In a world of ever-increasing interest and demand in customized and specialized spirits, at some point, we might just go too far. I don’t want you to think that my interests and tastes are more important than yours or others, but I do believe there’s a risk to brands and products by rushing to the “furthest reaches of space.” In this case, I’m talking about Irish whiskey trying to cross a barley bridge too far!
It’s been fascinating to sample whiskies from Waterford Distillery. Located in Waterford, Ireland, this distillery has been at the forefront of barley-terroir-driven whisky since its inception. Waterford works closely with local barley farmers, selecting individual strains and crops with an eye toward capturing the unique characteristics of the grain and the land from which it sprouted.
According to its website, Waterford has “… worked with a total of over 100 Irish growers, around 40 a year – some organic, some biodynamic, some heritage grains. All of our whiskies, therefore, use 100% demonstrably Irish-grown barley – one farm, one terroir, at a time.”
This philosophy has produced a dramatic number of individually characteristic Irish whiskies that are, by any measure, unique. Because of the nature of the grain and its terroir, these whiskies defy the traditionally accepted, or should I say, expected flavor patterns typical of more familiar brands. And therein lies the challenge. I’ve been privy to receiving samples of many of these whiskies and have tried diligently to maintain an open mind about them, which brings me back to my earlier point. I can only discuss these whiskies within the framework of my personal preferences. I’ve tried to remain open-minded with my impressions, reiterating that I’m NOT trying to be the arbiter of what you will or won’t appreciate.
So, with all that said, I have to report that the two most recent expressions I sampled, The Cuvée 1.1 and Peated Ballybannon 1.1, finally crossed my Rubicon! As with all versions of Waterford whiskies, these were presented in gorgeous blue glass bottles, each with a different colored glass “cork” (rose for The Cuvée and Gray for the Ballybannon, each matching the bottle art). Each of them pours a pale straw color, a trend I’ve noticed across the many samples I’ve experienced.
The Cuvée 1.1
Despite being technically a single-malt whisky (defined as 100% malt whisky from a single distillery), The Cuvée 1.1 is comprised of some 25 different single malts, each from barley from different farms. It’s a non-age-statement bottling, aged 4 1/2 years in a combination of first-fill and virgin American oak, French oak, and ex-fill French Sauternes wine casks, and bottled at 50% ABV. As is typical of Waterford whiskies, the initial and primary aroma is yeasty bread dough with a backing of slightly sour citrus, vanilla chews, and cheese curds. Slightly hot at first (tamed with a dash of water), the bread dough continues into the sip, along with savory spice, white pepper, cut grass, melon rind, and freshly brined Castelvetrano olives. The vanilla re-emerges in the swallow, with the finish being slightly spicy and malty with an aftertaste of unripened barley grain. Absent are typical “Irish whiskey” trappings except the hints of vanilla.
The concept of peated Irish whisky may have been nearly unheard of a decade ago, but it has become increasingly commonplace. Despite peat being crucial to Irish whisky (as a heat source, not for smoke-drying the barley), it took the impetus from Irish whisky’s Scottish cousin and the interest in flavor experimentation. As noted, Waterford has been at the forefront of that experimentation, so offering peated whisky seems natural. Ballybannon 1.1 is one of several peated whiskies offered. And peated it is! The smoke is intense, to the point of overpowering in the aroma, though slightly less so on the palate. It has Waterford’s trademark bread-dough nose behind all that smoke, along with hints of vanilla, bitter cocoa, thyme, and citrus. The mouthfeel is full but not particularly oily. On the swallow, I noted young malt and grain, cooked green apples, cooked oatmeal, and some savory spice. The finish is quite warm, compliments of its 50% ABV.
Please note that these are good whiskies, just not my cup of tea. Waterford’s philosophy of working to accentuate terroir and grain individuality. The nuanced differences (and in some cases, not-s0-nuanced) produce a wide range of unique and interesting flavors, leaving the definition of “interesting” to your imagination. As always, I recommend that you try the whisky and draw your own conclusions, or as I love to say, YMMV (your mileage may vary)!