Welcome to 2021, and good riddance, I’m sure you’ll agree to 2020.
We promised you some Waterford action didn’t we? And we like to deliver on our promises. Rather than just give you a single 1.1 review, or milk it into a series, we’re giving you a gigantic, steaming dump comprising of 6 Waterford reviews involving myself and Phil.
Finally, it is time to come off the side-lines to explore and discuss Waterford. The second most awaited debut of 2020 – after the Dornoch distillery. Ok, maybe the third, given the arrival of Nc’nean although that didn’t turn out as well as we had hoped, but it is early days. Please if you dare, cast your minds back to last year. I acknowledge that many of you have consigned the period to the virtual dustbin, given a horrendous spell wrapped around the menace of COVID-19, but its worth remembering things in whisky.
All the best-laid plans were gathered and thrown up into the air. Things that we took for granted were no longer there. Our freedoms and ability to the simplest of tasks were eroded and forced indoors. For distilleries, the mere ability to receive visitors or even produce spirit was put on hold. For Waterford, the Manchester United of the new distilleries, the desire remained strong to launch their .1 whiskies from various farms.
Before all of this, I made the executive decision not to write about Waterford for Malt and pause any articles on this topic. There was no appetite amongst the team to review, which helped. Nor was there a need to in my opinion join the initial rush. Let others scamper to be the first and talk about terroir and such-like. In the end, it was all fairly predictable and vapid. After a couple of years of deflecting comments and messages about being pro-Waterford and an unofficial voice for Reynier, the greatest gift was to underline our independence and freedom by waiting for when we were ready, which seems ironic as some of the whiskies we’re about to try haven’t exactly benefited from such a patient approach.
Now in 2021, we’re ready to talk about Waterford. I’m not going to bore you with terroir. The 2 main enticing things about its arrival were overlooked by many. Firstly, Ned a brewer by trade was now a whisky blender. I’ve always been a believer in that to create a decent whisky, you don’t need decades of experience. Starting with sweeping up in the courtyard, before moving into the warehouse, distilling and then onto higher positions. It’s an industry myth. Perpetuated by those who seek to follow its path or have done so. Finally, someone out there had the balls to hand over the inventory to a relatively inexperienced (no offence, Ned) individual and ask them to create their whiskies. This is hugely exciting and challenging.
Our patient approach also allows us the ability to compare and contrast farms. This couldn’t be achieved with a single release. Instead, we decided to wait and then time would grant us the opportunity to compare more farms and more releases. Sadly, we underestimated how many releases there would be; an unstoppable terroir freight train circled the whisky globe, Snowpiercer style.
I’ve been fortunate having known my co-editor here at Malt for some time now. I’ve tried Waterford before many others and when he wouldn’t let it out of his sight nearly 4 years ago on Speyside; the one time he did, it was used to boost a decaying campfire. I can confirm that Waterford makes for a great firestarter and for many out there on social media, it was the fuel to their fire; whatever their viewpoint. We had the eager distillery asskissers and the deniers. Somewhere in between, the actual liquid, or spirit at the heart of the matter was lost.
Due to that prior exposure, I know the new make spirits are different. The soil and environment play their part in this. For me, this is entirely clear and without question. I remember all those years ago, Mark being enthused by Waterford and trying 2 different new makes with others, interested to gauge their opinion. What remains a surprise was that some couldn’t detect a difference between the farms. To me, it was fairly pronounced. Despite some of these individuals being experienced in whisky and some industry. There seemed to be a reluctance to admit that this was even possible. I’m a little disappointed that you the reader won’t have that opportunity with the new make spirit. Because, and it is a big because, the influence of the wood now comes into the equation in an attempt to create complexity and flavour, or for some naysayers, hiding the youthful nature of the spirit.
Waterford Distillery – 1st Cuvée: Pilgrimage – Jason’s review
Colour: French gold bling.
On the nose: creamy, young with plenty of maltiness. Honey, gold leaf, orange zest and a touch of mace. Cherry stones, lemon oil, vanilla, bubble gum and the residue of an industrial cleaner after wipe down.
In the mouth: light, zesty and vapid. A very short finish with a flush of alcohol hotness or jeune in Waterford speak. Cardboard, limescale, apple and more orange zest.
Waterford Distillery – 1st Cuvée: Pilgrimage – Phil’s review
Colour: Sunlit gold.
On the nose: strawberry cheesecake, fudge, vanilla, assertive wood spice and a touch of new make spiritiness. Fresh cereals come to the fore with unripe nectarine and apricot. Almonds and hazelnuts too.
In the mouth: A nice oily mouthfeel on arrival. Sweet but tempered with spice. Caramel, vanilla, pear and stewed red berries followed by a burst of alcohol heat and chilli spice mid-palate. The finish is very short with that prickly heat dominating.
