Monday 4 January 2016


At the end of November, I was part of a delegation from The Institute to the Waterford Distillery.  Waterford Distillery? Never heard of it! Of course you haven't heard of it: it's brand new.  Well the sign [R in a view from the bridge] is brand new on the old Cherry's Brewery just South of the Rice bridge across the R. Suir.  It's still called Cherry's locally although it was taken over by Guinness ?50 years ago? which monster has been since subsumed into megabooze combine Diageo. A group of merchant adventurers has bought the old brewery plant with a view to making a new Irish whiskey. Not to be confused with scotch whisky: geddit? the difference is in the whiskEy for Eireann.  All the other differences are but posturing and pretension.

The leader of the entrepreneurs on the Suir is a chap called Mark Reynier who comes from a line of London wine merchants and so is well connected in the ethanol world. He must have connexions elsewhere too, because he got a chunk of fabulous publicity in New Yorker article a tuthree years ago about another venture. Reynier was on holiday in Islay [pronounced eye-lah] and came across a moribund distillery between the peaty uplands and the rocky shore of the island.  It was called Bruichladdich and he believed it made a shockin' good malt whisky. Alone among the distilleries of Islay, it didn't adulterate the distillate with a whiff of peat. Indeed, Laphroaig, the most well known single malt from the island uses a bludgeon of peat which is an acquired taste “like chewing on a well-tarred fishing boat” but at least it's a taste. The big money in beers and whiskies is in product that tastes of bugger-all: think Budweiser or any of its euro-fizz equivalents. Most people want something cold and fizzy and mildly alcoholic to chug down after a game of rugger or when watching real men play rugger on the TV while they sit on the sofa running a commentary. Real ale [by implication for real men] is a niche market. Bruichladdich also stars in this BBC Travel piece about adventures in booze.  Reynier has made a success and some money from Bruichladdich and has now set his sights on Waterford.

You need immensely long pockets to launch a whiskey distillery. You have to run a pay-roll, service your debt, maintain the plant, purchase the raw material and warehouse your product for years before you make your first sale. The raw material is malt, which is barley Hordeum vulgare that has been wetted and allowed to sprout. It's pretty much the same as beer in the sense that the sugars for the fermentation are supplied by the breakdown of the starch in the barley seeds. A lot of the plant at Cherry's brewery will be left in place: the company needs enormous vats to brew a mash to allow the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to generate some alcohol: as much as possible, by fermentation.  Fermentation is an energy-inefficient way of processing sugar: two-thirds of the product is ethanol which is toxic to most living things and one third is carbon-dioxide.

It was really interesting listening to Reynier talk about the struggle ahead.  Don't imagine that, as an independent, you're home free when you finally bring your product to market.  You will then be going head-to-head with huge industrial combines like Diageo, Remy-Cointreau, MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch InBev.  The last two sell 80% of the beer retailed in the USA - under a clatter of brands, it is true, but all marketed from the same board-room. Your new product will be a) new b) authentico and c) wow your pals. It might even impress a few local publicans, who will want to shop local and support a neighbour.  But if Loco, your new beverage, starts to sell well it will erode the sales of Guinness, Heineken and Red Stripe and that will be noticed by their reps as it eats into their commission. They will be instructed to make the publican an offer that will be really difficult to refuse: be it cut price Guinness or cut off the supply of Guinness. The mega-conglomerates make money at each step of the process and can easily afford to take a pounding at the retail end if it drives an upstart to the wall.

I heard a small on-topic joke over the holiday which I will share with you. Two middle-aged pals get well down into the world of single malt whisky, tasting their way through the enormous variety available. One evening they come across a chewy malt that is everything they've been dreaming about - it is The One. Jim savours the taste and says "Bob, if I die first will you be sure to pour a dram of this stuff on my grave".  "To be sure I will, Jim", his friend replies "but it will be a terrible waste if I don't drink it first."

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