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A Trio from Waterford Distillery

Waterford Whisky Trio

Look, let’s not pretend there isn’t an elephant in the room here. There is a herd really; if we’re honest the space is crammed with them – at this point it’s less a room than a crushed morass of tusk and trunk, and the RSPCA really ought to be made aware. I have spilled no shortage of ink on the subject of terroir in whisky, much of it poorly judged, some of it vitriolic and a few instances downright insulting.

The arguments against my wading into the subject again are sensible and compelling and were this not perhaps my last post on Malt and possibly the last thing I shall ever write on whisky I would probably leave it alone. There will be those who, on seeing my name at the top of this piece, and the ‘t’ word a few lines below, will have left the page entirely or will disregard everything I subsequently have to say, and I understand that completely. I do. Those of you still reading (thank you) are free to take everything that follows with a pinch of salt, and a promise that this won’t be from the old school of slung mud and confrontation. This is, I hope, something else.

Terroir is an idea that resonates with me because, as I wrote in this article on cider, I have always believed that drinks which have a place have a soul. And that the further you dig into the specifics of that place, the more sharply the uniqueness of that soul is brought into focus.

But, if I’m honest, I never used to believe that “terroir” applied to whisky. When I thought of a whisky’s place, I thought of distilleries. Of the singular character brought about by the choices of grain, of yeast, of fermentation and distillation times and the point at which the spirit is cut. Of the amelioration of that spirit in particularly chosen barrels. The idea that the location in which the barley grew made a difference was one I dismissed almost out of hand. The broil and fury of distillery process, I told myself, would overwhelm such nuances to the point of irrelevance.

I changed my mind in the evening of March 9th, 2016. I was on Islay with my father at the time; we were touring the distilleries for my original blog and, having trotted around Kilchoman and Bruichladdich that day, were sitting in the bar of the Port Charlotte Hotel with glasses of I-remember-not-what. It wasn’t that I had been won over especially by the guide at Bruichladdich – indeed I think that the fact I had just been to Bruichladdich was pure serendipity. I was drinking this glass of something scalpingly peated (I suspect Ardbeg but my father may remember more accurately – he usually does) when it occurred to me that, despite the ravages of smoke, despite the intensity of distillation, despite years in oak casks, there was still no way you would mistake this drink for anything but a single malt.

The layers peeled themselves back from there. If it was unmistakeably a single malt – rather than a blended whisky, a rye, a bourbon, a grain – then it was unmistakeably made from malted barley; no other cereal would give off the same flavours and aromas. And if it was so clearly made from barley then, by extension, perhaps a different variety of barley would give off a different organoleptic signature. And if varieties of barley affected the flavour of whisky, then why shouldn’t there be a chance that those varieties were themselves affected by the vagaries of the climate and landscape in which they grew? If I could taste the plant – which I demonstrably could – why shouldn’t it be possible that I might also taste the place?

That evening, a few more of the bar’s selection later, I addressed a tweet to Mark Reynier asking whether I might pose a few questions on the subject. When he replied in the affirmative with an email address I fired off a few no-doubt vacuous queries. It couldn’t have been more than a day or two later that a comprehensive response arrived. I still have the printout somewhere or other. I remember he opened with: “it’s not rocket science”.

I can’t be certain, but I’m relatively sure that Mark (our Mark now, keep up) only noticed me when I started chipping in enthusiastically whenever he spouted anything new about terroir on twitter, which was often. In which case, to some extent or other, it is largely because of a belief that the influences of terroir ought theoretically to be able to manifest themselves in mature, bottled whisky that I am writing to you here. And inevitably, if we are talking about terroir in whisky, the roads all lead to Waterford.

They’ve published their scientific paper now, proving that it is possible for the impact of place to effect a whisky’s flavour, and predictably there’s been what, in whisky terms, passes as a big hoo-hah about it in national newspapers, which is to say it’s been the subject of a handful of middle-pages articles. Decanter penned something too, which seemed ironic given at least one of its prominent contributors has outspokenly dismissed the idea that terroir could have a role to play in whisky. (But then all the best publications offer a broad church of opinion.)