The Pilgrimage is a statement release and it shows. Combining 36 elements without a sense of cohesion. Mark’s talked more about the journey and the recipe previously. And as the inaugural bottling, expectations are low, but values are skyrocketing. That’s what you’re paying for in the end; a trophy rather than an actual whisky. The flavour here is very much led by the cask make-up. Without such wood, you have some rather insipid juice. That terroir is missing, as the wood is king.
Waterford Distillery Ballykilcavan 1.1 – Jason’s review
45% first-fill American oak, 28% French oak and 27% ex Vin Doux Naturel fortified wine casks.
Colour: white gold.
On the nose: green apples, sour cream, white grapes and a touch of cider vinegar. Cream cheese, melon, a fresh matchstick vibe, fudge and vanilla custard.
In the mouth: initially sharp and somewhat confused. Some apples, a touch of the rubber plant, twigs and more wood, but ultimately no progression, no development and not much of a finish.
Waterford Distillery Ballykilcavan 1.1 – Phil’s review
Colour: vegetable oil.
On the nose: really spirit driven with lots of assertive alcohol notes. After that alcohol punch comes lots of malt. Pine resin, lemon peel and struck matches. Apple, peach, strawberry and vanilla custard along with a slight coastal note.
In the mouth: A decent, creamy body here. Honeyed grain is very quickly replaced by alcohol heat and wood spice and raw ginger. A vegetal note follows with citrus pith. Finally, sweetness returns with caramel. The finish has a decent length but quite oak-driven with puckering spice the lingering element.
Waterford Distillery Bannow Island 1.1 – Jason’s review
35% first-fill American oak, 20% virgin American oak, 25% French oak and 20% ex Vin Doux Naturel fortified wine casks.
Colour: light caramel.
On the nose: mossy, damp and herbaceous initially. An odd construct of unused teabags, mould and a feeling of containment. Time is beneficial here. It unlocks a little sweetness and more creaminess. Now I’m picking up rice pudding, apples and marshmallows.
In the mouth: a much better mouthfeel than the Ballykilcavan, a buttery caramel, toffee apples and nutty in places. Butterscotch, wood sap, wafers, pecans and fresh wood.
Waterford Distillery Bannow Island 1.1 – Phil’s review
Colour: gold bullion.
On the nose: A nice nose to this one. Barley sugar, rye bread, star anise, milk chocolate, vanilla fudge and warming wood spice with a hint of furniture varnish. Apple, nectarine and orange peel too.
In the mouth: golden syrup and milk chocolate. Malt very present along with a dough character. Vanilla, dried ginger, anise, toasted oak and clove. Orchard fruit there too along with some pink grapefruit. The finish has a decent length with clove and peppermint lingering along with a sweet caramel note.
Waterford Distillery Ratheadon 1.1 – Jason’s review
On the nose: soft fleshy apples and pears, a delicate almost timid presentation with a touch of earth. Young and flat yes, somewhat deflated? Yes. Breadsticks, white chocolate and vanilla.
In the mouth: better on the palate, zingier and spirit-driven. Biscotti, lemon, fresh fruits, oats and a hint of coffee on the finish. A little mint chocolate as well with a touch of vanilla.
Waterford Distillery Ratheadon 1.1 – Phil’s review
On the nose: Quite a spicy nose this one…. virgin oak dominating proceedings here? Orange oil, nutmeg and eucalyptus. Cut lemons and fudge. Earthy loam, soured cream, digestive biscuit, green apple skins and peach. Still very new make orientated.
In the mouth: the spicy nose translates to the palate – again a bit virgin oak dominant. Fudge, pencil shavings, eucalyptus and leafy mulch. Very peppery. Dried oregano and bitter lemon. Not much fruitiness here. The finish is intensely lemony with a chalky character and a hint of caramel.
An interesting trio. Young, mostly wood driven, with the Ratheadon showing a little more spirit character. It was fun to compare and contrast and I’d always recommend you do so if you’re trying to pick up the differences or terroir for Waterford. There’s no escaping how young these whiskies are and that they feel that way, with limited depth and development. The wood tries to cover up the shortcomings to mixed effect. Initially, I didn’t like the Barrow Island, it seemed very flat and somewhat shallow. But, given time in the glass, it opened up nicely, felt more organic and just more at ease with its age.
So, after this stage, I feel like you can have the best barley and wood in the world, and yet if you don’t give it enough time to mature, then it counts for very little. Bimber has shown what’s possible at this end of the age spectrum. Sadly, this is the predicament of this trio. Whether that’s a business need or investment decision, it’s not uncommon for distilleries to want to tap into that cash stream asap; at the expense of the whisky. I know if I had a bottle of the Ratheadon or Ballykilcavan, I wouldn’t be making a repeat purchase as the entry price of £75 isn’t justified by the experience.
