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Waterford distillery - Terroir in Whiskey

Updated: Jul 1, 2019

This article has taken a long time coming. I visited Waterford distillery last summer where I was privileged to be given an in-depth tour by Ned Gahan, Head Distiller at the distillery. I have been talking to people about it ever since during my tastings, certification sessions and pretty much to every whisky enthusiast I’ve come across.

Why would I be talking so much about a distillery that hasn’t even put out a single release so far and most likely won’t very soon?

The answer is quite simply, their focus on Terroir and Provenance, with total traceability. As they say, “The destination is to create not just the most compelling Irish whisky, but the world’s most profound single malt.”

Before we get into that further, let us look at the brief history of the distillery. The site has been a brewery for over 250 years. In 2004, Diageo spent 40 Million Euros to upgrade the facility into one of their Guinness breweries. In 2013, however, Diageo decided to shut down their breweries in Waterford, Dundalk and Kilkenny as part of a consolidation.

Uday Balaji, The Whisky Advisor with Ned Gahan, Head Distiller at Waterford Distillery in Waterford, ireland
Ned Gahan, Head Distiller at Waterford Distillery with Uday Balaji, The Whisky Advisor

A year later, in December 2014 Mark Reynier bought Waterford Distillery. Some of you might be familiar with the name. He previously owned the iconic Bruichladdich distillery where he explored terroir as well, albeit not at the same scale as it is done now at Waterford.

Renovation was completed at considerable speed and the first trial spirit run was on 9th Dec, 2015.

Malting Barley photo taken by The Whisky Advisor

So, what is Terroir and what does it have to do with whiskey? Barley in the whisk(e)y industry is widely seen as a base ingredient that must provide a good starch yield for fermentation. It is not seen as one of the main flavour sources, especially when compared to the maturation casks that are said to provide anywhere between 60-80% of whiskeys flavour.

At Waterford, however, the thinking is that the barley used to make whiskey has been uniquely influenced by its terroir, or in other words, its environment including the soil, rainfall, undulation of the land and more. They want to showcase this profound influence in the whiskey they make.

Each marker represents a farm from which barley is sourced. The lit marker is the current farm being distilled. The silver marker is Waterford Distillery.
Each marker represents a farm from which barley is sourced. The lit marker is the current farm being distilled. The silver marker is Waterford Distillery.

The distillery sources barley from 72 Irish farms currently grown on 19 different soil types, mostly in the South East of Ireland. Some of this barley is organically or bio-dynamically grown. The barley from each of these farms is picked up, stored, malted, distilled and aged separately. What this means is that Waterford has complete traceability of the liquid in every single of their thousands of casks.

Waterford Distillery: The Spirit Safe clearly states from which farm the barley that is being distilled came from
The Spirit Safe clearly states from which farm the barley that is being distilled came from

I had the chance to look at the records for a few batches and was blown away by the level of traceability for each distillate – malting Company, farmer, the field location code, soil type, climate records, distillation date, filling date and much more. What is very important to note here is that every step of the whisky making process is the same from malting to distillation. This means that the only variable in the process is the barley.

I was able to put this to the test in Ned’s tasting room at the distillery, in two ways.

Tasting samples of new make and aging whiskey at Waterford Distillery; Uday Balaji, The Whisky Advisor
Test 1: Samples of 2 New Makes. Ned also gave me a taste of a young Sherry matured sample.

Test 1: He allowed me to pick out two random new make samples from the hundreds of samples available. I chose both samples made from the strain of barley – Olympus, distilled just a month apart, almost at the same ABV – 71.6 & 71.7%, but from two different farms – Sutton Sisters & John Tynan. It was a stark difference with the Tynan sample being fairly mellow for the ABV with earthy, malty, mellow and warm tones while the Sutton Sisters sample had a much grassier and had a distinct 'green' character.

Google map of distance between two farms from which Waterford Distillery sources barley. Uday Balaji, The Whisky Advisor
An attempt to show the proximity of the Tynan and Sutton farms. The black info blurbs are from the distillery website

These were two new makes made from the same barley in the same season at farms less than 50 kilometres away as the crow flies, but they had completely different taste profiles. This was personally for me, possibly the most rewarding tasting I had ever been a part of.

Aging whiskey from Waterford Distillery being aged in different types of casks. Uday Balaji, The Whisky Advisor
Test 2: Samples of aging whiskey, matured in different casks

Test 2: We did a tasting and comparison of one distillate aged in 4 different casks – First Fill Bourbon, Virgin American Oak, French Oak and what they call VDN (Vins doux Naturel – Sherry, Port, Madeira etc). This again was a fascinating tasting, experiencing the influence of the cask while still clearly identifying the individuality of the base spirit, distilled from barley from one farm in the same batch.

This left me having no doubt that there’s a lot more to be explored in terms of how much barley plays a role in the flavour of whiskey.

The biggest question on my mind, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, is how they plan to release their whisky. All we know is that it will be an Irish Single Malt Whiskey. Will they do single farm releases or a purely tasted driven Grand Vin or perhaps by region? This mystery and uncertainty is what makes it all the more exciting.

I believe that traceability and provenance will truly be taken to the next level if one could scan a barcode on their bottle of whiskey on an app and be able to see from exactly which plot of land it came from. I personally cannot wait for the first release of Waterford whiskey!


Watch Ned Gahan, Head Distiller at Waterford Distillery take us through how whiskey is made at Waterford and what makes them stand out.


Picture of Uday Balaji, The Whisky Advisor

Uday Balaji is the Managing Partner of The Whisky Advisor, your one stop shop for Whisk(e)y training, events, advisory and beyond. Uday is based out of India, but constantly travels across whisky regions learning and passing on knowledge about whiskies from across the world.

Get in touch with him at uday[at]thewhiskyadvisor.[com] if you would like to collaborate.

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