An Interview with Head Distiller, Ned Gahan | Waterford Distillery (Waterford, Ireland)

Happy 2021 everyone! While this post should’ve come after the conclusion of the planned 4th annual Wonderful World of Whisky Show in Cornwall, Ontario back on March 26-28th in the year 2020, unfortunately it became one of the first things to be cancelled during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the whisky world has moved even further online, I had the absolute pleasure to do a Q&A with Ned Gahan of Waterford Distillery in Ireland about their first releases of Irish single malt whisky (or whiskey, take your pick! I just go by what the bottle says!) and their dives into the highly debated study of whisky terroir.

Ned worked at the Guinness Brewery in Waterford for over 15 years before Diageo closed the site down in 2014. A year later, the docile brewery was sold to Mark Reynier’s Renegade Spirits Ltd. who promptly brought Ned back on, along with many of the old Guinness workers, to turn the site into a working single malt whisky distillery focused on distilling whiskies made with 100% Irish malted barley, including barley grown using organic and biodynamic methods. Ned has been the head distiller at Waterford Distillery for over 4 years and has helped oversee Waterford’s first distillery bottlings, a collection of “Single Farm Origin” whiskies, in which whiskies are created from the barley sourced from single Irish farms, such as the Ballykilcavan Edition 1.1 and the Organic Gaia Edition 1.1, the first Irish whiskey distilled from organic barley. Ned has also had a hand in blending and crafting some of Waterford’s more eye-catching experimental releases, such as their first distillery-exclusive titled “1st Cuvée Pilgrimage” and the recent wider released “Lómhar Micro Cuvée” which are whiskies made from vattings of the single farm whiskies Waterford has created, which have gained some great reviews and praise for the distillery as they continue to develop their house styles. I had the great pleasure to ask Ned some questions and pick his brain a little about the success and challenges that he faced with the team at Waterford in 2020 and what he sees for Waterford in 2021!

Thank you for letting me talk to you for a bit today Ned! How did you originally end up in the commercial alcohol industry for Diageo’s old Guinness Brewery in Waterford in the first place?

Ned: Ehm, there was a recruitment programme in ’98 for technical trainees and I applied for that and got in. So it would have been into the old Smithwicks brewery on site. I started off then being trained cross-functionally covering various roles, spent 11 years in the brewing and packaging side and 4 years then in quality and compliance. I began working on the 5th of January 1999 and they closed then 31st of December 2013.

How was the process when it came to being invited back to the old Guinness site in Waterford to start a new whiskey distillery? How did you feel about the change?

Ned: I met Mark for a chat when he was looking to acquire the site, I didn’t know who he was and spoke to him for a while about the site and it’s capabilities. When he bought the site, I met him in December 2014 asking him were there any jobs and after a conversation, he offered me to come on board. Initially, changing the site from the brewery to the distillery. I started on the 19th of January and after a few months he offered me the Head Distiller’s job. So, I suppose, I felt nervous, excited and glad to be back.

What have been the biggest challenges, in your view, when it comes to working as the head distiller for Waterford?

Ned: With Mark’s vision, the first challenge was obviously how we were going to run the stills to best capture each farms profile, being quality, not quantity, driven. Once we achieved this I suppose the next biggest challenge to date has been putting the whisky into a bottle. It’s a personal one, trying to reflect the quality and individuality of each farm in the whiskies. And then bringing the complexity into a cuvée within a whisky that is obviously complex but remains balanced.

Let’s talk about terroir. Mark seems to be very intent on furthering his research into whisky terroir with Waterford Distillery. I’m interested to ask about the experiences you’ve had with working with various Irish farms to distill their barley for single estate and cuvée expressions. What similarities and differences have you found in comparing the spirit made from some of the single farm barley crops?

Ned: We are in the fortunate position that I get to taste each farm’s new make once it comes off the stills, that difference of ‘place’ and how that impacts the spirit itself. From farm to farm we can see subtle differences in neighbouring farms,  but differences none the less – Similar soil types, same crop variety and similar sowing and harvest dates, with slight subtleties in flavour are still attributed to the of soil differences because everything else is kept consistent, including the process. We find farms that are in different geographical location to be vastly different because of the soil types. With our ongoing terroir project, we have been able to identify that different soil series, and the impact those soils have on the spirit and the fact we have seen the same farms with differences from year to year also brings climate conditions into play. Which is all part of terroir.

So now that Waterford finally has their first releases out (congratulations on your launch by the way!) I saw the news a while back about your first distillery-exclusive, 1st Cuvée Pilgrimage, and I’m wondering how you and the team approached taking all these unique single farm distillates and blending them to create this first true “house” expression of Waterford whisky?

Ned: The first thing we wanted to do was use each farm that we distilled in 2016, our first year in production, which was a challenge considering the amount of bottles (1500) we wanted to release. But luckily enough we have a library of blood-tubs which are 35 litres casks ex first fill, american, which we could draw from. We fill a blood tub from each farm after each single farm is complete, so that was the base of the pilgrimage, I also then picked an American new cask, a VDN cask and a French premium wine cask, so from the 1000’s of cask we have laid down in Ballygarran, I got to pick 3 to put together alongside the bloodtubs to give a balance, complex representation of what Waterford was at three years old.

Now that you’ve made the first big leaps with Waterford’s first international releases, what do you see in the future for Waterford Distillery?

Ned: The grand cuvée is the next big step. The single farms were stepping stones, and a younger whisky so as we go on, we will be looking at the grand cuvée and less of the single farm origins and also looking at older expressions of Waterford. With a few surprises no doubt!

Lastly, I’d love to know if you have an all-time favourite Irish whiskey, or at least one outside of the ones you make of course!

Ned: I don’t have an all time favourite whisky, irish or otherwise, for me – whisky is a drink that changes with moments and companions and brings out different flavours in different atmospheres. And also, as my palette develops, which is another way of saying getting old, tastes change.

Thank you very much for lending me your time today!

Ned: Thank you for enjoying Waterford!

You can find out more about Waterford Distillery and the launch of their first distillery-exclusive whiskey via their website at waterfordwhisky.com and follow Ned on Instagram @gahanned!

(Images used in this review were taken with permission from the Waterford Whisky twitter page @waterfordwhisky and belong to Waterford Distillery, Renegade Spirits Co. and all other owners.)

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