Barley – Now and Next

IN

“There are many competing visions on how to achieve new models of a biodiverse, resilient, productive and resource-efficient agriculture that humanity desperately needs in the immediate future.” – Koohafkan, Altieri, Giminez (2011)

We have always seen our whisky as the sophisticated climax of an agricultural system. It comes from the land; we uphold that the particular “terroir” has an influence on the end product, as it does with wine. More than that, we share a moral responsibility for the raw ingredients that we demand. We’re interested in personally knowing and supporting our farmers.

On Islay, growing barley for malting with the encouragement of the distillery has been new with this current generation, and still represents a substantial risk. Hunter Jackson supplies the seed to the majority of the farmers here and samples their soils to determine the best nutrient input combinations. He explains how decisions are made about the varieties. “Every year in December, there’s a new Recommended Growing List published by the Scottish Agricultural College. Seed breeders are doing tests constantly, on special crops grown for seed, with micro-germinations which are a bit like what you have in a micro-malting process. We are looking for 96% germination rate, because we can’t afford to have a crop fail. There are only 1000 acres altogether, roughly, of barley growing on Islay – I grew up on a farm of 1400 acres – so it’s nothing compared with the amount of land they have on the big farms of the East Coast. 10 acres here and 10 acres there. So we have a duty to use it as efficiently as we can.”  

The farmers are looking for a variety with suitability for brewing and distilling, plus a longer straw because straw is very expensive to import to Islay. It’s also best to be early-ripening, because of our hazardous climate in which harvest time, or in fact the whole summer, can be wet and windy. “It’s a conversation,” says Hunter, “Some Islay farmers have a very clear idea what they want, some will want us to advise them based on their soil tests and experience of what grows well here. We normally end up with about 5 varieties across all the farms. That’s so that we can mix the smaller harvests like with like, and get enough of one variety to go into a batch for malting.” 

This approach, built on practicality, provenance, and shared knowledge, points towards a symbiotic relationship between agriculture and distillation, which we’re continually developing on Islay. We fully support and respect our farmers in their finding what is right for them and their land. And last year, we were able to make up 50% of our total mash bill with barley that had been grown on the island, within a 14 mile radius of the distillery, so it’s clearly working.

Fields at Coull Farm, Islay

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.” 

UHI trial plots on manganese deficient coastal soils in Burray, Orkney

In terms of farming resilience, a feather in our cap is the work we have been doing since 2005 with the University of Highlands and Islands Agronomy Institute based up in Orkney, on our heritage grain whisky, Bere Barley. It’s an incredibly hardy plant, grows and ripens quickly, and does markedly better than conventional barley on poor coastal soils. It is a landrace, meaning it has evolved through retaining seed harvest after harvest, so it has been allowed to adapt well to where it is being grown. Bere very nearly fell out of use completely in the 1990s after thousands and thousands of years of being a staple grain crop with additional applications such as thatching and traditional rope-making which had really disappeared. In the words of Dr Peter Martin, UHI, “Since then there has been a slow increase in interest in the crop, mainly as a result of the growth in the market for high provenance food and drink products.” We are proud to be part of that revival. Losing bere barley would have meant not only the loss of an exceptional flavour, but an impoverishment of the diversity which will give us the best chance of success in a world where the climate and ecosystems are reeling under human pressure.

There is exciting work going on to cross-breed Bere with modern varieties to try to widen the gene pool of barley and borrow characteristics that could be extremely useful to growers like ours on Islay. The UHI and James Hutton institute are working with 250 cross-breed offspring that they are seeing through the 8th or 9th generation. They have been adopting breeding techniques from Australia, and have a trial plot combine harvester with a 1m wide header they make use of. We look forward to dedicating the land we have at Shore House Croft to planting more of these varieties in our trial plots for R & D purposes.

We are excited about a future which includes all these practical and academic partners, and hopefully new ones, as we keep pushing for more exploratory depth and breadth in whisky-making, while safeguarding the planet in the longterm.

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Read more about Our Obsession with Barley >
Read more about our Sustainability Agenda >

Koohafkan, Miguel & Giminez (2011): International Journal of Agricultural
Sustainability http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14735903.2011.610206

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