More than 90% of the barley we used to make spirit in 2019 was of varieties featured on the recommended growing list. This is sensible, as they are recommended for good reasons – reliability, and because they represent the peak of currently possible performance. But alongside we are doing experiments with more esoteric varieties. These are a balance between the pursuit of an unusual flavour, and the potential jeopardy of working with something more unpredictable – a balance that is felt all along our supply chain.
In addition to the varieties dimension, we’re pursuing our curiosity about farming practises. Our farmers are all mindful of their soils and what they are putting into them and taking out of them. Many are managing their land for greater biodiversity and less intervention and we are on that journey with them. 7.4% of our total barley tonnage last year was fully certified either organic or biodynamic.
Before starting the Islay Barley project in 2004, we had been distilling organic barley sourced from a single farm on the Scottish Mainland. We think our 2003 Organic Barley Single Malt release might have been a world first, but the Gaelic motto it carried, translated as “in the traditional way”, referenced both how we make whisky and an era of agriculture before industrialised farming cut through ancient synergies. William Rose’s Mid Coul is a fascinating, vibrant place – it has bean crops, rye, oats, and cover crops in rotation, as well as organic vegetables, sheep and cattle, and a farm shop. Up to 70 seasonal workers manually weed the fields, while self-guiding tractors are busy on other tasks. Silage crops are taken to feed the 2.4 MW biomass energy plant on the farm. We have also subsequently handled barley from Pitgaveny in Elgin, Sir William Roberts of Mains of Tullibardine, and Neil Scobie at Coulmore to create rich, organic, vatted vintages.
“It’s the empowerment of the farmer that will stabilise the land,” says Richard Gantlett. In 2011 we were first able to work with his biodynamically-grown barley. Having scoured Scotland without success, we eventually connected with Richard at Yatesbury House in Wiltshire. Yatesbury is a 1300 acre farm with herbal leys replete with different species of clover, grasses, and herbs to encourage insects and feed their cattle. The cows are allowed to roam into woodland, which they have been working to extend. They have also been improving 15km of hedgerows, to which the wildlife has responded. They make their own honey. Their latest audit showed they are fixing 10 times more carbon on the farm than they are emitting, and the soil is improving under their management in a measurable way – 0.27% more organic matter each year. They have inputted to research projects headed by the University of Reading, the Woodland Trust, the Organic Research Centre, and like-minded colleagues in Estonia, Sweden, and us at Bruichladdich. We had a “summit” on Islay with people who’s brains we wanted to pick, after the purchase of our croft land in 2018 – see top photo – and were delighted Richard could join us. He says, that as well as practising the best stewardship he can for the land and the environment and all the living things that share it, “Soil quality, terroir is a critical influence for produce quality. This factor has been understood in viticulture for a long time and is beginning to be understood in farming.”