Tillage focus: ‘Irish barley is essential to the business’

Waterford Distillery is a place that you leave with optimism. Its dedication to traceability and loyalty to growers is a simple, but complicated business model.

Not a drop of anything has been sold, yet the company is already expanding. Two more warehouses are under construction, beside which 2,500 barrels are already being stored and the company is providing for more barley storage.

Next spring the fruits of the production will come to pass. Bottles of the distillery’s produce will be available.

The buyer will be able to scan a barcode on the bottle and learn every detail about the whisky’s production – from the farmer who grew the barley; the seed that was sown; the soil type that it was planted into; the fertiliser that was applied – if you want to know something about that bottle you will be able to see it on your smart phone.

One key piece of information that was mentioned above is the soil type. This brings about one of Waterford’s distinct selling points – Téireoir.

Simple but complicated

When AgriLand visited the distillery a tour was provided by Megan Kiely. The distillery is in what was the old Guinness Brewery and can’t be missed as you cross the bridge coming into Waterford city from Kilkenny.

Next up was a chat with the head distiller – Ned Gahan – who previously worked in the Guinness brewery. When talking about the product he fills with pride when he says the whisky is made from Irish barley and is fully traceable.

It’s a simple concept, but complicated. Trying to keep everything separated is expensive and there are huge logistics involved.

The Cathedral of Barley in Dalton’s Chancellor’s Mills where each farmer’s grain is stored individually is a pleasure to visit. A committed team in Co. Kilkenny keep farmers’ barley separate. A ‘chapel’ of barley has also been added to provide more individual storage.

Irish barley

Every bit of grain used is Irish, which is not the case in many distilleries around the country.

“A lot of people assume that Irish whiskey is made from Irish barley,” Ned stated. Using Irish barley provides the whisky with traceability, transparency and Téireoir.

“We call it the three-legged stool. If you take away one of the legs, the stool falls over. That’s provenance for us.”

The Téireoir project

Téireoir is a word that readers may have heard more of in recent times. In simple terms it means that the whisky can taste differently depending on the soil type it was planted in or the weather that it was exposed to.

Waterford whisky is currently undertaking a Téireoir project with Teagasc’s Dr. Ciarán Kilcawley and Oregon State University’s Dr. Justin Howard.

Ned added that this project will prove that Téireoir exists in malting barley.

“We can taste it. We know each farm is different, so basically it’s to get a piece of paper to say that Téireoir exists.”

Irish barley – ‘the best in the world’

Ned explained that the company uses Irish barley because it is “the best barley in the world” and no other ingredients are added in the distilling process apart from water.

“Irish barley is essential to the business; we use roughly 40 farmers a year. From the 40, that gives us 34 batches. So basically, what we buy a year is 2,500t of malting barley.”

“Of the 40 we have seven organic farmers and of the seven there are two farms which supply a full batch – Pat and Denis Booth and Alan and Ross Jackson. And then there are five other organic farmers that supply a batch. For organic farmers to supply 100t is huge. And then we have three biodynamic farmers.

A map with each of the growers’ farms hangs high in the distillery

“I think last year we got something like 47t malted off the biodynamic farms. So you’re talking about 0.8t/ac.”

The head distiller explained that he would hope that 2,500t of barley would make 1 million litres of pure alcohol in a year – or 1 million LAs, which is a revenue term.

“One year we made 1,030,000L. Last year, I think we made 917,000L and this year we made about 850,000L – all from the same tonnage of grain. Obviously last year had huge challenges for the farmers in proteins and the whole lot. That reflects what alcohol we can get out of if.”

Heritage varieties – Hunter and Goldthorpe – were also grown this year and will be used for distilling if specifications are met.

Relationship with farmers

Waterford Distillery buys its malt from Minch Malt and while it has a strong relationship with its growers, who receive regular visits from the company’s agronomist Grace O’Reilly, all of the handling, testing and malting is looked after by Minch Malt. The farmer’s contract is with Minch Malt.

“We trust that the barley that’s coming into us is the best barley that we can get. After that then we’ll take over and make the best spirit that makes the best whisky.

John and Denis Dalton with Ned Gahan in the ‘Cathedral of barley’

“We have a very good relationship with the farmers. We have the growers gathering every year. We give the best barley cup and we also give the winner a blood tub of their own spirit. A small cask – 35L.”

Ned added that there is healthy banter between the growers about whose whisky is better. He also made the point that the growers are extremely proud of the fact that they might be able to walk into their local and ask for a bottle of whiskey made from their own barley.

There’s potential that we’ll do a single farm release. We’ll be supplying all over the world – America, Asia, Australia. They’ll [the growers] want to walk into their own pub and say ‘I’ll have a drop of my own stuff’.

The great Irish whiskey debate

When asked about the use of other ingredients in the production of Irish whiskey Ned worried for the security of the future of the industry and explained that Waterford Whisky will not have an ‘e’ in its brand name. He also added that the company is not a member of the Irish Whiskey Association as the company feels it does not represent the work Waterford Whisky is doing.

“If Irish whiskey is given a bad reputation, which potentially could happen, by consumers saying where is this bottle coming from? We don’t necessarily want to be associated with Irish whiskey.

By us not having the ‘e’ in the whiskey when we spell it we’re kind of removed.

“There was some talk about whether we say that we’re Irish whiskey or whisky that’s made in Ireland or from Irish barley because the last thing we want is, especially the American market, to say we’re not taking Irish whiskey.”

Ned added that there were four distilleries in the 1980s and between what has been built, is being built and in planning there are approximately 52 distilleries in Ireland at present. He added that this could mean an awful lot of job losses for people if the production of Irish whiskey was to be questioned.

He explained that it doesn’t annoy him that these companies don’t use Irish product, but what does annoy him is the lack of transparency. He added that he wants people to be up front and would like there to be more transparency in the Irish whiskey industry.

“The GI [Geographical Indication], it does not say anywhere that Irish barley has to be used. Why would you have a geographical indicator that doesn’t specify what the produce is. Who’s involved in making these decisions? It’s the same with the technical file for Irish whiskey.

“It’s been well documented bottles of whiskey out there don’t have distilleries. They don’t have master distillers. They’re not telling lies, but are definitely skirting around what’s right and what’s not right.

What we would want is it to be as transparent as possible. We can show you everything that happens.

“We have the fertilisers and the chemicals; the passports. We have our own system. When we send it out to the warehouse that feeds in as well.”

Ned is afraid that all distilleries will be painted with the one brush and the ones who are using Irish barley will lose out.

AgriLand has visited some of the farmers supplying Waterford Distillery; to read about the growers simply click on their name in this list: David Walsh Kemmis; Ross and Amy Jackson; Séamus Duggan.

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