A maverick taking on the Irish whiskey establishment
Waterford Distillery founder Mark Reynier aims to produce the best single malt
Waterford Distillery founder Mark Reynier: “Almost all Irish whiskey comes from three distilleries, so while there may be over 100 labels on display at Dublin airport, most of it comes from the same few sources.”
The Irish whiskey sector generally likes to portray itself as one big happy family. There may be intense competition between the various players, but overall there’s a sense of everyone being in it together and prepared to sing off the same hymn sheet.
Be it behemoths such as Pernod Ricard, the big daddy of the whiskey sector through its ownership of Irish Distillers, or a small artisan distillery that has just popped up, everyone works together in a concerted effort to grow the category internationally.
Given the wild success Irish whiskey has enjoyed in recent years, this strategy seems to have paid off. Figures published last week show sales rose 5.6 per cent last year to a record $1.1 billion (€1 billion) in the United States, the biggest market for the spirit.
Unsurprisingly, entrepreneurs have rushed to get involved, with distilleries popping up like daisies in the last few years. At the end of 2019 there were 32 distilleries open, up from four in 2010.
One person who certainly isn’t keen on jumping on the bandwagon, however, is Mark Reynier, founder of Waterford Distillery. He has an impressive track record in the drinks industry and some serious backers for his latest venture.
“Big drinks companies think they have the goose that has laid the golden egg right now.” he says, settling down with a coffee on a sofa in the headquarters of the distillery he bought for a bargain price from Diageo a few years ago.
“People talk about sales of whiskey and how big they’ve gotten but for whom is the question. It’s all Irish Distillers and it is naive to see it as anything else,” he adds.
Reynier has a point. New figures from Irish Distillers parent Pernod Ricard last week show Jameson’s sales rose to a record eight million cases in 2019, with more than 940,000 cases shipped in December alone. Irish whiskey volumes as a whole were just under 10.6 million cases in 2018, according to research firm IWSR.
“There is a lot of smoke and mirrors stuff going on in the industry but if the sector here implodes under its own idiosyncrasies and discrepancies, well, I’m all right Jack,” he says.
“Most of the whiskey business in Ireland is independent bottling. Almost all Irish whiskey comes from three distilleries, so while there may be over 100 labels on display at Dublin airport, most of it comes from the same few sources. It is a charade and it risks doing untold damage to Irish whiskey.”
Given these comments have been delivered in a plummy English accent by a man wearing a tweed jacket, it’s not hard to see how Reynier might rub Irish people up the wrong way.
From London and with 40 years’ experience working in the drinks industry working across both wine and whiskey, it’s fair to say that Reynier has his own views on how things should be done.
With Waterford Distillery about to launch its first offerings, it might seem like the ideal moment for him to be playing up the Oirish angle. However, Reynier isn’t up for that.
“What we’re producing is single-malt whiskey that happens to be made in Ireland,” he says.
“I’m out to make the most distinctive single malt the world has ever seen and it is the cognoscenti who will be the buyers of it. What we are doing is an intellectual proposition. It is for the curious, not the followers.”
Reynier’s reasons for setting up in Waterford were twofold. Firstly, his company Renegade Spirits was able to buy the former Guinness brewery, which was once valued at €40 million, for just €7.2 million.
“Diageo had spent millions doing up the brewery a few years before and I remember coming down to have a look around and seeing all these extraordinary machines that were all brand new but were sitting there idle. I felt like Willie Wonka thinking about what we could do,” Reynier says.
“Brewing is half of distilling, so I thought that if I could bring in the copper then I could have a big fancy distillery. As it happened I had two old stills that I’d taken from a distillery which was about to be demolished in Scotland so we shipped those over.”
His other reason for setting up in Ireland was that many years ago he was told that the best barley in the world came from Waterford. This might not seem overly important on the surface but for him it is everything.
The jury is out on whether terroir works in whiskey, with most distillers focusing less on the grain and more on the type of oak and its level of charring, the liquid previously used in barrels and so on. It is rare that the provenance of the grain is discussed, but as far as Reynier is concerned it’s the most critical factor of all, hence his decision to move to Waterford for the best barley.
“It is barley that makes whiskey the most complex spirit in the world, so if you want to make a really good whiskey, that is what you have to concentrate on. Everyone else is busy looking at the wood, which does play a part but is not as important,” he says.
While Reynier has generally received a warm reception in Ireland since setting up Waterford Distillery in 2015, it was anything but the case when he did something similar in Scotland.
From London originally and having spent half his life in the wine trade, Reynier assembled a team of investors and acquired the abandoned distillery Bruichladdich in Islay in the Hebrides for £6 million from Jim Beam in 2000. The asking price gave him the distillery and a million litres of spirit.
After successfully resurrecting the single-malt whisky made at the distillery and introducing a range of new ground-breaking products such as Botanist Gin, the company was sold to Remy Cointreau for £58 million in 2012.
