztraminer white wines. Each time I go back the sour note is impeding, like baby-sick or sour milk.
- Palate: It’s definitely got depth and texture, there’re sweet vanilla notes mixed with shortbread. There’s a touch of red fruits and almost a metallic minerality. The texture keeps building with oak tones but the mustiness from the nose is still present, not unlike boiled red cabbage.
- Finish/Conclusion: The grassy hay character from the nose builds in the aromatics of the empty palate, dry malty young spirit.
It’s a well-balanced, clean, young whisky. The depth and texture of spirit is welcomed because at 50%abv it still retains balance, it’s not aggressive at any stage throughout the tasting experience. From my perspective there hasn’t really been any clear development of flavour as of yet with this whisky, it’s got clear distillate character throughout, but no distinctive fruitiness or nuttiness which I would have loved to have seen given the cask selection, however, these notes may develop over time. It’s a solid effort with just the sour character holding it back for me.
Waterford Whisky S.F.O Bannow Island 1.1 50%abv 700ml €70.00
Single Malt Whisky produced from 100% Ouverture Barley from Ed Harper’s farm at Bannow Island, Co. Wexford. Significant fermentation again time here of 136.2 hrs and matured for 3 years 7 months and 27 days in a selection of 1st-fill American Casks, Virgin American Oak, Premium French Casks, and VDN casks. Full breakdown of harvest, soil, production, maturation can be viewed using the Téireoir Code here.
- Nose: The spirit’s more robust in this release bursting with spice, cinnamon, clove and that distinctive grassy, green hay field aroma. The sweetness is best described in my view as brioche, there’s a nice sour apple candy note and tonnes of oak, cedar, ash, kindling. The youth of the spirit is ever present with boiled potato notes throughout however.
- Palate: The oak follows through from the nose, plenty of pepper, cloves and rounded hazelnut note. Again quite a big palate, the sweetness has caramel, vanilla pod and sweet malted barley, where nuttiness really develops with several sips, nice fresh almonds.
- Finish/Conclusion: There’s a mix of nuts and dried peels throughout the finish, dry and relatively satisfying.
The 50%abv sits well with this dram and the Ballykilcavan, I reckon if they were bottled any lower the flavour would fall away completely and/or it wouldn’t be describable. The added virgin oak element I feel brought the oak forward on the palate and gives the spirit a chance to expose more flavour. The nose of this whisky gets much more complex after having your first sip.
Waterford Whisky S.F.O Ratheadon 1.1 50%abv 700ml €70.00
Single Malt Whisky produced from 100% Irina Barley from the McDonnell farm at Ratheadon, Co. Carlow. Fermentation time here of 106 hrs and matured for 3 years 9 months and 5 days in a selection of 1st-fill American Casks, Virgin American Oak, Premium French Casks, and VDN casks. Full breakdown of harvest, soil, production, maturation can be viewed using the Téireoir Code here.
- Nose: Sweet, fresh barley and hay (I see a trend here), vanilla & citrus, touch of redcurrant, red apple skins and orange peel. The spice notes are more refined, distinctly more oak driven, cloves all over. Again it’s got dry, clean youthful spirit without the potato new-make-esque note.
- Palate: More rounded immediately, milk chocolate, marzipan and sweet spice. There’s a tiny hint of grapefruit peel, balanced liqourice, walnut and an earthen blackcurrant leaf element.
- Finish: The finish again has aromatic malt, hay character but this time surrounded by chocolate cover brazil nuts.
The Ratheadon shows greater potential, much more developed nose and palate, less of the youth more depth of flavour. Still relaxed on the fruit-front but it compensates with the chocolate, nuts, and sweeter elements. Overall impressed with this one.
Tasting these whiskies and using the Téireoir codes has been one of the single most interesting experiences of my career in the Irish Whiskey Industry so far. The depth of detail which is readily available online makes you want to follow the journey of the barley from the field to the maltster to the distillery. You are given all the access you could want aside from the distillation parameters, which I suppose they couldn’t really give away. This level of detail is unparalleled and offers a consumer experience like no other.
Are the whiskies amazing? Certainly not yet, but they are all less than 4 years old and really haven’t had the time to develop, so that raises the question of why they would release them at all?
I think, in order to prove their theories and provide evidence of Téireoir in whisky to the whiskey industry as a whole, the differences between the whiskies will be most evident in their first 10 years of maturation. Given the quality of the casks they are using, the amount of 1st-fill and virgin oak, the distillate character will take a back seat relatively quickly but you will most likely have excellent Single Malt whisky in the end regardless of the barley’s origin. So with that in mind, it is important to display the Single Farm whiskies from an early age to make the case for Téireoir.
In my opinion, these whiskies all displayed what I will refer to as an apparent distillate character. The distillate character being the green, malty herbaceous notes that all the whiskies displayed. This means that whether taken as Single Farm whiskies or combined, as they intend to do in their ‘Cuvee’s’, it will always be easily distinguishable as Waterford Distillery Single Malt. Showcasing the influence of Téireoir on the barley, the differences between each farms chosen barley varietal, and how they develop over time will be a treat for the curious.
Mark Reynier has stated several times that the whiskies released throughout this project will not be to everyone’s tastes, there will always be those who see it as a pointless endeavor, he seems fine with that and it’s understandable.
Will I be attempting to collect/purchase bottles from each farm, each series, or buy a specific farms development over time in releases… probably not! But I would jump at the chance to sample the progression, see how the same strain of barley develops in different parts of the country, or find out if organic or biodynamic barley makes a difference. These are all questions that the Waterford Distillery may answer and for that, I’m on board.
A tip of the hat to the packaging: There’s no doubt that Waterford have done an incredible job with their packaging, designed by Waterford based TrueOutput, the bottle has the brands ethos engraved on the bottom and 24 ridges giving a nod to the 24 hour circadian cycle which the growth of barley follows, the bottle stoppers are gorgeous. Shame the bottles were made by Stoelzle and not Waterford crystal (I jest).