I’m not sure in the immediate term that many minds will be changed by this publication. The question “well ok – what actually is the difference that it makes” will likely and not unreasonably linger. Those who always thought terroir would prove itself “a thing” will feel smug; those who thought it was all a lot of quixotic nonsense will point out that, so far as the drinker is concerned, the most salient point hasn’t been addressed. Fine – terroir can exist. Tell us what to do with that information.

The problem with the notion of terroir in whisky is that unravelling its identity is something that will necessarily demand significant patience in an age when that commodity is wearing thin to the point of non-existence. Let’s say I buy Waterford’s Bannow Island 1.1 (I did). Its bottle – and the website link to which its unique code takes me – are an embarrassment of terroir. I know the soil type, the geographical location, the aspect, the elevation and the farmer’s name. I can even tell you how the waves of the sea sound from the barley field. But I can’t tell you how all of that impacts Bannow Island 1.1’s flavour in a unique, idiosyncratic way. I can only say, frustratingly (and I should have considered the ‘frustratingly’ when I first started writing on this subject) that logically it somehow should. Perhaps not the waves so much.

However terroirs prove themselves to manifest themselves in whisky, it will be in significantly less overt fashion than they do, at their starkest, in wine. Or, dare I say it, even cider. Whisky is a creature of multitudes; the disconnect between whisky lovers and whisky marketers stems from the fact that marketers want a single hook – age, colour, casks – and those of us who love whisky know that it is the product of many. Barley may be the engine that drives single malt, and the nature of that barley may well be affected by growing conditions, but the flavours in your glass have been abetted by so many, many things since the harvester brought it in.

The grains – have they been conventionally ground, or crushed as they are at Bimber? Malting: was it done on floor, or in huge industrial vats? Was peat used, and if so how much? Did you mash in a tun or with a filter? How hot was the water, how many waters were used? What yeasts were chosen to conduct fermentation, how long did the fermentation take and at what temperature? How large and bulbous and long-necked are your stills? What angle is their lyne arm set at? Direct fire or steam coil? What is the temperature and speed of distillation, and is the distillate condensed in worm tubs or in shell and tube? How and when are you making the cuts from foreshots to heart to feints? What strength are you filling your spirit into casks at, and what sort of casks are you maturing in? Where was the oak from, what did they hold before, how many times have they previously been used for whisky and how long have you matured your whisky in them? Do you store your casks in a dunnage warehouse, or are they palletised? Are you maturing your casks in the same location as your distillery or somewhere else entirely? When you bottle your whisky, how are you filtering it? How much water are you adding and are you adjusting the colour? Does this bottling come from just a single cask or from across a vatting of types? And how many hundred other pertinent questions has this paragraph missed out?

The endless fascination of whisky is that it is not simple. The “barley, water, yeast, oak” line is a popular one but it belies the mesmerising complexity of bringing whisky to life – of the thousand, thousand decisions that has led to Glenfiddich 12-year-old and a single sherry cask Bimber and Ardbeg Uigeadail and Samaroli Laphroaig 1967 and Waterford Bannow Island all being single malt. That has led to so many hundred switched on, obsessive devotees. That has led to arguments over whether terroir could be a thing in whisky, and whether it would even make a difference if it was. Remove or alter any one of those decisions and the resultant drink is, in some way, however small, ameliorated or diminished. There is no convenient shorthand for what matters most to whisky. But set against that sea of variables, the tangible difference that Bannow Island’s terroir makes is never going to reveal itself over the tasting of just a few expressions – even set against any number of other single farm bottlings. 

It took Burgundians centuries to understand their terroirs; it will take no end of tasting across cask types and vattings and strengths and ages and other farms to gradually build so much as an organoleptic hint of what Bannow Island or Ballykilcaven or Ratheadon or Sheestown might be trying to say. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t mean that your curiosity should be trivialised; that you shouldn’t be permitted to wonder. And, as an additional aside, I don’t think that the differences are nullified by blending – I think they are built upon with appreciable deliberation. Which is to say that I have just as much time for the Cuvées as for the Single Farms, and am perfectly happy to accept the different roles that terroir has to play in both.

