Established in early 2015 by Peter Mulryan, Blackwater Distillery is one of the first in a new wave of craft distilleries opening in Ireland. He’s set the bar high too, as the gins are mightily impressive…
With more than 30 years working as a producer with the BBC and RTE, Peter Mulryan’s initial interest in spirits first came from a family background in the drinks industry. His father worked as a chemist in Kiely’s brewery in Waterford and his uncle Peter was the master brewer with Anheuser Busch Brewery in St Louis, Missouri.
Having written books about drinks and had a lifelong interest, Peter finally took the plunge in 2014 and decided to set up a distillery. The development of the distillery was fast. Very fast even by today’s “overnight” openings we keep hearing about. Within eight months the still had arrived and three months later, it was all set up, with gin in bottle by February 2015.
Blackwater Gin is made in West Waterford. The landscape is scenic there – no dramatic cliffs, valleys or bustling city centers. The expanse of rolling farmland, mild climate and rich soil is known as the Blackwater Valley. It also rains. Often. You’ve been warned if you visit the distillery! Almost everything eventually flows into “An Abhainn Mhór” (The Big River), nowadays known as The Blackwater.
The Blackwater is celebrated as a salmon river today, but for hundreds of years its deep dark waters made it a perfect route for ships and commerce. In Victorian times, merchants in Waterford were some of the largest spice importers in the country and they grew wealthy shipping everything from sugar to cinnamon into the region. When creating the gin, Peter and his team decided to begin with this history. A few visits to the local archives later, they had dug deep into the Blackwater Valley’s rich and largely overlooked Anglo-Irish past.
They uncovered more information about these spice merchants, namely one in particular – White’s of Waterford. Not only did White’s import kilos after kilos of exotic spices, they also ran a shipyard and their vessels crisscrossed the globe importing tea from China and botanicals from the infamous ‘Spice Islands’. These botanicals landed in Waterford and were then sent by steamer up the Blackwater River. Much of this happened at the pier in Cappoquin – barely a kilometre from where the distillery is situated – and from there these precious goods were dispatched to the great houses in the valley.
Blackwater No.5 Gin was designed from top to bottom using only the botanicals imported into Ireland by White’s of Waterford during the 19th century. Going through the company’s dusty archives, they found a treasure trove of botanicals once popular, but now overlooked. Methodically distilling each and every one with mixed results, they found two which were spectacular and which now lie at the heart of their Gin. Incidentally, this original research and inspiration is the reason why there is an 1844 map of the Blackwater River on each bottle of gin.
Created in a classic 300 litre copper pot still nicknamed “Sally”, the gin is distilled very slowly, bringing the spirit over at around 30 litres an hour. The slow and steady process is deliberate, as the still is not only very responsive but it also has huge copper contact which helps create a soft mouthfeel.
Blackwater No.5 Gin to Taste…
Blackwater Gin is bottled at 41.5% ABV and the botanical mix includes (amongst others – there are 12 in total) juniper, coriander, cinnamon, liquorice and nutmeg. On the nose, cardamom notes mix with juniper and a faint lemon rind, leaving cracked pepper like tones to emerge in an otherwise dusty mix.
To taste, Blackwater No.5 Gin is classically styled, with juniper upfront and coriander seed pushing in abruptly when tasted neat. Warming spice from the cinnamon nips towards the end along with something else (cubeb to hazard an educated guess). The long finish makes for a full flavour journey that has you wanting more sip after sip.
There’s depth to this gin. There are big flavours that develop over time and aren’t shy when mixed. The coriander zing and warming cinnamon make it an interesting gin for a Negroni and a Gimlet. For those looking for a big, archetypal “Dry” gin with a modern twist – Blackwater No.5 Gin is for you. As for the “No. 5” you ask?
Well, it is a reference to a version of the R&D number but don’t go thinking they managed to perfect their recipe that quick! Talking to us, Peter revealed that “the true number was 32ciii but that isn’t very catchy, so we settled for No.9 in honour of the first prototype my wife didn’t turn her nose up at. However the design team didn’t like the way No.9 looked so we settled for No.5” .
Not content with just having one (now award-winning gin), the team set about creating their second. Released in September 2015, there was a lot of anticipation ahead of its launch. Thankfully, Blackwater Juniper Cask Gin (that is a gin rested in casks made from juniper wood) is a triumph.
Having trialled several wood aged gins in the making of this release, the decision to age it in juniper casks may seem easy, but was, as with Hernö’s Juniper Cask – a trial of willpower and perseverance. Having found a cooper to make a cask out of juniper tree (unsurprisingly, it took him a while to find enough timber, then even longer to shape it into an almost 50 litre barrel), they were able to trail new formulations. The right combination of timber and berry ended up being the same botanical mix found in Blackwater No.5 Gin, but in a different combination. The final bottling is at 46% ABV and due to retail at £45 for 50cl.
Resinous and sappy wood with big spice notes to the fore on the nose and a juniper backbone that braces the palate ahead of a dry, warm and prolonged finish. One to try for sure!
Not content with two successful expressions, in June 2016 Blackwater launched their Wexford Strawberry Gin, a superb example of fruit gin that manages to experiment whilst remaining true to the juniper cause. The big thing about Wexford Strawberry Gin both on the nose and to taste is that it is GIN. Not a fruit gin. Not a sugary mess. Tasty gin. Strawberries are used as a botanical here and are interlaced, delicately appearing and disappearing in a mist of spice and citrus in a perfectly balanced ensemble. The strawberries are prominent on the nose, giving the gin a sweet aroma, but juniper is softly present in the background. To taste, citrus, then strawberries then juniper and other spice emerge. Fantastic journey, fantastic gin.
Blackwater was one of the first new start ups in the incoming tidal wave of craft distilleries about to pop up all over Ireland. By the end of 2016, expect there to be more than a dozen in operation. Almost all have their eyes on whiskey to begin with, but expect almost each one to release a gin.
In being one of the early birds, Blackwater are sure to reap the rewards as they have a precious few months to establish their gin ahead of fending off major competition. They are on firm ground however, their gin is not only really high quality, their willingness to experiment will help place them as true to all the ideals of “craft” distilling. They have set the standard and if it’s a sign of what is to come, then we all have a lot to look forward to.
Having made initial forays into the UK, expect to see the rectangular bottle making more inroads around Europe and possibly even further afield. Keep an eye out for their experimental batches too, they are sure to entertain and inspire in equal measure.
Say hello on Social media!
Copyright © Gin Foundry