Feeling a little blue….

Welcome to my first blog!! Bit scary to be honest, and as with the horticulture and the whisky scene, it’s a pretty saturated arena. So why bother? Well, I generally have an opinion on most things, and clearly it’s always the right opinion and the world should know this. I’ve been thinking about a blogging for a while. I have a whole list of subjects to write about, but so does everyone else. However, an experience endured yesterday gave me the push I probably didn’t need. Waterford. There I said it. Waterford gave me the push.

I have sat on the side lines and watched whisky social media tear itself into pieces over what has been viewed as likely one of the most controversial approaches to whisky there has been for a while, and it amuses me. I have a curious mind. I enjoy science. I work in horticulture. So to see a brand experimenting and seemingly setting out to confirm the existence and effect of “Terroir” on the flavour of whisky is interesting to say the least. I am not going to write about the experiment. It’s all available on the Waterford webpages, and it’s pretty nerdy. You can see which farm has which soils and which Barley has been grown in it and the whisky that barley has gone into. I like that *idea*. I’m not really going to speak about the samples I tried last night too much. They’ve all been covered in more depth by other bloggers and Vloggers. But I will write my first hand experience of a *tasting* of Waterford whiskies, with Mark Reynier.

Sussex Whisky Appreciation Group (SWAG @WhiskySussex) had kindly let me take the last space on a Zoom tasting and given the buzz about Waterford I was keen to witness for myself the man leading the “Terroir” project. When I joined Mark Reynier (MR) was holding court, and I did wonder if I was late to the party (obviously not, I’m never late). However it wasn’t clear if this was a general chat, lecture, tasting or what really. A few people tried to ask if there was an order for the whiskies. Most of us who see the “tasting” word assume we will sample the drams in a particular order so we can understand the development of the liquid while take note of the nose, the palate, the finish…but no. Just drink it. In fact drink it, add water to it and throw all the samples into one glass and mix them together (MR’s instructions, not mine).

However I did ignore this to start with as I wanted to try these samples as I would with any other whisky. The Ballykilaven and Bannow Island were quite similar to me. Grassy on nose with with a chemically undertone which I can only liken to a diluted version of the Buttercup medicine I had as a child. Palate is biscuity, sweet with a short finish. The Ratheadon for me is a far more balanced and enjoyable dram. I added a little water to all three…for me it neither improved or made worse the palate. However, MR was right, mixing all three together is a significant improvement….which as we discovered is the ultimate aim; a blended whisky.

As the talk went on, MR’s passion for the project became more and more apparent, however, so did the contempt and disdain for anyone who had a question. I am all up for debate and learning, however for people who genuinely want to ask questions, to be shot down, over talked and not allowed to finish their questions is just plain disrespectful. But I digress…

A number of claims (lets call them soundbites) were made during the talk;

“Waterford will NOT give you a hangover”

“No fixed recipe, it’s a floating margin” when asked about production process to maintain the barley/terroir flavour profile.

“Don’t open it (sic), it will make a lot of money one day” when speaking about Pilgrimage.

I found MR contrary, circular, and at times downright frustrating, but only from the point of view that he contradicts himself regularly. We were told that wood is not important, but minutes later we’re told that only the best French oak from the best Chateau’s will do and that “Every whisky benefits from it’s time in oak” (MR) … From a basic scientific point of view we know that wood has a number of properties and effects on a spirit most notably, flavour. It’s why certain woods, treatments and dare I say “finishes”* are employed by a a distiller. (*MR doesn’t agree with finishing casks either).

Back to the geekiness; my ears pricked up when MR noted that coming up for Waterford will be the development, growth and use of 3 Heritage barley varieties; Hunter (last used 1979), Goldthorpe (c1900) and Old Irish (Bere). (NB all these were noted by MR so he is the source here, not research on T’interweb). I asked MR “How” these varieties will be developed to maintain true seed, and vigour, given that Waterford, right now is “Terroir” driven and if terroir has an impact on flavour, then surely maintaining the health of the grains, chosen for flavour is of paramount importance. The response was somewhat vague, so I assume it will be done within controlled conditions, though MR was clear it wouldn’t be in a covered, “clean” area, but with use of contamination barriers. I will watch the recording and see if I can glean anymore (whisky was being consumed by all of us at this stage).

Winding up. Towards the end of the meeting, more questions were asked, more opinions and comments given, and woe betide anyone who tried to push the Terroir/flavour/production process. A generalised question, which I know many people are asking is ” If you are going to tell us to mix the whiskies, if you’re going to blend them altogether…what’s the point of *proving* Terroir exists in the first place?” The response, no surprise was (pp) “If you haven’t been listening to me then why i have I been here for the last 1 1/2 hours? Maybe its not for you, go back to drinking any other whisky, Waterford isn’t for YOU”. (This is my polite version).

As someone who works in horticulture, I am on board with “Terroir”, otherwise known as environmental factors. Reports and studies abound show that environmental factors affect growth, and flavour of everything. MR doesn’t believe any reports into the existence of “Terroir” exist. A shallow dive into any search engine provider will bring up various studies and articles. I will of course send him some links, just to help out.

To conclude, I got what I was expecting from the experience. I already agree that “terroir” is a thing. I don’t need convincing of that. It was made pretty clear that this is just the beginning of the Waterford journey and that ultimately the goal is a blended whisky, where in essence whether you can taste “terroir” or not, it makes no difference. Drink it or don’t. Like it or don’t. MR doesn’t care what you think, it’s his project, his baby and he’s playing with it. I look forward to trying more whisky from Waterford, to see how it develops. The story is interesting, we’re all talking about it. And thats the thing isn’t it? We’re all talking about it. It’s all that is needed to sell a Whisky.

I’ll leave you with Mark’s final comment (after he told us he’s had enough and is going for his tea and bailing from the meeting)..

“Terroir will not be mentioned after the end of this year” (MR)

Published by Claire Vokins

My am involved in whisky and horticulture. I own a small professional garden care company with a focus on working in a sustainable way. Whisky enthusiast. Studying "Politics, Philosophy and Economics" with the Open University. Stoic.

4 thoughts on “Feeling a little blue….

  1. Great write up! I agree that terroir plays a part in many things, including whiskey. The very salt air or lack of near a Rick house/aging warehouse, the water used, the soil the organic components are grown in, the elevation, everything pretty much plays a part. We see it in grape 🍇 growing, in coffee beans, in cigar tobacco, and certainly in the corn 🌽 rye, wheat 🌾barley etc used to make a whiskey/whisky.

    Liked by 1 person

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