Waterford captured my imagination as a drinker because they allowed themselves to be wholly known. Because they were prepared to talk openly about every element and ingredient that went into the creation of their whisky. Perhaps they didn’t always get their tone right (look who’s talking, anyway) but as a drinker I felt that my curiosity was being taken seriously. I felt that my questions were being answered not just with the convenient brand response, but with the truth. Their investigation of terroir engaged me, but at the same time I could see their working in every other respect, through mashing, fermentation, distilling and cask. I had a clear sense that the distillery wanted me to know what had gone into the bottle. That they understood that, almost irrespective of separate liquid quality, it would make the drinking – at least to someone like me – more profound. 

I have three single farms to taste today. All 1.1s – the first edition from each farm – Ballykilcavan, Ballymorgan and Bannow Island. Each has been vatted across several cask types: ex-bourbon, virgin American oak, virgin French oak and ‘Vins Doux Naturels’, which is Waterford’s catchall for port, sherry, dessert wines and so on. There have been some concerns raised about whether this vatting of casks will negate the effects of terroir, or render it more difficult to discern what elements derive from where. I don’t wish to wade in swinging, but my own take is that by consistently marrying different cask types, it should, after enough single farm expressions, be clearer when certain notes are regularly presenting through them. Certainly in Burgundy producers use varying degrees of new and old oak, and there are precious few arguments concerning the existence of terroir there. But again that’s just a general aside.

Each bottle cost £69.95, which is admittedly on the pricey end for very young whisky. Nonetheless, my curiosity and anticipation was sufficiently rampant to buy them on the spot. My scores, as usual, are marked in line with expense.

Waterford Ballykilcavan 1.1 – Review

Colour: Young white wine

On the nose: No doubting what this was made from – a big malty blast of barley straight away. Not an especially fruity spirit; this is bran and husk and earth and iron. Some sweet vanilla too and a bit of custard cream. Almost a touch of salty dough. Young, certainly, but broad enough not to express as raw.

In the mouth: Lovely texture. Really oily. The youth comes across a little more pronouncedly here – white pepper and chilli heat amidst the vanilla and Werther’s Originals. Still very malt and barley led – big gristy flavours with a youthful ester or two buzzing around amidst the husk and earth. Not my pick of the three – shows its youth a bit – but still a good spirit with a lot to say. Marked accordingly.

Score: 5/10

Waterford Ballymorgan 1.1 – Review

Colour: A tone darker. That white wine is now oaked

On the nose: Follows in the footsteps of the colour – everything a notch richer and darker. Still a big waft of malt and barley and rich loam, but we’re into fresh-baked wholemeal loaf territory now, and a fruitiness is starting to emerge – dried orange, dark chocolate and nutmeg. Good intensity. Nice.

In the mouth: Darker and richer again – holds its heat better than the Ballykilcaven which gives that lovely texture more spotlight on which to carry the flavours. Chocolate malt and dark chocolate orange. Branflakes, soily dunnage warehouse. A touch of vanilla, black pepper and clove. Complex and, though young, cerebral fare that is lovely to spend time contemplating.

Score: 6/10

Waterford Bannow Island 1.1 – Review

Colour: See Ballymorgan

On the nose: The malty character – which at this point I think is reasonable to assume is the makings of Waterford’s distillery stamp – is still here in husk and breadcrust form, but this is the fruitiest of the trio by some measure. Baked apples, poached pears. Cinnamon Grahams (do they still make those any more, and what’s their name now?) Honey and brown sugar. It’s a ripe, rounded, really lovely nose.

In the mouth: The texture-heat balance matches the Ballymorgan, which is to say it’s jolly good. Spiced honey, apple strudel and sultana. Golden raisin. Vanilla pod. We’re getting some depth here but the malty earthiness keeps a grippy tiller hand underneath and emerges on the back palate. As complex as the Ballymorgan but a little friendlier and fruitier. My favourite of the three.

