An ugly facility, a daunting ambition


Waterford distillery is a revolutionary act in the industry and an experimental actor in the drink that it produces. Sourcing barley from rigorously documented local farms and field types, the distillery aims to apply vinicultural and biodynamic know-how to create what Mark claims will be the finest whisky ever made.

It’s a daunting ambition and one he pursues with a zealotry and integrity that aspires either to music or to math. What Mark lacks in interest in the rest of Irish whiskey per se he more than makes up for in chthonic preoccupation with the island’s soil itself.

The terroir studies, the barley strains and sourcing graphs against congener analyses, single origin releases, and a pending cuvée program – it all really deserves an article unto itself, and there are plenty. I’ve three drams here that might pierce the topsoil though (if not the muck) – Bannow Island, Gaia and the much sought-after Lómhar, meaning precious and not to be confused with the near sonically identical lobhar, meaning riddled with disease. It’s an ugly facility. An ex-Diageo brewery with enough hi-tech kit to send Elon Musk to go farm on the moon. Ned and the staff (hired back from the closure) have repurposed those organs into a love letter ghostwritten to single malt in principle and, less known abroad, an invaluable ally (really nuclear thinktank) in the more local war on bollocks and gombeenmanship.

It was Bannow Island 1.1 that won me over though. Entranced by the gooey innards, I once tried to bite into aloe vera as a child. It was a memorable disappointment and one that went quietly unaddressed for years.

Clean, juicy, and tannic don’t quite cut it. It’s like a single drop of lime juice in a glass of white wine. You’ll remember Galia melon. The malt here comes entirely from barley grown by Ed Harpur on the dunelands of south Wexford. Despite the name, Bannow is no longer an island but a saline stretch bound to the bay head by sand and silt. I assume most succulents can grow in the sand.

Aloe aside, there’s a lush, semi-firm, almost gelatin texture under the Waterfords I’ve tried. A carrageen capillary system binding them together and it’s especially apparent in the Gaia 1.1. Drawn from six organic farms, this was the first of many pending bluff calls on an industry whose whole mystique is built on landscape.

Aged like its sisters in a Rubik’s barrel of French oak, first fill and virgin American oak, and a proprietary assemblage of sweet fortified wine casks (this may all be where that jelly comes in), the results are fruitful anyway.

Perry on the nose, unripe pear when you taste it, growing sandier as you hold it into white-centred conference pear. Then you swallow and that turns to pastry and pear cobbler with a gush of mushed, inviting, poached – you’ll guess the rest. Oh, and honeydew melon. Oh, and wine gums. And hay…

I could easily go on. Long esterified fermentations, slow distillation... suffice it to say it tastes like it’d come from somewhere where the air was clean.

Sipping it now, I felt for a moment that even I might step, relieved, into the still winter sun and say something about whisky instead of dourly triangulating historical nostalgia and the smell of my own boots.

A pleasant dream but a doomed one as unlike its sisters, Waterford Lómhar smells like a toddy in the pub. Damp grain. Cold tea. Lemon rind turning something sweet dry. This really is a wet mucky place to live. It’s an unlikely thought but I’ve never quite given up hope that Mark will spend a little too much time in Waterford, breathe too much lobharous local air into his lungs, hopefully not catch anything too worrying, and take a stab at Irish pot still once.