Would you believe me if I told you, you can taste the difference in the spirit depending on where the barley comes from and how it has been grown? Barley is barley, right? Don’t think so! The fact is, even two farms next door to each other can produce quite different barley. The importance of barley is often overlooked in whisky production; many varieties are simply mixed together, and sometimes barley is even imported from another country. One brand representative even told me once that the initial taste of a new make doesn’t matter as the flavour will change when it has spent time in a barrel. But why risk such an extensive (and expensive) process by not starting with the best possible ingredients from the outset?
Waterford Distillery believes the type of barley, the specific soil and location where it grows, can enhance the flavour of any spirit – the unique taste of terroir. Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting the distillery in Ireland and experiencing its controversial (and somewhat nerdy) whisky production first hand. It has taken the whole concept of provenance even further by having the focus on terroir at a micro, or farm by farm, level. A provenance with complete traceability.
Mark Reynier has always believed in terroir and its benefits for whisky production (see Bruichladdich), so when it came to his recent venture, Ireland definitely seemed to be an obvious choice! The barley coming from the south-east of Ireland is considered as one of the best. Using the facilities originally built by Diageo in 2004, Waterford Distillery might not be as beautiful as many others out there, with the design being more industrial, but hey, it’s not looks that count…
The premises dates back to 1792 when the first brewery was built on the existing site. Some of these old elements can still be found there, including a 12-metre well at the foot of Summerhill, which today still provides volcanic-filtered water straight to the distillery.
Over 70 farms, 19 types of soil and three methods of farming are involved in providing barley to the distillery – it’s a huge project and demands excellent logistics to separate each individual farm in the intention of capturing the very essence of terroir.
What is terroir?
Terroir is a concept perhaps more familiar to winemakers than to distillers. Terroir explains how the synergy between climate, soil and place impacts an individual plant. Whether you are talking about how to grow the best tomatoes, grapes, roses or barley, gardening or farming, it all counts as terroir. Terroir is shaped by microclimate, soil and farming methods.
The question is – can terroir exist in spirits?!
The argument is often that distilling will kill any characteristics of terroir, but if you take into consideration any clear spirit made with fruit, you can, in fact, taste the fruit in question even after the distillation process. So why wouldn’t you be able to taste the barley in the new make? A great example of terroir in a spirit is Arbikie Haar vodka. It is simply a clear spirit made without flavourings or additives, yet it has clear, delicious notes of caramel, which comes from the wheat itself and how that wheat has been farmed.
Obviously, when it comes to whisky, the question is whether the barley will still have an impact after the spirit has spent years in a barrel.
“Where barley is king, provenance is all.”
The origin of the barley, where it is cultivated and how are key elements for Waterford Distillery. The distillery has carefully selected 72 farms with 19 different soil types, all based in the south-east of Ireland. These farms may be conventional, organic or biodynamic, which all have varying impacts on the barley, and the grain composition can vary tremendously between farms. The interaction between the barley variety, environment and growing method all contribute to the flavour profile.
It is very important for the distillery to keep proper track of the movements of each farmer’s crop to achieve the best results. Each crop is harvested, stored, malted and distilled separately to capture the terroir of each farm. The barley varieties are carefully stored in their own sections specially built for this purpose. The distillery only distils one farm a week. Its so-called secret terroir extractor is a mash filter, which is used instead of a traditional mash tun to extract every possible drop. The mash filter works with hot water using several filtration plates. It’s a rather unique piece of equipment, a rare thing to find in a distillery, so if you’re into the technical side of spirit making, you’ll love this.
But what difference does organic and biodynamic farming have in the spirit?
It’s the nutrients that bring flavour to our foods, and most nutrient-rich foods contain minerals, which in turn are the product of nutrient-rich soil. Simply put, soil nutrition is flavour.
Biodynamic farming is nothing new; it covers thousands of years of agricultural know-how, when the farmers had to make do without sophisticated equipment or fertilisers. Biodynamic farming takes into consideration the importance of soil, the cycle of the seasons and all other aspects of terroir.
The mineral silica or organic manure (fertiliser) is stuffed into cow’s horns, which are also rich in calcium. These horns are then buried underground where the bacteria, microbes and minerals are left to ferment together for six months. This method will have a clear impact on the aroma of the barley and therefore in the new make.
By focusing on the individuality of each farm and its crop, the distillery can properly analyse the affect each farm has on the final whisky. It is a huge project, but a really interesting and innovative one. To stay on top of things, the company is working closely with Minch Malt, a malt producer, to ensure the barleys stay separate from each other. Minch Malt records every single step the barley goes through. It is the malting company that deals with the farms directly, but the distillery is still very much on top of things, even if they don’t “officially” deal with the farms per se. This type of vertical integration helps them to ensure control over the supply all the way to production.
They visit the farms periodically and stay in touch with the farmers regarding the development of each crop. The farmers are at times invited to the distillery to sample the spirit made with their own barley. This way they can feel more involved in the process and see how the barley will start to impact the whisky. Obviously, being able to sell their barley to the distillery will also provide good margins to the farmers.
What is the end goal?
The distillery clearly wants to demonstrate that terroir exists in spirits, specifically in whisky. The early indications are positive when it comes to the new make. When comparing the production methods by flavour of the new make, it is clear that the organic barley contributes a fruitier flavour than conventionally grown barley, and biodynamic-grown has a juicier and sweeter flavour. I could also clearly identify the saltiness in one batch that comes from the barley grown at one of the farms right by the sea. Other detectable notes include floral, malty, grassy, oily, dried fruit and more. There are also subtle differences in the mouth feel of these spirits.
The fruitiness of the barley could also be identified when sampling the (slightly) aged whisky, although the first whisky from Waterford Distillery won’t be ready until next year, and even then it will be a smaller batch. Also, these single malts will be a mix of various casks, although only one farm’s produce will be mixed together to allow the terroir to be fully tasted. I’m sure there will be one or two mixed-farm releases, but all in good time.
Whisky or whiskey?
You might have noticed I talk about whisky instead of whiskey. This is intentional and goes hand in hand with all the other well thought-out details when it comes to their branding and production.
“I loathe whisk(e)y. That PC catch-all spelling beloved of publishers and bloggers the world over – neither wishing to offend, nor prepared to make a decision, they use the tentative bracket to give us the worst of both worlds, like a unisex lavatory.” – Mark Reynier
In Ireland, whisky must be described as Irish Whiskey or Uisce Beatha Eireannach or Irish Whisky. Like Mark, I really don’t like the use of brackets. Whether you choose whisky or whiskey, the meaning is really the same.
Back in the day, the addition of ‘e’ to ‘whisky’ was only a marketing gimmick. So, Waterford Distillery calling their single malt ‘whisky’ without an ‘e’ is also about marketing. They are proud of their Irish heritage, but whisky is the original spelling and they don’t want people’s perceptions to get in the way.
I find this terroir project very interesting. I love that there are people who like to challenge the industry and explore wider possibilities when it comes to spirits and the pursuit of flavour. We have already seen an explosion of gin styles and botanicals; it is about time whisky got a boost of its own. Even better when it is done in a way where old meets new. The project is a modern experiment by people who are extremely passionate about whisky. I’m sure they will face a lot of scepticism, but it will all come down to the end product. I’m counting the days until their first official Irish Single Malt Whisky release!
What do you think – will the terroir make a difference? Yes or no, please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Disclaimer: This article is not sponsored by Waterford Distillery, but they did invite me over to Ireland where I was hosted for two days courtesy of Waterford Distillery.