Oliver Moore: Waterford spirit has organic edge

Waterford Distillery is now distilling organic whiskey.

A new and specific route to market has emerged for 46 tillage growers in Ireland — including six lucky organic growers.

Waterford Distillery is one of Ireland’s newest. And it is bringing the notion of terroir — very directly — into how it operates.

The people behind it are Carlow woman Lisa Ryan, who grew up on a farm before working for 12 years with Diageo as a brewer, and Mark Reynier, the high-flying former chief executive of Bruichladdich distillery in Scotland.

Reynier acquired an old abandoned distillery on the isle of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland in 2000. Bought for £6m at the time, it was sold for nearly £60m 12 years later. 

Such is his idiosyncratic drive, as CEO, he voted against the sale. He was outvoted and he moved on. And he’s chosen Waterford for his next venture.

In the sunny South-East, he’s added a healthy dram of chutzpah. 

Taking a cue from terroir in wine, and his family heritage as wine merchants, his new venture Waterford Distillery is what could be called next level: in the Waterford Distillery, they store barley from each of the 46 farms separately and producing different batches from, for and of each individual farm.

Head distiller Lisa Ryan takes up the story.

“It’s all about the barley, the soils and the farms. It’s been great to be able to bring the farmer in, for him to be able to taste what’s grown on his own individual farm. It’s great for the Irish farming industry,” she said.

“Every farmer has an app with maps — so our whiskey will be traceable back to individual farms and even fields. We are constantly working with the farmers to encourage them to buy into the process. It’s the approach we take, which comes more from terroir approaches used in wine making.”

Ryan adds: “We have 46 farmers growing for us, six are organic, from the south east. The organic farmers are from Kilkenny, two from Laois, Tipperary, and also Kildare. We need six organic growers to be certain of generating a 100 tonne batch of malting barley, which is our minimum run.

“We started distilling the organic whiskey last week.”

Gavin Lynch of the Organic Trust was lucky enough to be there at the launch with a hearty glass in his hand.

He said: “Waterford Distillery put a massive emphasis on quality and provenance and so the move to organic whiskey production was a ‘natural’ one if you’ll excuse the pun.

“The top distillers go to great lengths to ensure they are producing the best product that they possibly can and Waterford are taking this ethos all the way back to the source — the farmers and the barley — and you can’t do better than organic in terms of quality and provenance. 

"It’s quite heartening to see how engaged Waterford Distillery are with their growers — they were centre stage throughout the launch during the week.”

The Wicklow man added: “It’s great for organic tillage farmers to have another market outlet and another crop — malting barley — to add to their enterprises and hopefully this will help bolster the burgeoning sector.”

He was certainly wowed by the operation: “I was seriously impressed by the facilities in Waterford, it really is a world class operation and the passion of the staff is palpable. 

"Waterford Distillery are unique in that they treat each individual farmer’s crop entirely separately, so from harvest to malting to distillation — segregation is maintained at all stages — they have a pretty nifty tracking system that uses barcodes — allowing the distillery to keep the terroir of individual farms in the spirits.”

Next week Lisa Ryan will tell us about the distilling of Ireland’s first organic whiskey — from the farms themselves to the process.


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