Score: 7/10

Conclusions

If these represent the beginnings of Waterford’s journey then I will continue to follow the distillery’s progress with keen interest. What I like, and what is refreshing, is that a lot of the new whiskies emerging from young distilleries, whilst very delicious, either tread similar ground to each other, or have looked to pack as much oak influence as possible into their inaugural bottlings.

These Waterfords, with their distinctly malty signature, are treading different ground to any of the sweet young things I’ve reviewed in the last few years. (Which, looking back, is a lot.) I can see a distillery pattern to emerge and I will enjoy attempting to trace it as the releases grow older, richer and more complex. They have got off to a thumping start.

As to terroir? I suppose I may never be able to taste enough to put my finger on exactly what it brings to the bottled party. But at least, with time, I will be able to keep searching, and I am profoundly grateful that a distillery is prepared to offer that opportunity. As Serge Valentin, with typical thoughtfulness, put it: “terroir is there if you want it to be, and not if you don’t.” I wish I’d had the grace and security to consider it in those terms a long time ago.

I started writing about whisky as something to share with my friends. The spirit and the places in which it was made resonated with me, and the person I used to unpick it all with was no longer around. The deeper I dug, the more I wrote, the more I wanted to know – and the more frustrated I became when it seemed transparency was substituted for marketing. When it seemed details were being withheld. That frustration didn’t always manifest as it should have done, and so it’s probably right to slip away into the wings now – I virtually had already. But if this is the last article I write about whisky then I’m glad that it’s on a distillery which I feel has told me everything, and which did so without my having to ask. I’m glad that it’s on a distillery that understands so tangibly that some people genuinely care about the fine print. I’m glad that it’s on something about which I can truly and whole-heartedly enthuse. I’m glad that I know what the waves sound like from the shores of Bannow Island. 

For everything that went into them and everything they represent – the making, philosophies, transparency and care – these Waterfords fill my soul. They are good whiskies. I would recommend them to my friends. That feels like the right note to end on.

CategoriesIrish
Adam Wells

In addition to my weekly-ish articles on Malt I write about whisky for Distilled and cider for Graftwood and Full Juice Magazines. Somewhere amidst all that I've also done the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. I share my home with several hundred bottles, one geophysicist and a small fluffy whirlwind called Nutmeg. For miscellaneous drinks banality, find me on twitter at Twitter.com/DrinkScribbler

  1. Graham says:

    Adam,

    Interesting article and certainly capturing the totality of the complex argument for terroir in whisky. Having read the scientific study commissioned on their new make I can accept that it’s certainly evident in the new make. As to whether it’s clear in matured whisky, you make a reasonable argument that only time will tell. For me, personally, I hope they are putting single Farm spirit into some knackered old hogsheads to mature for the next 20 years that can be studied and enjoyed and perhaps lay that whole argument to rest with some deliciously bright spirit forward honest whisky.

    1. Mark says:

      As it happens, the maturation part is being planned for the Waterford research. Rob Arnold (we have an interview with him soon on Malt) has studied similar for bourbon at academic level. He notes in his paper on his preliminary studies for bourbon, the maturation effect does not mask terroir. Rather it may even enhance those differences.

  2. Craig says:

    Last ever review? What a shame! You have written some great reviews on malt along the way.

    I found my tastes sort-of matched yours more than some other authors so I’ll miss your voice here.

    Best of luck with the apple world!

  3. The Third Mark says:

    Just a thought, that when I first found out about Waterford I assumed it’d be all single casks to highlight those unique terroir outcomes. But I’ll defer to their expertise.

    I am curious where consumer interest will settle on Waterford. Obviously there was the initial frenzy for the bright new thing, from both avid whisky drinkers and collectors/ flippers. Will the everyday punter continue on this journey? Jason opined on the other article that .2 releases are still seemingly plentiful available.

    It’s all speculation in any case as none of it will ever make it down to Australia. The other MALT article today comments on the plethora of releases circulating the globe. Waterford, please don’t forget about the worlds largest island and the only island that’s also a continent.

