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Waterford Distillery – 1st Cuvée: Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage bottle

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:

 

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 leastcertainly 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.)

Conclusions

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:

Score: 11/10

 

CategoriesIrish
  1. Avatar
    PBMichiganWolverine says:

    I just had their Ratheadon. I think these guys and Bimber have really set a template for what a new distillery needs to do. And if you have financing and time on your hands, then Daftmill has that template. The last time I liked a new to market product this much was over 10 years ago—-Kilchoman. Great work by these guys

  2. Avatar
    Kevin says:

    Mark, I appreciate what Waterford is trying to do, but a question. If the focus is to highlight the barley, why is there maturation in anything (French wine casks, Virgin oak) that might have an out-sized influence on the taste of the spirit? Why not just mature in ex-bourbon barrels?

    1. Avatar
      Mark says:

      The focus is to make the best whisky humanly possible, not to highlight the barley. That means terroir-driven production – these terroirs/farms can be enjoyed individually, as precise expressions of place, a vatting of different casks to provide different flavours (Single Farm Origin. But the ultimate aim is to bring these individually derived terroirs together, in the Cuvée, layer upon layer of flavour to provide unparalleled complexity. Pilgrimage somewhat foreshadows that.

  3. Avatar
    djr says:

    Despite missing out on this offering or the Ratheadon – I was lucky enough to pick up both the Ballykilcavan and Bannow Island releases and wasted no time to open them.

    I’ve never seen such transparency – I’ve been given info on the date the barley was sown, the variety sown, the average hours of Irish sunshine it enjoyed, when it was harvested, when it was malted, the fermentation time, every single cask used in its aging process. I learned that David Walsh-Kemmis the grower of the Ballykilcavan barley has a springer spaniel who loves bounding through the barley fields – do I need to know all this information? Probably not, but it all leaves you feeling a connection to the whisky which elevates the experience. You get the impression that no stone is unturned at Waterford distillery

    The whisky itself is super for a fairly young offering, oily, vibrant on the nose and a lasting finish – its streets ahead of any of the recent Irish whiskey first releases in recent years, from the complete let down of Teeling Pot Still to the impressive Dingle offerings.

    As much as I look forwards to future releases – the big question is will they become harder to source? Are there hundreds or thousands of unopened Waterford whisky bottles gathering dust from collectors or people trying to turn a profit on them? I hope not because this is whisky worth drinking.

    1. Avatar
      Mark says:

      Hi djr – very kind comments and delighted you enjoyed all that info. We need to get better at making some of the more obscure details more meaningful but we’re on the way.

      Harder to source? We’re trying to release more with each wave. The demand, we were told from distributors, was unprecedented – we’ve absolutely opened the floodgates, or are trying to, for the future. That said, one or two of those bottlings will start to be obscure as they’ll be regional/national exclusives in some corners of the world…

    2. Avatar

      I got these two as well and have really enjoyed them so far. I have some tasting notes on Instagram under @Epicurious_pursuits My main takeaway has been the distinct differences between the two and the fact that it only gets better from here. Sign me up for future releases!

    1. Avatar
      Mark says:

      Hi Matt. Yes, we’re imported by Glass Rev imports, and there will be three new Single Farm Origins (plus the organic) around October time.

  4. Avatar
    STUART IRVINE says:

    Hello there, its 4.19 am, and i am a plebe, at anything whiskey. I love a glass of exceptional red wine and this Waterford sounds as good. Where in South Africa would one be able to acquire a botlle or two of the Waterford Cuvee??

    1. Avatar
      Mark says:

      You’d do well to buy this 1st Cuvée – it was allocated only to ticket holders for the cancelled launch party, to reward those loyal early fans… In addition to the Single Farm Origin whiskies there will be another Cuvée though, but not until next year.

  5. Avatar
    Thijs says:

    It’s been fascinating to follow Waterford’s journey AND yours. It’s no hyperbole when I say that you’re one of my favourite whisky writers (always thoughtful, eloquent and insightful), so I do hope you can find a way to step into the MALT limelight a little more in the future. I understand it’s a fine line to walk, but I certainly would trust you to be ethical in whatever you write. I’ll stop blowing smoke now before it gets too embarrassing 😉

    Either way, congrats on this massive highlight. I hope many more will follow.

  6. Avatar
    Darren says:

    I attended the Bruichladdich Academy in 2008 and met Mark Reynier and found his passion for whisky making inspiring. I have therefore followed the Waterford Distillery progress with great interest and managed to pick up a couple of the first two releases which will get opened once my current open bottle count goes down.

    My daughter thinks this is all a little gimmicky but at the end of the day most of us are geeks and to see the fields where the barley was harvested and know the dates etc is fantastic and a great USP for the distillery. I know the quality of the whisky will be high. Not sure it is going to get a 11/10 from Jason!!

    1. Avatar
      Mark says:

      That Academy is properly old school! Yes, I suppose this is unashamedly for geeks.

      You never know, Jason may eventually develop a taste for the finer things in life… Asking a lot from a man who enjoys Irn-Bru.

  7. Avatar
    Welsh Toro says:

    Nice try Mark, but you really shouldn’t be reviewing it, particularly on Malt of all places. You’ve been open about your involvement with Waterford for a long time and that’s fair enough but to review a whisky on this platform is a bit naughty. Don’t get me wrong it’s a good piece but I wouldn’t be interested in a Macallan review by a Macallan rep would I? I want to take that last sentence back but I can’t quite can I? I’m looking forward to tasting a Waterford, if I can get my hands on any for what I deem a good price. I’m very much looking to seeing if terroir means a damn in a spirit outside of the science within the distillery. Please don’t beat me up, I’m not trying to be provocative, well maybe just a little but that’s what we do at Malt right? Cheers. WT

    1. Avatar
      Mark says:

      I’ll refer you to my line: “Well, it’s clear I shouldn’t and won’t review Waterford whiskies on Malt. Did you expect me to do it seriously?”

      Perhaps try again, reading in the morning and not late at night (too many drams?) and contemplate how much happier you’d be stepping away from the keyboard sometimes.

      1. Avatar
        Darren says:

        I disagree with WT. As long as it is transparent and we know the circumstances it is sometimes good to get views from an insider.

      2. Avatar
        Welsh Toro says:

        I did ask you not to beat me up. As a matter of fact I’m always pleased to see you back getting a review done on Malt. Reading again in the morning I would concur with Darren that a view from the inside can be insightful. Speaking to one another I have to say, in my defence, that I value and respect all the reviewers on Malt and I apologise if I caused any offence. All the best. WT

  8. Graham
    Graham says:

    Great tongue-in-cheek way to mark the debut. We were fortunate to try some of the range with the London Whisky Club and was impressed with the potential.

    I look forward to trying the first cuevé for general release.

    1. Avatar
      Mark says:

      Appreciated, Graham. Yes, I think the rather encouraging thing is: it’s not going to get any younger. These are only going to get better!

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