As a succession of wonderful Bruichladdich uber-provenance single malt whiskies emerge, proudly bearing the name ‘Islay Barley‘, it is worthwhile considering just how unique, or otherwise,these extraordinary bottlings are.
We make much of the fact that we can see fields of malting barley growing for Bruichladdich from our distillery windows. Bruichladdich is all about connection, about people and places and relationships that really matter. With our Islay Barley series we wear our heart on our sleeve.
But is the intimate relationship of our core ingredient with the place it was grown a throwback to a halcyon age during which Islay’s distilleries were surrounded by fields of corn waving in the breeze? Is it reasonable to imagine the fruits of the barley harvest loaded into 19th century carts and taken to our malt barns by cheery locals with the help of a stoical horse?
What evidence is there that Islay’s farmers have ever grown malting barley, prior to the 21st century exertions of the those who are currently heroically supplying Bruichladdich?
The answer is not as clear cut as you might think. If we reach back into the eighteenth century there is no doubt that barley was being grown by Islay’s nascent distillers, all of whom were tiny, illegal operations producing ‘uisge beatha’ – which we strongly suspect bore little resemblance to modern whisky. Uisge beatha was a white spirit, probably flavoured with local herbs or fruit, possibly influenced by short term exposure to the wooden casks it was stored and transported in, but always intended to be drunk young.
There is evidence that the level of barley production for uisge beatha created real concern for the physical and spiritual welfare of the island in these early years, so yes, barley for malting was being grown on Islay. Misguided taxation policies had the dual effect of both driving more people to drinking uisge beatha instead of beer and also driving the distillers underground. Three things were to change this, the industrial revolution, the opening of the Crinan Canal – and the Excise Act of 1823.
We can safely forget the optimistic 18th century foundation dates embossed on many whisky distillery bottles to this day. They are essentially fantasies. The modern whisky business started in 1823. The building of Islay’s commercial distilleries, making the spirit that evolved into modern malt whisky, started shortly after that date. All were placed on the coast, all had their own piers (or sheltered sandy beaches onto which the flat bottomed boats could run) and all were supplied by sea, by puffers and sailing ships who imported barley from the mainland through the Crinan Canal, taking whisky out in casks.
They must have imported barley from the mainland because there is simply no way that enough suitable agricultural land existed on Islay to supply the quantities of barley that would now have been required by these newly industrialised commercial enterprises.
The illegal distillers disappeared very quickly after 1823. Their combined production would have been tiny compared with what was now pouring forth from Bowmore, Laphroaig, Ardbeg et al, and the farmers who supplied them would have quickly re-focused their energies onto livestock production, just as they had for thousands of years. Barley would continue to be grown, but as winter feed for cattle and horses.
When the new bespoke hi-tech distilleries of Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain were built in 1881, they too were designed to import nearly all of their barley from the mainland. We say nearly all because there is evidence that every now and then a distillery manager and a factor or ambitious farmer would try and grow malting barley on Islay. The idea however was not to produce a unique Islay whisky from Islay barley, but simply to see if barley could be grown on Islay cheaply enough to compete with imports. We have evidence that this was done for both Bruichladdich and Bowmore at least, and probably for other distilleries too, but the resulting crop was always simply mixed with the imported grain. It was never treated separately, for its own sake.
The Islay barley growing trials were not a success because the wrong questions were bring asked. Their purpose was not to explore an Islay terroir, it was simply to drive down the price of their raw ingredient.
The first ever Islay single malt whisky, made from 100% Islay barley, was bottled in 2010 from spirit distilled at Bruichladdich from barley grown in 2004 by Raymond Stewart at Kentraw Farm on Richard Macaire’s Foreland Estate on the Rhinns.
We have been laying down spirit from the Islay harvest every year since. There is a lot of very exciting whisky in our warehouses.