I know Mark will suggest that the differences above are the terroir. Whether good or bad, that’s what you’re nosing and tasting. At these youthful ages and cask recipes, you’re tasting more wood (premium or otherwise, it doesn’t matter) than the spirit of the farm. These are debuts and the starting points, so let’s try a difficult second album…
Waterford Distillery Bannow Island 1.2 – Jason’s review
Colour: premium oak.
On the nose: malty and a denser spirit than the 1.1. Mossy almost in parts, a cheap plonk aspect for sure with a tinge of alcohol, sawdust and apples. Melon, pine cones, limestone, white chocolate and fresh wood. Adding water brings out lemons, orange oil and a hint of tobacco.
In the mouth: the texture comes through now, more so than before yet the balance has shifted towards the wood. There’s not much depth or character. Shallow and harsh in places with some marmalade, kumquat and a tinge of alcohol. Water wasn’t really beneficial, shattering what cohesion was left.
Waterford Distillery Bannow Island 1.2 – Phil’s review
Colour: pale gold.
On the nose: This is very muted compared to BI 1.1. – certainly less wood influence. Fresh laundry, spring meadows and yeasty dough. Some furniture polish and wood shavings. A little caramel and baked apples.
In the mouth: lighter on the palate than 1.1. A little honey sweetness up front then it turns sour. Sourdough bread, lemon juice and green herbs. White pepper and damp cardboard. Definitely lacking in any of the fruity notes of BI 1.1. The finish is short and sour – I’m struggling to get past the cardboard.
Oh, this has regressed a touch for me, just enough to downgrade the score. I believe that’s the virgin wood coming to the forefront more even if a slight increase, or less outspoken casks elsewhere within the recipe. In other words, the wood has taken the front seat and upset the balance. There is more of a texture that some will appreciate and the influence that virgin wood delivers, particularly if you like Glenallachie. Sadly, I’m losing the quality of the Bannow Island farm that showcased promise in the 1.1.
The other aspect is these 1.2’s were brought forward by the flippers and in effect, flooding the market with Waterford’s has dampened their antics. These are readily available. Heck, I’ve even seen some discounted to £65 although that still feels a touch too much.
Does this whisky show development in maturity and the terroir? No, is the simple answer. I’d have liked to have seen more development from the core ingredients, I appreciate things were brought forward as it is a business and there was demand. But on the basis of this 1.2, it’s a hard sell if you already have the 1.1. You’re potentially best advised to sit out a couple of instalments before contemplating comparing again. And I think that’s a shame. What I optimistically hoped for, was to follow the journey and development; I’d rather pay less and ditch the fanciful wood flourishes and get to the heart of the matter.
Now, did someone say organic?
It’s peculiar that the use of organic in whisky has had a mixed result over the years. I can recall a single cask Deanston offering that was certified, but it was terribly soapy and not really a good showcase for such an undertaking. But more memorable are the farmers in my family, who tell me that organic is just bollocks. They don’t see the end result in crops and livestock actually benefiting from it, and for the consumer, it means you can charge more.
I’m more on the country boundary fence. There’s an irony to any organic whisky. At one time, whisky would have been organic rather than the industrialised and yield based format we’re used to nowadays. So, while whiskies from Leopold Bros., Hillrock or closer to home, the Springbank Local Barley series aren’t certified as being organic, to me, they have the heart and soul of that traditional process more than a badge. But as always, it comes down to the contents…
Waterford Arcadian Gaia Organic 1.1 – Jason’s review
This is 100% organic barley grown on seven Irish farms. The casks are a combination of ex-bourbon, virgin American oak, French oak and Vin Doux Naturel wine casks. Bottled again at 50% and available from The Whisky Exchange for £76.95, or Master of Malt will also charge £76.95.
On the nose: this really presents itself as a young Speysider whisky. It has the classic meadow fruits with apples and pears with some leisurely accessibility. Lemon peel, white pepper, vanilla marshmallows and caramel. Adding water showcases broken pebbles, chalky and a runny honey.
In the mouth: more pears and white pepper with some green apples that bring a touch of sharpness. Scottish tablet, and creamy vanilla. The addition of water reveals lemon and cereals.
Waterford Arcadian Gaia Organic 1.1 – Phil’s review
Colour: dry hay.
On the nose: crème Brulee, sweet malt and warm bread with a little earthiness. Lemon, lime and pink grapefruit with green banana. Very spirit driven.