    1. Mark says:

      The single cask thing is interesting: it’s very hard to tell what’s wood and what’s terroir. It’s a single frame from a movie, very hard to see the picture. But when you put together an assemblage, the outlier cask influence is brought into balance, and the terroir – that farm’s spirit – becomes much clearer. I’ve done it before loads in Ned’s lab: those single casks tell you very little.

      Australia is exceptionally difficult to get into, and it’s not for the want of trying. Things aren’t easy launching during a pandemic and there are very few windows of opportunity, with even fewer gatekeepers, to get into the market. It’s not quite as tough as Sweden in their state-owned system, but it’s still not simple, and surprisingly bureaucratic.

      Perhaps a lack of real choice is the price to pay to live on the world’s largest island and the only island that’s also a continent.

      1. Mark down under says:

        We like it here well enough, and I know Waterford is trying. It’s not as though Bimber has made it down here either. You might be surprised at the wealth of whisky available down here through local retail. Thanks for the response

    2. James says:

      Not sure Australia’s size will work in your favour – whiskey is sold to people, not ground, and despite being 32 times larger than the UK, it’s got less than 2/5ths of the population. Heck, it’s got less than 4 times the population of Ireland. So even when you’ve transported the whiskey to Australia, you’ve still got a huge job of distributing it around the country to get it to a significant population.

  4. Ben says:

    good read as always!

    sad to see you go, your writings will be missed.
    best of luck on your new journey and fare thee well!

      1. Adam Wells says:

        Cheers Ben

        True, “never” is a very big word. I know where Malt is, and they know where I am, and if nothing else I’ll always be a huge supporter.

        Just not sure where I’m going to find time to do more! And was running out of whisky things that I really wanted to say and felt were being under-said elsewhere. We’ll see.

        Thanks again

        Adam

  5. Jessica says:

    Nice summation of the complexities of a simple liquid. At this point, the dismissiveness of terroir in distilled spirits is frustrating. It’s one thing not to realize that spirits retain enough flavor compounds through the entire distillation process, but once that has been shown, what’s the point of continuing to deny it? I think people just don’t like their worldview rocked. On anything. However, I’ve had plenty of discussions with people about this that simply ended when I put an array of Waterford drams in front of them. Not a scientific manner of arguing, to be sure, but it has worked.

    1. Adam Wells says:

      Jessica, thank you very much.

      I suspect the organoleptic evidence will eventually become irrefutable – and I think that will have more of an impact (perhaps sadly) than the scientific report.

      A very good point on worldview – I’ve struggled to make mine more pliable in the past. Not much chance of any sort of change without it.

      Thanks again for reading and taking the time to feed back.

      Best wishes

      Adam W.

  6. Scott Handley says:

    Adam,
    Another great read and thought provoking, which I think is the essence of what makes this site such a great and educational read, for those who love our hobby. I’d rather read articles that challenge you than sickly sweet reviews a la Whiskey Magazine,and if you’ve upset some along the way, then that’s their issue.
    I started reading this site in 2019, and to date, your article of 19 June 2019 is by far the best, and most important piece on whisky written on this site or any other, IMO. It should be pinned for all of us as essential reading, for whatever stage our whisky journey is on. I ended up in hospital with Covid in January, and as part of the usual tests done, it transpired that my liver was in a bit of a mess what with “fatty tissues” caused by alcohol etc. Thankfully all is now back in order and after such a scare, and a bollocking from my doctor’s, I now treat my hobby with a great deal more respect. I hope someday perhaps one of the writers will tackle the issue of the preponderance of cask / high strength whiskies (whether in reviews or those most sought after) which seem to be universally considered “better” than mere 40-46% strength – just how the hell is anyone to drink all this whisky over 50/60% safely without ending up with liver disease is beyond me. I re-read your article and it means so much more when you have been through a scare.
    So, sorry you won’t be posting on here again and best wishes for the future.

