Mark Reynier used that word twice when we spoke in November. And I really wouldn’t say I spoke: The former head of Bruichladdich and current head of the Irish whisky brand Waterford and the Caribbean rum brand Renegade has a lot on his mind that he’s eager to share. In the hour we talked, I asked maybe six questions.
And Reynier answered. At great length and with an obsessive joy around a range of passion projects: Single farm cuvees, Irish peat, heritage sugarcane and his intellectual bread and butter, the effect of terroir.
He scolded large drinks brands for current market trends (“The big boys have painted themselves into a corner. It’s all about, what’s the barrel finish? But people are now sort of arguing, well, what’s the start? Why are you finishing?”). He peppers in a few fun facts — I did not know that barley has 2000 flavor compounds (“Do you know how many are in cheese? Just 500.”) And he lauds the golden age of whiskey, the ‘60s (“It was better barley, better barrels and better distillation. The age of innocence.”)
We chose Reynier as our spirits producer of the year not just for his intellectual prowess or his fun (and serious) takes. We chose him because he’s working across two genres of spirits (a rarity), and offers a dedicated point of view with a bravado that riles some and inspires others. Hey, we don’t always agree with everything he says or does, but he makes great spirits and he’s worth a long listen.
Is the Best Rum in the World Secretly in Grenada?Renegade Rum hopes to revive the Caribbean island’s rich rum history with a focus on terroir
For his part, Reynier doesn’t really care what people in the industry think about him. And he doesn’t pay that much attention to them when it comes to producing spirits. “I don’t look too carefully, to be honest,” he says. “If you start looking at what everybody else is doing, you’d never get anything done. So I plow my own furrow.”
For those in the drinks industry who do seek his advice, he offers this: “What’s your motivation? Is it to produce the cheapest liter of alcohol possible? Or is it to produce — like we do — the most naturally flavorsome liter of alcohol possible? You can’t have it both ways.”
It was a long talk, but we wanted to give Mark’s (nearly) full answer to our first question.
When you look back on 2023, what do you think was your biggest accomplishment?
I think it’s the arrival of our cuvées with our rum and whiskeys.
We’ve talked about terroir, and that is our building block. But remember, the aim is to bring those individual terroir flavors together in a creative way.
So, on the one hand, you’ve got the precision of place, terroir. And then, as many different ones as possible, so that we can then assemble them together to create the mindfuckery of a cuvée. That’s the shared inspiration for both of these projects. We can have the precision of place, and have great fun discussing and arguing and debating and savoring that — and the nuances of terroir.
The big aim has always been to bring them together. In the case of rum, it’s to make a more compelling profile. The very reason I started the rum project was that you’ve got a broad breadth of flavor in rum, but where’s the depth? Where’s the cerebral stuff? And that’s where applying the creative cuvée concept, that was was my answer to making a rum with the profoundness of a single malt whiskey.
For Waterford, it’s the same concept. But it’s how do you take it a step further? You’re already talking about the most flavorsome cereal, the most flavorsome spirit in the world. How can you take it further?
The creative cuvée concept was inspired in me by the French. All you have to do is look at the label of Chateau La Tour. It says “Grand Vin” on there. The big wine. What does the big wine mean? People think, oh, it’s a boast. Look at me, aren’t I fantastic? Like Great Britain. Oh, aren’t you wonderful? No, it’s a geographical term. Grand Vin doesn’t mean great wine. It means big wine.
And it’s the greatest wine in the world, arguably. The Grand Vin. It’s big on the label, the first words you read. Because it’s made up of 35 or 40 little wines. And each one is grown on its own terroir. The Cabernet Sauvignon on the gravel, the Merlot on the clay, the Cabernet Franc on the sand around the estate. They are cultivated apart. They are harvested apart. They are vinified apart. They are barreled apart. And then two years later, they’re brought together by the cellar master to create the big wine.
That’s the concept. That’s how they make such a profound wine. Individual terroir-defined wines in their own right. The different terroirs, the different microclimates, the different soils, they’re fixed, the flavors are fixed, and then they are stacked together to create the big wine. Which, in your glass, is going to reveal itself, in reverse order.
It’s the same with Champagne. The Grande Cuvée. I remember being there 30 years ago with Remi Krug. And he was in the middle of making the next bottling of the Grande Cuvée. He took me into his lab and he had 50 wines in glasses all laid out, all with a little name tag.
And I looked at these and I gasped at the complexity. Each one was a different terroir.
But Remy took me by the arm. And he said, look, don’t, don’t worry yourself. Let me explain. He said, for vintage Krug, it’s the good Lord who decides. But for the Grande Cuvée, it’s me. I remember this, it still puts hairs up on my arms when I think about it. That was such a monumental moment in my life.
Because here was a guy saying, look, yes, nature has decided on these individual lines, the precision of place. He had nothing to do with it. That’s the soil. That’s the microclimate. That’s precision of place. Nothing, no intervention. But when it comes to assembling them together, that’s when he’s God.
For the vintage, there’s no creativity. It is what it is. And that’s the same for our single farms.
It is what it is. We don’t intervene, we don’t make it into something that it’s not. It is determined by nature, climate, soil, — that is what the flavor is. Now, it’s up to my head distiller, Ned, to interpret that creatively. So he’s got a library. of 110 terroir-derived Waterford whiskies at his disposal to assemble to create as compelling and as profound and as beguiling and as sensitive and sexy a bottling that is humanly possible.
Now, people will say, oh well that’s a blend. But we’re talking about one distillery here. One distillery. Waterford. And these are not generic global commodity barleys. These are barleys from Ireland grown on these individual terroirs. They have their own identities. We’ve been showing you this for the last couple of years, sharing these individual terroir-derived single farms.
They each have their own identity. We’ve done nothing. It’s what nature has given us. It’s what the good Lord has provided. So now, Ned is playing God. Ned is the guy who is creatively bringing those different flavor identities together. Yes. A millefeuille gâteau, with all those different layers.
Layer by layer by layer. So what happens in the glass is you end up with a ginormous striptease. Where those flavors, with warmth, with air, and with a little bit of water, are being revealed, you know, layer by layer by layer. And that is the mindfuckery. That is the compelling nature of what we’re doing.
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