Interview (English Version): Mark Reynier on Transparency, Waterford Distillery, and why Cask-Finishes have become as attractive as lipstick on a pig

Mark Reynier polarizes and his ideas are often provocative. His concept of terroir, started at Bruichladdich and continued at Waterford, has caused a lot of fuss and is splitting the camps. For "WhiskyundFrauen", he talks about his new Distillery, Terroir, Transparency and why  cask-finishes have become the new paxarette. 

Mark Reynier, Waterford Distillery. © Pressfoto.

You don't really have to introduce Mark Reynier. The former partner of Bruichladdich Distillery, co-founder of Murray McDavid and founder of the Irish Waterford Distillery has had a long and stellar career in the whisky industry, and there is probably no one in the whisky world who's never heard his name.

Mark Reynier has stirred quite a few waves recently with the release of his first whisky expressions distilled at his new Waterford Distillery in Ireland. Unlike the larger corporations, Waterford Distillery uses only Irish barley and crops from each farm are harvested and distilled separately. It’s Reynier's belief that Terroir matters. After all, Irish Whiskey should taste like Ireland. 

Reynier learned his craft in a different field: his father owned the wine importing company J.B. Reynier Wines & Spirits, and Reynier spent the first years of his professional life bottling, labeling and selling wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. And more than that, Reynier also produced wine, he owned a Chablis Grand Cru winery in Vaudesier.

Perhaps that is why he has been so concerned about the concept of terroir for years. In France, terroir has been part of the winegrowers' repertoire for over a hundred years, in order to classify wineries and vineyards. Because with wine and with cognac alike, it does matter where the grape comes from. 

In our interview Mark Reynier talks about his Waterford Distillery, transparency, terroir and why cask-finishes have become as attractive as lipstick on a pig.

MM: Mark, your new terroir-based releases at Waterford Distillery have stirred quite a few waves. Why do you think that Terroir is a concept that the whisky industry needs, or that the consumer needs?

Mark: I don’t think it is a question of need specifically. While the industry doesn’t need it and is actively against it, the consumer doesn’t actually need it, yet clearly from the reception of Waterford they are coming to see they do want it. The Waterford launch suggests there is a thirst for greater understanding to the extent that we sold out in each market in just hours of release and have had urgently to bring forward follow up bottlings. This fascination certainly caught distributors by surprise too.

 I feel the modern, informed consumer expects to know more about what they’re eating and drinking. They want to understand the philosophy behind the brand, but above all they want more than simplistic, insincere, lifestyle-affirming propaganda. It’s a kick-back against the corporate marketing messaging that takes the informed consumer for a fool.  Remember - the majority of expenditure for big whisky is on marketing - some say as much as 90% - the rest is production. At Waterford we change that on its end and put the focus entirely on the production; that is our marketing.

Whisky is only made from three raw ingredients: barley, yeast and water. Distillers have romanticise the water in Disneyland terms, standardised the yeast, but seem to have had a collective lobotomy when it comes to the primary source of all that whisky flavour, what actually makes single malt the most complex spirit in the world: the barley.  Of course there are some, usually those raised on a diet of industry propaganda, for whom what we are doing is an uncomfortable development; they prefer the status quo, safe with what they know and do not thank us for moving the agenda forward. It is to be expected.

Waterford is unashamedly barley-forward, terroir-driven. That means we put the focus on the barley and, by using exclusively local grown barley, we’re taking it back to where it used to be. By keeping each farm separate from each other right the way through from field to bottle, we can explore and discover the effects of terroir while we are at it. It’s fascinating what we are discovering and we are only too pleased to share that with the more curious, the more open of mind, the more inquisitive, those who want to know more…

I have, over the last 20 years since the early days of Bruichladdich, been keen to open the doors and shine the light on how whisky is made. Back then it was almost impossible to visit a distillery - most were out of bounds. No longer. Since then we have educated the consumer, shared our understanding, so it is no surprise that there is a hunger to learn more, to seek the truth. If you are a serious whisky fan where is there to go next? If you are from a wine drinking background, where is the palate sophistication, the variety, the intrigue? For me whisky has always been about sharing, debating, discussing and enjoying; it’s a very friendly, convivial experience. After a ‘finish’ here, a ‘finish’ there, what’s to excite debate?