“This time around with Waterford Whiskey it is much more enjoyable because it is like I have already lost my virginity so I know what all the pitfalls are and how this will likely play out,” he says.
“In Scotland it was a big cultural shock when I went there, as Bruichladdich was the first distillery to be bought by an outsider. When the big boys shut them down, they didn’t expect to see them starting up again, so our turning up and disrupting things didn’t go down well. They certainly didn’t want some English upstart arriving and doing things differently.”
Reynier says everything about him riled the Scots working in the whisky sector.
“I was the wrong religion, and had the wrong education. There was a lot of bigotry. People talk a lot about things in Northern Ireland, but it is the same in Glasgow and the west coast of Scotland. I’d never thought much about my religion much until then – I was a Catholic and went to a Benedictine school in Sussex,but it was made very clear to me that I was on the wrong side,” he adds.
He possibly didn’t help himself either, forthright as he was about not bothering with “any of that Monarch of the Glen b******s.” His decision to downplay the tartan and focus on terroir – the subtle role played by microclimate and soil on whiskey – didn’t wash with his neighbours.
Reynier was born into the world of wine. His grandfather began importing wine from France to London in 1919 that he retailed. After the second World War the family began selling it wholesale.
“I grew up in the business. Sunday lunch didn’t start until the children had identified what the wine was on the table. It meant that I ended up eating a lot of cold dinners but knowing a great deal about wine,” he says.
As an adult, Reynier ended up opening the La Reserve Fine Wines & Spirits chain in London, which produced its own range of single-malt whiskies. He ran it for 18 years before it was sold in 2003.
He is now marking 20 years in the whiskey world, having served a similar time working in wine.
“I’ve owned a vineyard. I’ve bottled wine, shipped it, wholesaled and retailed it. I’ve done similar things with whiskey. No one else had done this,” he says.
Despite the years in wine, moving into the whiskey world full time was something of a rude awakening.
“I was brought up with wine where the idea of place is central. The concept of terroir is taken for granted in France to such an extent that no one had gone out to prove it exists. In Scotland my detractors found it easy to dismiss it as hocus pocus,” he says.
Having not been able to do things completely his own way at Bruichladdich, he was determined that things would be different with Waterford Distillery. This includes establishing the Whisky Terroir Project, an initiative formed with Enterprise Ireland, Teagasc and others to prove provenance plays a role in whiskey. A paper is due to be published shortly, but the initial findings would seem to vindicate his position.
A walk around the distillery with him in Waterford is enlightening. He comes alive as he shows off the place, particularly so as we enter a lab which contains records highlighting individual fields from which barley has come. Faintly reminiscent of a mad scientist caricature, he rushes around looking for various samples that have been taken at different times to show just how the taste of the whiskey changes as the barley does.
Waterford Distillery is shortly to release three single-farm-origin whiskeys. An organic whiskey is also on the way, as is a biodynamic one. The distillery is currently working with a number of growers and different soil types across Waterford and Carlow, to create a “library of single malts that we can assemble to make the ultimate in mindbuggery”.
Reynier laughs when I ask him about making money from the project.
“I’ve no idea when we’ll be in profit. We’ll have to sell something first,” he says.
He might be eccentric but Reynier has business acumen. He has assembled what he calls “sophisticated backers who understand what he’s trying to achieve”.
Former senior Elan executive and Waterford man Séamus Mulligan, who successfully merged Azur Pharma with the Nasdaq-listed Jazz Pharmaceuticals in a $500 million deal in 2011, and then went on to establish Arcon, which was acquired in a $635 million deal last year, is among those backing Reynier’s newest project.
The distillery has also received €20 million of funding to support production, with a €14.4 million credit facility from Ulster Bank and a €5.78 million investment from UK firm Business Growth Fund.
As if it weren’t enough that he’s busy producing whiskey, Reynier is also developing a distillery in Grenada to produce “real rum made from sugar cane and not molasses”.
Having managed to wind up most Scottish whiskey producers, he has tried to do the same here. While he can be pretty scathing about industry body, the Irish Whiskey Association, which he has previously accused of “lacking direction” and “making it up as they go along,” most local producers are bemused by his attacks more than anything else.
He in turn seems to be mellowing, if only just a little.
“It has been an absolute pleasure doing this in Ireland. I have loved every minute of it. There is lots of enthusiasm about what we are doing and I’ve been made to feel very welcome,” he says.
Name: Mark Reynier.
Position: Founder Waterford Distillery.
Lives: Edinburgh and the Isle of Islay.
Family: Wife Maureen and one son, Ruairí.
Something you might expect: Reynier is looking to produce the best single-malt whiskey imaginable.
Something you might not expect: He is a history buff and enjoys rugby, country sports and sailing. He is also a music fan and counts Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones among his favourite bands.