Mark Reynier tastes Waterford Distillerys first raw spirit

Mark Reynier tastes Waterford Distillery's first raw spirit

It is late afternoon on what has been a long day. But, Mark Reynier, formerly the head of Bruichladdich and now founder of Renegade Spirits, still has the energy to vent his grievances over the Irish whiskey industry he has inhabited for just over a year.

"Very amateur", is how he describes the category's trade body, the Irish Whiskey Association, which he accuses of doing whatever Jameson owner Pernod Ricard decides. "Just as Diageo decides what happens at the Scotch Whisky Association," he adds.

The differences (and similarities) between the Irish and Scotch whisk(e)y worlds is a topic Reynier returns to a few times during our interview. But then, he is in the unique position of having launched distilleries in both countries.

In 2000, Reynier co-founded a new Bruichladdich Distillery after raising the cash to restart the dormant Islay site. The venture was a resounding success, but in 2012, he left, somewhat acrimoniously, after it was sold for GBP58m (then US$90.3m) to French producer Remy Cointreau

Reynier re-emerged in late 2014 with the purchase of a former Diageo Guinness brewery in Waterford, Ireland and - with funding from new investors - has installed a copper still, renamed the plant Waterford Distillery and is now on the way to producing 1m litres of raw spirit a year. ("It's been a joy", he says of the launch process compared to Bruichladdich. "Incredibly stress free.")

The ethos underpinning Waterford will be familiar to anyone who bought a Bruichladdich whisky or The Botanist gin - traceability and provenance. Reynier picked the south-east Ireland seaport for his new base because he remembered once being told that southern Ireland has the best barley. He takes barley from 46 farms in the area - details of which have been exhaustively recorded - and stores it in what he calls a 'barley cathedral' in nearby Kilkenny. Once it is turned into spirit at the Waterford still, which Reynier refers to as the 'facilitator', Reynier and his master distiller can begin the process of making what he claims will be "the most profound malt whiskey possible".

It will be a long project as he's in no mood to rush. He's looking forward to it, though. Playing around with recipes will be fun, he says. There's a reason he calls the distillery Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, other than an obvious weakness for nicknames.

But, despite being at the foothills of a new project, Reynier time and again comes back to his Bruichladdich years. Part of that is because much of the practical knowledge he has of operating a distillery comes from his time on Islay. For example, the annual 1m litres of spirit target is because one of the major problems during his time at Bruichladdich was a lack of stock. "In five years," he says, "we'll have more whiskey than Bruichladdich did after 15."

However, it is also clear that Reynier's heart still resides in the Inner Hebrides.

"The thing with Bruichladdich was, it was my baby," he says. "And, it was a battle. This [Waterford] is not a battle. We know what we're doing, because we've been through that battle. Bruichladdich was a struggle, so it was hard to let go. It hurt. It really hurt."

Reynier has made it clear before that it was not his decision to sell Bruichladdich, that the decision was instead taken by fellow board members. He tells me that this cost him some personal friendships. The estrangement remains so big that he still can't face going back to the distillery, despite still owning a house on Islay.

"It's too painful," he says. "I find it hard to forgive and forget."

In a twist, however, Reynier has retained one contact from the sale of Bruichladdich. Jean-Marie Laborde is no longer CEO at Remy but he spearheaded the company's takeover of Bruichladdich. It is a surprise, then, to see him on the board at Waterford.

Reynier explains: "I didn't have a good relationship with Jean-Marie at the time [of the takeover]. Not at all. He was the devil incarnate, as far as I was concerned. However, people on my board told me that the guy understood what I was doing, and is a visionary. So, they said why don't you ask him."

His focus now is on Ireland, where - according to Reynier - there is "a battle developing for the soul of Irish whiskey". 

Investment has flooded into the category, behind the success of Jameson. The Teeling family, the former owners of Cooley's, sold out in 2012 to Beam Inc. Today, they run Teeling's Whiskey Co. Meanwhile, Brown-Forman has bought into the Slane Castle brand and will spend US$50m on a new distillery. Jose Cuervo bought Bushmills in Northern Ireland from Diageo last year with plans to double the distillery's capacity and Pernod continues to invest in Jameson with a range of extensions. Meanwhile, reports say about 30 Irish whiskey distilleries are currently in production.

From Reynier's viewpoint, however, this flurry of activity is much ado about not very much.

"There's been a lot in the press about the renaissance of Irish whiskey," he says. "I think that's misguided. There are a lot of people trying to create interest to attract shareholders."

Consequently, he believes, this has created a "discombobulated market" perfect for his style of production. "There's an opportunity here to define whiskey, to make a statement," he says. Thanks to generous funding from investors buoyed by his success at Bruichladdich, and backing from HSBC bank, Reynier claims to have the resources and the time to do his own thing. He also plans to remain above the fray when it comes to internecine strife, a pledge that may be hard to keep for a man with Reynier's forthright views.

But, can he stand to have his heart broken again? What if, down the road, an offer comes in for Waterford that his shareholders can't refuse?

In response, he returns to Islay.

Part of his anger at the Bruichladdich sale, he explains, was because he had agreed with colleagues not to make a decision on any sale until the end of 2014. The Remy offer blew that agreement out of the water.

"We used to get regular offers but this was a serious one so it had to be considered," Reynier says.

And, if there is a similarly serious offer for his latest Chocolate Factory? He smiles: "We don't yet know how this will pan out."