Our obsession with barley takes a new path

IN

In the world of fine wine, terroir is a concept that reflects the interaction between soil, exposure, orientation and climate on the growth of the vine and the harvest of the grape. Long regarded as unimportant in the whisky world, it has been the accepted norm for the industry to focus instead on yield, efficiency and maturation. Since our resurrection in 2001, we’ve rejected the notion that these three elements are the crucial factors in creating spirits. We have instead turned our attentions to sourcing the highest quality, and most interesting, raw ingredients – predominantly barley.

Having developed the idea of an ‘Islay terroir’ over the past two decades, we’ve taken elements of this French philosophy and applied them to our island practices. Having built relationships with 17 Islay farmers and many more throughout Scotland, our 100 strong team have now made some progress in exploring the impact of the grower, climate, barley varietal, location and even lack of pesticides on the flavour of our spirit.

While it has never been our intention to document our conclusions in a scientific manner, our product range gives an insight into the nuances that may be discovered if boundaries of normal convention are broken.

Regardless of our current progress, we feel there is more work to do, always more to learn. It is with great pride then, that we announce we have acquired the 30 acres of Shore House Croft.

These 30 acres surround the distillery, sprawling to the back and side of the site, away from the coast. Having not been farmed in recent years, the opportunities to develop the land and existing properties are plentiful.

“This all comes back to flavour for us, we’re not interested in the common-place parameters, so we must customise our own research.”

Finalised plans are yet to be shared, however, our Production Director Allan Logan has described the move as an opportunity to improve agricultural knowledge. Special attention is due to be paid to improving our sustainable farming practices on Islay. Explaining the details further, Logan states;

“This is a great opportunity for Bruichladdich to progress our Islay barley agenda and our exploration of an ‘Islay terroir’. In the very first instance, we’ll conduct soil surveys with local consultant Hunter Jackson, and a biodiversity survey with our professional forager James Donaldson.

 “Depending on the results, we hope to establish our own trial plots on the croft, where we’ll test the viability of different barley varieties on Islay soil. One day, we may add to the number of different spirits distilled here, and for us, the most interesting place to look is outside of the ‘recommended list’, to heritage varieties. These ‘lost’ varieties currently lack focus in terms of research in the industry, in part due to a lesser commercial incentive.

 “We would like to further develop our relationships with the James Hutton Institute and the UHI Agronomy Institute to highlight unchartered territories for us as distillers. This all comes back to flavour for us, we’re not interested in the common-place parameters, so we must customise our own research.

 “As well as working with these academic institutions, we’d like to share knowledge across our own Remy Cointreau family. With our sister distillers Westland and Domaine des Hautes Glace pioneering different areas within the world whisky scene, we have a unique opportunity to learn from each other and to consult external expertise. If we can collaborate with all these parties, I’m confident we would gain substantial insight into the entire process – from seed, to farm, to glass.

 “Ultimately, we’re very excited to use this land for agricultural use. The scale is tiny compared to the land currently being farmed by our partners on the island, but if we can do the experimentation in-house, it may benefit the rest of the growing community here.”

Varieties like bere may one day be grown on Islay again

“Relative benefits to farmers, maltsters, and distillers must all be taken into consideration for a barley type to make it to the recommended list.”

Future developments made to Shore House Croft will be updated here, on our news section

Footnotes:

Whilst barley must be one of the three component parts in single malt whisky, Bruichladdich partnered with Andrew Jones at Coull Farm to grow Islay’s first ever rye crop. It was distilled in December 2017.

Number of spirits distilled in 2017 totalled 13 including unpeated Brucihladdich; Bere, Golden Promise, regional trials from Aberdeenshire, the Black Isle and Lothian, Organic, Islay and mainland Scottish. For Port Charlotte; Islay and mainland Scottish. For Octomore; Islay and mainland Scottish. Not forgetting the first ever Islay grown rye.

The recommended list for malting barley is decided based on a number of different parameters. Some of these include but are not limited to relative yield, straw height, resistance to lodging, straw breakdown, earliness of ripening, resistance to diseases & mildew, brackling (buckling), skinning (husk detached which causes changes to the rate of germination and increases likelihood of infection as well as making grain difficult to handle) & nitrogen content.

Relative benefits to farmers, maltsters, and distillers must all be taken into consideration for a barley type to make it to the recommended list. This means that decisions may often be based on yield due to the economic benefit to the maltster and the farmer. In order to place importance on flavour over yield, the benefit to the distiller must be transferred to the benefit for the others e.g. increased risk equals increased rate of compensation.

Varieties that do not fit the criteria for all three parties may result in them being removed from the list and may well be lost, to have no future commercial usage. Bere barley and Golden Promise are two such examples.

Bruichladdich must adjust the conventional parameters in order for the Islay growing relationship to work. This is in part due to the difficult conditions faced with growing on the West Coast e.g. climate and influx of pests such as geese and deer.

Around 1000 acres of land are planted for growing barley for Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte and Octomore each year. The 30 acres of land purchased under the Shore House Croft name will not be used for industrial purposes, save 0.7 acres for a staff car park to the back of the distillery.

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