A paper on terroir and its effect on whisky is to be published this autumn following a three year academic international study between Waterford Distillery, Cork University, Teasgasc (Ministry of Agriculture), Minch Malt, Dr Maria Kyraleou, Dr Dustin Herb, Dr Harry Rifkind and Dr Kieran Kilcawley. That should answer a lot of the critics once and for all.

"The Cathedral" at Waterford Distillery, © Pressfoto.

MM: Your concept of Terroir is strongly connected with more transparency. Does the Irish Whiskey industry need more transparency?

Mark: The concept of terroir is what our forefathers readily understood from the Rheingau to the Rhone, Baden to Burgundy the vineyards were based on terroir observations from the Middle Ages. That understanding is what gardeners call gardening, and farmers, farming. It’s the the 3D interaction of the land (topography, elevation, orientation), the soil (drainage, sun soil, bedrock, erosion sedimentation), the microclimate (rain, exposure, wind, evaporation, photosynthesis, evapo-transpiration etc.) with the growth of the plant upon which these elements work. The fruit of that plant whether grape or grain, blossom or bloom, is directly influenced by that complex interaction.

Terroir is not, as some would have you believe, about distilleries, distillation, people, counties, regions. It is about plants and the influences on where they grow - in this case barley and its grain - on a micro rather than macro scale.

The problem is there is no direct English translation of terroir, hence the suspicion where some consider it elitist, fancy, pompous, foreign. Others confused, attribute a simplistic interpretation, while a few simply seek to appropriate its association without putting in the effort - the term will be corrupted.

Yet various studies have demonstrated that specific aspects of terroir do influence the growth of barley. For example the warmer the growing season the higher the concentration of starch. What I wanted to demonstrate - following on from what I started at Bruichladdich (then without the resources or the logistics) was simply that different farms’ barley exhibits a variety of flavour characteristics attributable to the terroir in which the barley was grown. Some critics say it simply is not possible for the barley’s flavours to survive the distilling process. But clearly it does - and now we have both the sensory and scientific evidence to prove it.

We call it the Waterford 3T Equation, where true provenance requires a terroir. But that alone is not enough, one has to be able to prove it (traceability) and further, you have to be able to show it (transparency).

And transparency is so much more than merely being bothered about the label, which is where the industry seems to have been dragged blaming bureaucrats. There is exciting unfettered enthusiasm surrounding Irish whisky at present - a lot has happened in a very short space of time. Understandably there is a certain nativity around regulations and regulatory bodies but I’m sure that will catch up in time. At least I hope so.

Barley at Waterford Distillery. © Pressfoto.

MM: You said that you want to create the most profound whisky in Ireland. What criteria must a whisky fulfil to be considered „profound“? Is profoundness a matter of taste, or of ideas, or of production methods?

To me profound means complexity, intrigue, depth, layers, stimulation, dimension, endurance, length, persistence. In short, maximal sensory stimulation. A whisky that evolves in the glass, sensually unrobes, layer by layer, teases and beguiles, reveals and twists, is both interest and insistent, demanding of attention, un-put-down-able. Profoundness we can certainly achieve and are well on our way. Remember, terroir is but a stepping stone for us, the means to the end.

I tend to see the industry from a different place. I see the bigger picture too that informs our methodology for example the impact of the cost-cutting economies introduced in the early 70s that have come home to roost.

Maturing economically efficient spirit from provenance-less barley in knowingly exhausted wood has resulted in today’s short-cut, the ‘finish’ - the offspring of paxarette and E150 -  which certainly provides variety of bottlings on the shelf yet without changing the production or procurement process. Perhaps, I would suggest, there is today an over-reliance on the last minute remedial cask to obtain deliberately disproportionate flavour.

Waterford Distillery. © Pressfoto.

MM: There was a huge discussion in Germany about the sense or nonsense of a Terroir-based whisky, and one major argument against it was the notion that casks have such a huge influence on the aroma-profile of a whisky, that Terroir-based aromas will be changed and masked and after a few years of maturation, they will be no longer detectable. How important is Terroir-Management in relation to Cask-Management and Finishings?

Mark: I am glad people are as interested as we are.  I quite understand some will find our approach challenging for we are inviting the more inquisitive to move out of their comfort zone. Nor does the industry particularly welcome disruption over their uniform status quo. Iconoclasm is bound to trigger some, the very word terroir’ seems to terrify as much as titivate. Perhaps, it’s because there is no direct translation of the term, it has for some  less familiar with the term an unwarranted sense of elitism.

If, as critics say, the cask trumps barley it surely follows that neutral spirit in a cask ought to produce whisky. But the result is actually an astringent, woody, undrinkable potion that is definitely not recognisable as whisky let alone single malt. 

Do Cognac or Calvados; Bourbon or Blended; Mescal or Mirabelle; Rum or Rye taste the same as a single malt? There are (ought to be) only three ingredients in malt whisky: yeast, water and barley. Barley is malt whisky’s flavour. Simplistically, one can say fermentation liberates it, distillation fixes it, and maturation evolves it. 

Clearly it’s a little more complicated than that, but at the core the primary raw ingredient provides malt whisky’s identity. Distillation and maturation have their part to play but the flavour has to be there in the first place. And fortunately for us barley makes the most flavour complex spirit in the world. 

Some, accepting that barley is where the flavour is, insist the production processes are ‘too violent’ to allow any nuance of terroir to show in the new spirit let alone the matured spirit ignoring the fact that Cognac has an entire appellation system predicated on terroir.

The uncomfortable truth is that flavour compounds liberated at fermentation are indeed robust enough to appear in the distilled alcohol. Otherwise, why bother using barley at all?  Clearly we can demonstrate the terroir differences in new spirit as night follows day both by scientific analyses and sensory evaluation. A paper is being published on this later in the autumn after a three year study.

I know from my Bruichladdich days there is no shortcut to decent wood from the outset for fully integrated flavour. So at Waterford we began the way we mean to carry on by investing over £5m to date in acquiring the very best quality oak – not to finish but to start our whisky’s life.

For as well as the more obvious extractive flavour elements (lignins, vanillins and tannins) leached by the spirit from fresh oak in a matter of weeks.This also provides  natural colour as well as oak flavours (assuming they have not been leached out already) and any influence of what was in that cask in the first place (assuming it has not been steam cleaned). 

But the main benefit is the longterm micro-oxygenation via the grain of the spirit’s original barley-derived flavour compounds together with any oak flavours - in to those we associate with age. This happens 24/7, 365 days, year after year. This fiendishly complex process of interaction, reaction, evolution and integration that we value greatly as maturation. 

The terroir-derived flavour differences most certainly come through in mature spirit. We are observing they augment, diverge with time.  But try it for yourself. Anyone that has enjoyed comparing and contrasting our initial SFO releases can ask themselves this simple question: are these Waterford whiskies identical?  Clearly, the answer is no, they are individual.

And we can prove each SFO has been separated from field to bottle; we can demonstrate they have been treated identically through out the process, and stored in the same wood portfolio. So the fundamental point is this: the spirit’s integral flavour has to be present from the outset for this flavour variability to occur.  That’s terroir.

Certainly one can influence the final flavour out come with wood if one desires, a superficial additive rather than natural, integral evolution, that’s what finishing does after all.  100% virgin oak is clearly going to be discernible versus 100% exhausted wood. Two SFOs in 100% virgin wood, however, are easily differentiable.

Or is the rather uniformed suggestion that “terroir-based aromas will be changed and masked after a few years of maturation and they will be no longer detectable” simply wishful thinking? Merely lipstick on a pig or makeup of a goddess? Perhaps that statement lets slip the concerning reality that modern industrial distillates are so very standardised -  neutral, vapid, bland, flavourless - that only the redeeming additive effect of oak and, increasingly, the cask’s previous contents, that can hope to add any flavour and save the day? This attitude should be very, very worrying indeed to any serious whisky fan. 

Remember, Terroir is but a stepping stone in our Waterford journey.

Barley arrives at Waterford Distillery. © Pressfoto.

MM: Can you tell us a bit more about other steps in the production process, for example fermentation and the use of yeast and how those are done at Waterford? Does the rest of your production process somehow relate to the terroir-based aroma-profiles?

Mark: Remember it’s more than just the soil - terroir is a 3D interaction between microclimate, soil, topography etc.; clearly there are several important stages between the field and the bottle that can impact on flavour but first one has to agree where single malt whisky’s flavour comes from. Is it the barley, the distillation or the wood?

It comes from the grains’ flavour compounds formed during growth: barley is the flavour of malt whisky and is prescribed by law. Instead of barley if we used maize, wine or apples we would more or less get bourbon, cognac or calvados.

We are exploring varietal flavour differences too but as yet unless one goes back to the fifties and long forgotten varieties these differences are minor due to a lack of genetic distance from propagation programs undertaken from the sixties onwards that focused on yield rather than flavour.  We intend to propagate our own varieties based on flavour.

