A journey. That’s what Pilgrimage was about – or at least, that was the plan pre-COVID, but the point still remains. Journeys…
In lieu of that, and given all travel is broadly on hold, how about my own journey? We have ummed and ahhed about what to do with Waterford Distillery on Malt, given I’m Head of Communications for the company – and many a cheerless stone-thrower on Twitter has highlighted the fact. Jason has always wanted to keep the ethical line tight around these parts, and it is clear I – of all people – shouldn’t really be reviewing Waterford Whisky. But I think I’ve got a decent case for writing this one, if you’re happy to listen.
The longest-standing of our handsome and wise Malt readers will recall this interview, from January 2016, with Mark Reynier, CEO of Waterford Distillery, which had recently commenced distilling for the first time. The first online interview about Waterford, it came over four years ago, which is a century in internet terms. It had all happened quite quietly, in a corner of Ireland, without much fanfare.
Actually, wait: let’s just roll that back a little further, back to this tweet:
@markreynier Congratulations. Look forward to ordering a bottle of whatever it is.
— Mark Newton (@MaltReview) November 29, 2014
At the end of 2014, I had congratulated Mark Reynier on his purchase of a new distillery, the Guinness brewery in Waterford, and was eager to see what was happening next. You see, my own personal fondness of whisky was mostly down to what Mark had been doing at Bruichladdich, before various board room shenanigans pulled him away from the project; before he’d really finished what he’d set out to achieve there.
In those days, at Bruichladdich, there was a lot of energy, eccentricity, curiosity. A narrative. Experimentations galore, from Octomore to X4 spirit to ACE-ing (a precursor to ‘finishing’), French oak being reintroduced to whisky, terroir experiments, local barley, race cars, submarines, webcams and military intelligence. That place was interesting, to say the least, certainly to me, and Bruichladdich was by far and away my favourite distillery.
Then, when Mark ‘left’, it all got… well. A bit safe; dull, if I’m honest, certainly compared to the madness of those previous years. I was very, very interested to see what he might do next.
Waterford began distilling right at the end of 2015, though the first proper Single Farm Origin distillations started in the new year of 2016. I interviewed Mark for Malt in 2016 and, around the end of that same year, I interviewed him again for a supplement on Irish whiskey in Whisky Magazine UK.
After that second interview, Mark sent me an email, suggesting he might need a bit of help at Waterford. Though I honestly had zero desire to work inside the whisky industry – indeed, I was carving out a nice little niche in whisky writing for Malt and various magazines – this was different. This project and the fellow running it was totally different. My reply was wincingly along the lines of I’d “give my right arm” to be involved.
We had lunch in Edinburgh. I remember the day quite clearly, as it was a day or so after AA Gill passed away. Being rather nervous at meeting a whisky hero for a pint, the very first thing Mark did was thrust that famous, terminal AA Gill column in front of me to read. Soon wine, food and gossip were consumed. Plans were hatched. There was also this rather interesting sugar cane project bubbling away in Grenada, and could I think about that too? Yes, yes I could. Later that day I met with Jason for a raid of Cadenhead’s, if I recall.
I came on board first as a freelancer – there was no need for someone full time in a brand/marketing/content-y role, as the distillery was very much focussed on making whisky. Simple as that. So a little bit of this, a little bit of that, grew into a bit too much of this, and a bit too much of that, and I plunged in full-time around late August 2018. Since then I have spent just under a week a month at Waterford – I’ve eaten out more in that city than any other during my entire life – and was made to feel very welcome by everyone there as that funny-dressing English lad who pops across all the time (and who drinks alcohol at a much slower rate…).
There’s nothing very complicated about the marketing (a word none of us like, sure, but that’s what it is) at Waterford. Indeed, what the distillery itself does – to me at least – is beautifully simple. On the one hand, our brand activity hugely, hugely content-driven – an insanely talented bunch of creatives are behind all of that; the rest is basically digital, connecting the appropriate, curious drinker around the world, no matter where they are, who they are, to a very interesting, in-depth and entertaining story – and one heck of a whisky. Perhaps more by luck than intent, a bit of a cult – culture – has developed around Waterford Whisky.
