Some folks have called Mark Reynier a rebel, some have called him a contrarian, some have called him a genius, and some have called him words that we can’t reprint here. Still, according to the man himself, they all got it wrong. “I am a flavor seeker, plain and simple,” he enthusiastically tells me on a call from Scotland. “All I care about is searching for flavors that interest me.”
This passion for discovering flavors first brought him to the attention of the whisky world over two decades ago. That’s when he became the CEO of the reborn Bruichladdich distillery located on the remote Scottish island of Islay. For over a decade, he pushed the boundaries associated with the traditionally staid Scotch whisky establishment in a continual search for new and exciting flavors. Under his watch, the distillery won numerous awards and, in 2012, was acquired by Remy Cointreau, something Reynier opposed.
That led him to Ireland, where he opened Waterford Distillery with bigger plans and a more grandiose goal, to create a facility that would reconnect whisky with its roots. To do that, he decided to dive deeply into a term that winemakers routinely toss about but is rarely uttered by distillers-terroir.
Building a state-of-the-art facility that they named the Facilitator, he and his team designed a distillery that enables his distillers to work with single farms barley crops to produce individual whiskys. Each harvest, individual barley crops from farms they have vetted are stored separately in a specially built facility called the Cathedral. All of the barley they use is grown biodynamically under stringent standards. Storing, sorting, and distilling each farm’s barley has allowed Waterford to bring a wine-like focus to each batch of whisky they produce. According to Reynier, this proves that the concept of terroir does apply to spirits.
“Well, terroir doesn’t apply to a distillery. It doesn’t apply to a person; it doesn’t apply to a process. It doesn’t apply to a place. It’s the frigging plant,” Reynier says. “The whole idea of terroir is the microclimate, the soil, the topography, and how they interact on a plant. Only three ingredients should go into whiskey-barley, water, and yeast. Everything else is rubbish. We work to highlight the specific influences different barley crops can have each distilling.”
By returning the focus to individual farms barley crops, Waterford is acting like a modern-day whisky lovers time machine. One that returns drinkers to time in the not-too-distant past when the Irish countryside was dotted with small distilleries, each producing a unique spirit that reflected the local harvest. That ended in the early 1970s when the OPEC oil crisis caused many to close or sell out to larger distilling conglomerates. According to Reynier, these days, almost 80% of all Irish Whisky’s are produced by one company, and practically 80% of all Scottish whisky is made by five.
That irks Reynier, who believes that the quality of the whisky has declined as control has become centralized. The emergence of Single Malt whisky in the 1980s, followed by the explosion of small-batch bourbons over the last decade, has shown that drinkers are looking for something more authentic and flavorful in their glasses. Waterford wants to deliver that to them.
“The dishonesty of the larger distillers display in obscuring the origins of their products is absolutely astonishing. Often they haven’t even bothered to separate out the stuff that’s going into bottle and the stuff that’s going into a blend,” Reynier says. “It’s the same attitude always with them, the cheapest liter of alcohol possible wherever it ends up. It doesn’t matter, and it drives me mad. At Waterford, we treat whiskey as agricultural produce, whereas the big guys treat it as something to be manufactured. So, I’m going back to how the farm distilleries used to be. Except, I don’t have one farm distillery. I have thirty-five a year, and each has its own identity infused in its barley, and that comes through in the spirit.”
In the few years, Waterford has been on the market. It has won a host of accolades. While its Cuvée, made from a blend of its single farm whiskeys, has grabbed its fair share of headlines and awards, its Single Malt Irish Whiskey Single Farm Series is turning heads worldwide. Each farm’s name is featured on the label, and there is a TÉIREOIR code on the back of each bottle that provides drinkers with all the info they could ever wish to know about the liquid.
Their first three releases in the U.S. recently hit the market with plans to bring more products. Waterford Irish Single Malt-Dunmore Edition 1.1, Rathclogh Edition 1.1, and Dunbell Edition 1.1 all retail for $95 and offer drinkers the chance to sample the whisky’s side by side, much like wine lovers do with successive vintages of wine, to notice the difference the terrior makes. While Reynier hopes that his products will entice whisky lovers to search out other flavorful bottles from small producers, he is worried that his success will have an adverse effect, one that will irritate him but not stop his quest for more flavor.
“I bet you a case of champagne that by this time next year, the word terroir will be utterly corrupted by the big distillers, completely smashed,” he says. “They will start attaching to everything to grab the public’s eye instead of actually doing the hard work to make something different. They are bloody lazy and will do anything for a quick buck. It’s going to be saturated as their marketing guys jump all over it and try to use it to impart sophistication and excitement. It’s going to be crucified into a meaningless word.”