Get the malting wrong, temperatures, humidity, timing, and the the starch and pre-sugars will be affected. It’s an art. Fortunately we have a dedicated Boby malting unit at Minch Malt to provide us with total control. But this is more a yield issue than flavour. Originally we used one seasonal setting partly to ensure a level playing field, partly (it has to be admitted) we needed to understand what was going on. Now we bespoke malt each farm.

 Mashing, accessing those grain flavours, is mainly associated with yield. Waterford, however, has a unique combination of hydro mill and mash filter (thanks to Guinness) that serendipitously allows us maximum terroir extraction by milling anaerobically extremely fine between tungsten plates and then pneumatically squeezing out every last drop of wort.

Fermentation liberates the flavour under yeast action. For maximum flavour purity we temperature control the tanks to extend the length of time from 72 to over 100 hours to encourage a secondary fermentation, the malolactic fermentation. We have the facilities to play around with yeast but as yet have chosen not to do so, prioritising terroir first. We allow equal opportunity without forcing an equality of outcome. We want each terroir to talk.

Simplistically, distillation ‘fixes’ that flavour.  We’re using Inverleven’s stills, which gives us an attractive spirit weight. We run them slowly - time is not an issue, we slow everything down and take a miserly 10 point middle cut margin for spirit purity and weight. At the outset  we started deliberately with a uniform cut but now It’s not prescribed but a floating margin dependent on the stillman, the barley and the harvest.

Being purist is not cheap. We deliberately forego a potential extra 60k litres of alcohol a year by following these principles.  Add in the biodynamic, organic and heritage barleys and it’s over 100,000 litres.

Harvest. © Pressfoto.

MM: In one interview you’ve mentioned that you began to change things in the middle of 2016. What kind of changes did you do, and why did you do them?

Mark: We started bespokeing important elements farm by farm from 2017 onwards. First, the fermentation, then more recently the malting. To begin with partly by design, partly by ignorance, we left everything the same for each farm. We wanted to see the terroir effect alone with no other intrusion. 

Then, as we learned more about the technology at our disposal, we started to optimise to each terroir: inevitably, part of the issue going down the route of single farm origins is the logistics. Each farm’s barley is slightly different, each harvest too. To optimise how it malts and ferments we are able to intervene to get the very best from each origin. This attention to detail is part and parcel of this procurement policy and desired operational regime. This may, for example, be cooling fermentation to reduce volatility. Extending time for secondary fermentation etc. 

Waterford Distillery am River Suir, Ireland. © Pressfoto.

MM: Do you feel that the concept of Terroir and transparency can have an influence on Irish Whiskey as a category, or will it remain an exotic singularity at Waterford? What are your predictions for the future, and what are your hopes? 

I am not sure many people will either have the vision, drive, resource, understanding or opportunity necessary to repeat what we have undertaken at Waterford. Having said that I am implementing the same concept with sugar cane in Grenada (with possibly the first all female distilling team). ‘Exotic singularity’ perhaps, as you call it, but I’d say a vital stepping stone for us in a bigger scheme of things. 

Irish whisky, or any other whisky, does not need terroir to survive. I expect there will be a lot of people that will jump on the coattails, appropriate the term, superficially copy ideas, but with out actually changing their production philosophy one iota. It’s what the industry excels at. Sadly, and I feel guilty about this, terroir lends itself to being massively corrupted to the point of meaningless by this powerful industry. I’d wager in the years to come you’ll be seeing many Gladiator-like pictures of bucolic barley fields, farmer pictures, barley named bottlings - stealing, corrupting, destroying the idea of terroir.

Farmers at Waterford Distillery. © Pressfoto.

I have been intrigued with barley for a long time. That the primary raw ingredient, the origin of all that very whiskiness, deserves attention and yet no one seems to want to discuss it. They obfuscate, mock and moan, dissemble and disparage while their own industrial approach is as vague as saying I’m going to make a wine - with grapes from anywhere.

Waterford whisky won’t be for everyone. It is unequivocally for the curious, the open-minded, the enlightened, for those who want to experience and learn more, to compare and contrast, to debate and discuss but above all to share and enjoy with friends.

MM: I'm sure the debate about terroir and the question what makes  a good whisky will continue for quite a while. Thank's a lot, Mark, for taking the time and sharing your ideas with us and giving us an insight into a very interesting topic.

Waterford Distillery© Pressfoto.


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