    1. Mark P says:

      Mark Newton did write such a review on MALT decrying the devotion to high strength whiskies. I can’t link to it just now but you’ll surely find it with a little effort. It was in the last couple years and Mark hasn’t been prolific in that span

        1. Mark says:

          Hi Mark P. Thanks – yes, found it: https://malt-review.com/2019/04/30/two-nickolls-perks-exclusives/ – you’re right, and perhaps post-pandemic I suspect this issue has become worse. Super high cask strength, combined with people’s mental health suffering (just look at online discourse this past year) and lack of ability to leave the house (too much home drinking, nothing else to do) are, I fear, making things even worse on this front. We are collectively not in a good state. Perhaps I need to address this again. PS – hope to write more!

    2. Adam Wells says:

      Hi Scott

      Ah, many thanks indeed for reading and for your support.

      I’m glad that the 2019 article struck a chord – and even more so that your health is in good order. I’ve been thinking a lot about that piece during lockdown, and how I’ve not always been the best at taking my own advice. It’s a pretty troubling subject, but definitely one that I think we shouldn’t be afraid of discussing. We’re all in the same boat, after all, if we’re reading and writing articles on a drinks hobbyist site.

      Very best wishes and thanks again

      Adam W.

  7. David says:

    Very true gents. A hobby of consuming one of the most harmful and addictive drugs on our planet on a weekly basis is scary, and at 60% abv terrifying. A fork in the road moment.

    1. Scott Handley says:

      Thank you to both Mark’s for the link and the article, I enjoyed reading it and the comments after.
      Totally agree David. Before I fell ill one of the whiskies I had just opened was Bookers bourbon at around 63%. Sipping this in a glencairn is now out the question , so heavily diluted in a long drink with lots of ice and tonic water is the only way I’ll be getting through that bottle. I also got the Blue Spot , which is at 58%. Perhaps the intention of Middleton’s is to drink this as is, but any more than the smallest sip would be irresponsible of me now, so no drop of water here, it will be an extra 5-10ml of water to bring the abv right down. Or as it’s unopened, perhaps I should sell it on (joke!!).
      One major disadvantage of cask strength is that unlike the reviewers who may taste a small sample, once bought you end up with a full bottle and spittoons for tasting or pouring it down the sink if you don’t like it, really isn’t an option given the price of these bottles. Often as well, many of us will feel the need to drink up the bottle before having the space / money to buy that next must have whisky. It can soon be a very slippery slope downhill for our health. My intentions before I was ill was to drink these bottles as is, now I wonder if I should even bother buying cask / high strength again, given I’ll now be drinking them diluted, which seems to go against the point of them in the first place.
      There just seems to be so many of these now, they dominate the reviews. I suppose it would be good to see reviews of these whiskies where water has been added to a more “healthier” abv, and that may provide a more informed choice as to whether to stump up the extra cost if it appeals.

      1. Mark says:

        Oh wow, me too. Liver enzymes raised, a trip to the consultant, a fibroscan. I basically haven’t drank alcohol on a regular basis for some time, and now my liver enzymes are back to normal. But I don’t know whether I should be starting again more moderately or just giving it up all together. I have a lot of whisky sitting around in the house and I haven’t decided whether to put the unopened bottles up for sale. I really enjoyed whisky as a hobby for a period of time but it looks like game over to be honest.

  8. Jakob says:

    Very sorry to see you go Adam. I enjoyed your articles the most on Malt. You have a very engaging writing style that is a pleasure to read. Fortunately, my palate also seemed to line up with yours. In the early days of covid I went through all of your reviews and created a list of must try whiskies that I’m slowly working my way through. I’m glad you enjoyed the Waterford! I was a bit worried when I read Phil and Jason’s review!

    1. Adam W. says:

      Hi Jakob, and apologies for the belated reply.

      That’s very kind of you – I’m so glad you enjoyed my articles. I’ve so enjoyed my years on Malt and I’m very excited to watch the site go from strength to strength with new leadership and a new chorus of voices.

      I can certainly recommend the Waterfords – the Bannow Island in particular. Big, robust malty whiskies. Great cerebral fare.

      Happy exploring and thank you so much for reading over the years.

      Best wishes

      Adam W.

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