In the mouth: : sweet initially with honeyed malt, crème caramel, peach and vanilla. Then the spice kicks in – ginger, pink peppercorns, peppermint and toasted oak immediately followed by the bitterness – lime and lemon peel and pink grapefruit flesh. The finish is again short with bitter grapefruit and citrus pith holding court.
This is a young and inoffensive whisky. It transports me to Speyside with its characteristics and approachability. But in doing so, I’m left questioning what sets this apart from older Speyside whiskies that come in around £20 cheaper?
What is the organic aspect bringing to this experience? We’re all moving to a more responsible environment (yes, even you, America) and less invasive practices. Is this the future? It is worth the premium? At this moment and time, I don’t think it is, but give it a few more years and we’ll see for sure. At least there are no soapy aspects whatsoever and it feels more natural than most of the whiskies above. In other words; better.
Jason’s overall thoughts
I’d like to start by saying this has been a difficult article to write because my co-editor obviously works for Waterford. Because of this, he’s had no insight into this article. We wanted to keep this as independent as every other Malt article.
While I’d love to give out high scores, the liquid is king, and right now it isn’t quite showing its full potential. However, this isn’t a hatchet job by any stretch of the imagination. We can discount the inaugural release because that’s exactly what it is. Everything else is fairly clear. Looking back over all of the above, I’d say Ned is doing well with the materials he can call upon. I don’t envisage any of the big-name blenders or master-whatever, doing any better with this inventory. That’s a real positive and hopefully, as mother nature delivers time in her, er timely fashion, the trend will be upward.
Also, there’s a fair amount of Waterford out there. In some respects, they make Bimber look positively sheepish when it comes to releases. But Waterford has the budget and capacity to produce more. This means, there’s a huge assortment of farms and editions already on the market. This gives you the opportunity to explore, although I’d suggest bottle splits with friends to keep the costs low. Such volume has kept the flippers thankfully at bay for now, but there is the risk of becoming anaesthetised to the sheer range and variety.
Reflecting more, I’d say all farms are not created equal. For instance, we have Bimber bottling at a similar age and maximising flavour before it hits the wood. Perhaps Waterford cannot hone down the flavour as much, because they are dealing with so many farms etc. That’s a strength and a flaw that needs to be understood. Some farms might not deliver the flavour necessary to create the whisky that you’re looking for. Another might hit the mark and it’s finding what suits you, which becomes the challenge. While I have no plans to explore Waterford in the near future, I’m optimistic that others here at Malt will offer their experiences as and when.
Phil’s overall thoughts
In a word: Disappointing.
Of six different whiskies I could only be positive really about the Bannow Island 1.1 which I though showed real promise and is actually quite balanced between nose and palate and although youthful is very drinkable. How version 1.2 fell off the cliff so much I cannot really get my head around. Certainly, Jason is welcome to keep that bottle.
As for the others – they all show promise but are clearly not ready. They have not achieved a decent integration between spirit and cask and mainly all fell down on the palate where their youthfulness and imbalance really shone through.
The head scratcher for me is that I have tasted better whisky at Waterford that couldn’t legally be called whisky due to its age than any of the six whiskies Jason and myself tried for this review. Granted these standout spirits were components matured exclusively in ex-bourbon, virgin oak, french oak and vin doux naturel rather than vattings but it highlighted that they have some seriously good stock laid down and that there is potential for something truly wonderful to come out of Waterford.
The thing that really disappoints me though is that Waterford hasn’t stuck to the method statement that resonated with me so much when I first visited and composed my distillery piece for Malt. Things like ‘We won’t bottle until at least 5 years old’, ‘If it isn’t ready it won’t be released’, ‘Single farm expressions would only be released it they were exceptional’, ‘It’s all about the Cuvee – we want people to discuss the different vintages – was 2016 better than 2018?’
But it clearly hasn’t been about the Cuvee with a flood of single farm origins and they certainly quickly forgot about the 5-year mark. Investor pressure? Taking advantage of increased interest in the Irish whiskey industry from abroad? Who knows? What I do know is that I feel this doesn’t help Waterford going forward. With so many farm expressions where’s the distillery character. Heck, where is even the single farm character as the Bannow Island expressions show, especially when wood components vary in the final mix?
Most importantly as a consumer how do I keep up with such a barrage of releases, especially at £75 a bottle? For me the simple answer is I won’t be, my finite resources will be spent elsewhere I’m afraid. That’s not to say that I won’t revisit Waterford again, far from it in fact. You see I know that Waterford can produce excellent spirit, I’ve tried it in the Willy Wonka style tasting room, so I’ll dip my toe in the waters again in say a year to see if and how things are progressing.
Samples not provided by Waterford distillery in any shape or form. Our thanks as always to those who contributed to making this article possible and for your patience.