Saturday, February 27, 2021

Waterford Irish Single Malt Whiskey - An Experiment in Terroir?

You may have noticed a recent addition to the Irish Whiskey aisle at your local retailer. In fact, given the bright blue package and very sleek and modern look, the Waterford Irish Single Malts really stick out amongst all the other earth-toned Irish whiskeys. They really are eye-catching. But, when a friend of mine offered to send me some samples to try, I had to admit I didn't know much more about Waterford than that.

So, while I waited for this package of sample bottles to arrive, I checked out what Waterford was all about, and, quite frankly, it's worth a look --  Waterford is not just a distillery, but a whiskey "project."  According to their website, Waterford sourced 86 Irish farms, including organic and biodynamically run farms, growing barley on 19 different soil types. While sourcing this grain, Waterford is tracking and recording it every step of the way, taking note of everything from the date of harvest to the date of distillation and even the soil type. The goal appears to be to establish or, perhaps better stated, to demonstrate each whiskey's terroir--something traditionally associated with wine, not whiskey.

What I didn't realize until I actually had these samples in hand, however, is that each whiskey comes with its own "Teireoir Code." By entering each code on Waterford's web site, I then was completely inundated with information about that whiskey and the grains used to make it. I was honestly floored at just how much information is made available to the consumer. For instance, the very first piece of information is the name of the grower of the barley, followed by information relating to the date the barley was harvested, the date the whiskey was distilled, the length of maturation down to the day, and the number of bottles produced.

As you scroll through each page, you get background on the particular farm where the barley was grown, audio of the wind blowing and birds chirping at the farm (not sure that it was necessary to hear the farm, but a fun little interactive aspect), and even a complete timeline of the barley from the date sown to the date harvested to the date of distillation to the date of bottling. You even get a picture of a cross-section of the soil.  Admittedly, this was certainly more information than I have ever asked for or felt I needed. And some of the farm descriptions come across as a bit hokey and fluffy. But, there is no question that what Waterford is doing differently from everybody else is not only tracking every detail of their whiskey, from grain to bottle, but providing all of that information to the consumer. And it really was fun looking up each Teireoir Code as I sampled each of these whiskeys.

But of course, all the information in the world doesn't mean much unless the product is good.  Each of these whiskeys is fairly young, with none being over 4 years, and they come with a healthy price tag approaching $100 per bottle. So, going in I felt each of these whiskeys had some work to do.

Dunbell 1.1
 - 100 Proof
 - 3 yrs., 8 mos., 26 days
 - 6,000 Bottles
 - Single Farm Origin
 - Terroir Code: F022E01-01

This was the first of the whiskeys that we tried, and it was the last one I went to when I re-visited them. The nose on this one was absolutely delicious, and I probably spent more time nosing this one than any of the others. It had delicious rich aromas of apricot and brandy, with a brown sugar and honey sweetness. It also had a bit of a cereal note, like Cheerios, as well as some light smokiness.

The flavor, unfortunately, wasn't quite as good. Right away I got notes of white peppercorn spice and that Cheerios flavor I got on the nose. It was very grain forward in its profile, and many of those notes I loved on the nose, like the apricot and brandy, were missing from the flavor. There was also something a bit off-putting, like a garlic note. This one really could have used more sweetness on the palate to provide a little bit of balance or nuance. Instead it came across as a bit of a one-trick pony, and that one-trick wasn't that impressive.

Dunmore 1.1
 - 100 Proof
 - 3 yrs., 11 mos., 17 days
 - 13,000 Bottles
 - Single Farm Origin
 - Terroir Code: F017E01-01

This was the second whiskey I tried, and the first thing I noticed was the difference in the nose. Rather than sweet and rich, this one actually had some earthiness to it, almost like coffee grounds. It still had that honey sweetness, but also a bit of a blackberry note. There was also a sweet, cashew-like nuttiness to it, as well as just a bit of peppery spice. 

The flavor on this one was more Scotch-like to me and was certainly barley forward. The most prominent notes were honey and graham cracker, and my immediate thought was that I liked this one substantially more than the first. It had that earthy tone that I got on the nose, kind of like coffee grounds but without the coffee bitterness. The finish provided some nice pepper spice, as well as a bit of a tree-fruit flavor, like baked pear. It seemed to finish off with a light and crisp lemongrass note. This one was my favorite for most of the night, that is until I revisited the next one.

Rathclough 1.1
 - 100 Proof
 - 3 yrs., 11 mos., 26 days
 - 13,000 Bottles
 - Single Farm Origin
 - Terroir Code F016E01-01

The nose on this one was even more earthy than the Dunmore. The coffee ground note was more prominent, but it also shared space with rich brown sugar and baked apples. It had a nice black pepper spice that tickled my nose, but really it was that earthy scent that set this apart from the other three whiskeys, and noticeably so.

When I first sipped this whiskey, I immediately noticed something funky, almost medicinal and smoky all at once. I likened it to Agricole rums, which honestly, I'm not much of a fan of. It even had what I described as a musty flavor to it, like a damp forest.  Behind that, though were brighter notes of banana, along with counter-balancing notes of orange peel and chocolate. This all sounds weird, I know, but it was intriguing and the one that I most wanted to re-visit. Upon revisiting, I ultimately determined that this was my favorite whiskey of the four. That mustiness somehow worked really well with the banana and the bitter orange peel. It had great balance of sweet, smoke, bitter and earthiness, and it was unquestionably interesting and intriguing. This was the most funky of the four whiskeys and the most fun. 

Gaia 1.1
 - 100 Proof
 - 3 yrs., 9 mos., 20 days
 - 24,000 Bottles
 - Arcadian Series - Organic
 - Terroir Code OR01E01-01

The nose on this one was very much fruit forward, and it was more in the citrus family of fruit. I got a healthy dose of caramel, immediately followed by bright notes of apricot and orange. There was a bit of graham cracker and, much like the others, a coffee note (pretty much the one consistency among all of these).  However, it was very sweet, like a coffee latte or a caramel pastry. 

Though it may be splitting hairs a bit, the sweetness in the flavor was more of a brown sugar note than a caramel note. I did get a bit of cherry as well, along with some orange peel, and that gave of a bit of an old fashioned flavor. However, it definitely was the sweetest of the four whiskeys, and I even got a vanilla frosting note.  I think it was that sweetness that really appealed to some of my colleagues who loved this one. On re-visiting this one, while it remained very sweet, the orange peel came across a bit solvent-like to me. 

Final Thoughts . . .

Though each one is different, when you're in a setting like I was, with four different people trying four different whiskeys, you can't help but compare and rank them. It's only human nature. For me, I ended up absolutely loving the Rathclough, and the Dunmore was a close second. The Dunbell just didn't do it for me.  And yet everyone in my group seemed to have different favorites. One other guy agreed with me as to the Rathclough. However, one absolutely loved the Gaia, yet hated the Dunmore. And the fourth guy picked the Dunmore as his favorite. As always, different strokes for different folks.

But, it was absolutely fun going through each of these whiskeys, learning all there is to possibly know about each, and even finding new whiskeys that I absolutely enjoyed! It appears as though Waterford plans on churning out new whiskeys on a regular basis, and, if our little tasting demonstrates anything, it's that there is something to terroir in whiskey. Each of these, despite being distilled at the same place, by the same people and matured for the same amount of time, was completely distinct, some with almost no similarity to the others. I know I'm not going to love them all, but if this sampling showed me anything it's that Waterford can produce some really interesting and delicious whiskey.

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