The branding project itself – developing that shiny blue bottle – was one of the most wonderful, if intense, experiences. A small group of people discussing every minute detail, a smart designer, no layers of approval or management, no focus groups, all with the singular aim of finding the appropriate way to present what we internally believed would be the world’s most profound single malt – or rather, a mind-fuck of a whisky. (Yes, we really did believe it – are we arrogant to think so? Perhaps. But would you rather we thought the whole thing was going to be just another everyday dram?) Distributors came on board: a process of explanation of the vision was required, what this is, what this is not. Clarity, definition. Journalists had come to visit, to explore, to write whatever they wanted to write – and, yes, folk from Instagram, YouTube, podcasters, blogs, because all of us understand that communities exist all over the place, in different forms. They could interact with whatever part of Waterford they wanted to –perhaps it helped to be a writer/blogger, as I understood the insult of being told what to write about or what to avoid.
Adventures at a glass manufacturing facility, that nailbiting moment as the bottles were revealed. Should we have a party? Yes, let’s have a party. The worry as this strange coughing virus began to meddle with production supply chains… COVID-19 struck. Our inaugural whisky’s launch party was cancelled.
Those of us in the UK were grounded in the UK, whist over in Ireland the bottling began. Recently this whisky, which I have before me today, was given out not too long ago to the local public as part of a coronva-safe drive-thru. That’s perhaps been the most difficult part: seeing the celebrations from afar – a bit like being injured before the big game, having to watch on from the bench.
All of the above is scratching the surface. It feels like a lifetime has passed in just a few years. But it’s pretty much a direct journey from Malt to Waterford Distillery and today back again – to address this elephant in the room.
All the while I have faded a little into the background around Malt – mostly as Jason and I were very conscious about the ethics of it all. Personally, I tended to lean towards reviews of projects or whiskies that I felt I could be positive about (no more Fujikai 10 for me). Anyway. Funny how things turn out, isn’t it? You never know where several years of whisky blogging will take you.
Well now, about that first Waterford Distillery bottling.
I suppose you’re going to want to know what went into it? 36 Irish barley crops, distilled individually; 4 barley varieties. The wood: 36% US First-Fill 35-litre blood tubs; 21% Virgin US oak, 22% Premium French Oak and 21% Vin Doux Naturel – sweet fortified wines. The whisky was matured for 3 years 5 months and 14 days. It’s a little of everything – individual farms, terroirs, cask types layered together as a coming together. In a way, it’s starting at the end – with a Cuvée, not the individual Single Farm components – but it seemed a fitting way to kick things off.
Waterford Distillery – 1st Cuvée: Pilgrimage – Review
Colour: deep copper.
On the nose: the breath of angels, a lot of vanilla sweetness (those turbocharging little blood tubs), a strong aroma of transparency and traceability, gloriously floral – jasmine and old roses, very barley-forward (trademark spirit character), Terry’s Chocolate Orange. Notes of big data, praline, Morello cherries, and Jamaican Ginger Cake, the outrage of corporate management.
In the mouth: oily notes of triumphant success, chewy soil profile photos, Seville Orange marmalade on heavily buttered toast, salted caramel chocolate, very gentle spices, the retreat of terroir deniers, warming ginger with sultanas, very, very oily (I mean very), fat, cloying, a touch of heather honey and wild, echoing laughter in the face of Big Whisky.
(Serious note: if you’ve tried the Single Farm Origins, this is basically chunkier, broader. It’s malted crack.)
Well, it’s clear I shouldn’t and won’t review Waterford whiskies on Malt. Did you expect me to do it seriously?
It highlights the difficulty in me saying too much on Malt these days in general, but hopefully, the elephant in the room has been safely escorted back outside. I’m not going anywhere. I hope, with this out of my system, to contribute more.
If our scoring system attempts to fold in the concepts of value into flavour, then the value derived from this whisky – to me, personally – would be off the scale. So it is: