What’s So Special About Islay Barley?

IN

“It’s totally different farming here, it just is,” says Hunter Jackson, Islay farmer and seed merchant for the island.

“It’s not monoculture,” Hunter says, as he describes a landscape with around 1,000 acres producing malting barley, across 20 farms this year. There’s wide variation in growing conditions and soils, even on the one farm.

From the air, at this time of year, you can see that Islay is a tapestry of small parcels of green and gold fields set between vast expanses of rusty scrub moorland imprinted only with peat workings and iron age forts. Statistically, only 6.5% of Islay’s land is potentially ploughable, and barley is raised on 0.6% of the island, all farms combined.

From the Atlantic coast, looking back inland over Loch Gorm, and the fields at Ballinaby

“It’s not just as simple as get out there and bash the barley in and it’ll be fine! There’s a whole load to it.” You may have read our accounts of the various challenges our growers have faced over the years – from geese and swans eating the crop, to scant soil depths, to soil type, drainage, weather – it’s always something of a triumph against the odds, bringing the harvest home.

Andrew Jones of Coull Farm sums it up, “We’ve not been beaten yet. We’ve lost parts of crops and we’ve had bad yields. We’ve had years of tearing our hair out with the weather but we always get something at the end. When you’re putting the seed in the ground the risk is there with weather. We’ve never had a perfect year since we started growing barley and I don’t suppose we’ll ever get one! So you just take each year as it comes.” He says they’ve had the best weather ever for harvest this year, although heavy dews at either end of the day have given them shorter times to work in.

Besides the stoicism, there is comradeship between the farmers who grow for us. The context is one of support and shared learning with the distillery at the centre, providing a guaranteed outlet for the barley crop, and encouraging a dialogue about trying new things. Hunter paints growing for us as being part of a club. “It’s a chance to socialise and gain knowledge from your peers. You’re not competing with anybody. There used to be a big difference between somebody getting 2 tonnes plus to the acre at 16% and the next guy getting a tonne at 30% – that’s all narrowed. People are getting better and better and better at it, by this getting people together. We get together three times a year or so, have a bite to eat, a general chat about what’s happening at Bruichladdich, what’s going on in agriculture…”

Hunter Jackson in his office, “It’s not just as simple as get out there and bash the barley in and it’ll be fine!”

What’s going on in agriculture in terms of research and development is exciting for contexts like ours. The James Hutton crop research institute in Dundee has an open day each year, where they give talks and allow farmers to explore the field trials for new varieties in development. In 2019, Hunter and Allan Logan, Production Director, attended together. “Going with Allan was actually quite helpful, because Bruichladdich was already in touch with James Hutton about their breeding programme, so there was an extra side to it that I wouldn’t normally have been involved in.” recounts Hunter, as he assures us that it was not just a road-trip. The James Hutton Institute are exploring new strains potentially more suited to west coast specific issues, such as the shorter growing season, by cross-breeding the heritage variety Bere barley with a modern conventional barley, Concerto. This is of huge interest to us – champions of Bere barley since 2005 and Islay-grown barley since 2004. We’ll also have the ability to run field trials ourselves in the future, now that we have acquired Shore House Croft.

End of the harvest at Coull Farm

What are we getting out of our obsession with obscure species, and absolutism about where the barley comes from? We are getting, and celebrating, differences of flavour in our whiskies.

We don’t want everything bearing the name Bruichladdich to taste the same, with its only distinction being how long it has been aged. There is more nuance, more potential breadth of flavour, to play with if barley is elevated to its rightful place as main ingredient, and if transparency about its origin is respected. No filtering, no added colouring, and the particularities can shine. We’re not saying whisky made with Islay barley “tastes better” than whisky made with barley grown in Aberdeen or grown on a different single farm; we are saying they all taste different.

Incredibly, 53% of Bruichladdich’s unpeated barley mashbill requirements for 2019 were met by the farms and farmers here in Islay. For us, what makes Islay barley special, above all, is that we know them. It’s the people.

After a warm spring which saw Donald McCormick bringing in barley from Blackrock on August 10th – the earliest ever on Islay – the 2020 harvest was completed yesterday. We’ve heard talk of thick crops and biggest tonnages. It will no doubt be a mixed picture across all the farms, but at least the barley is in. We heartily salute our growers and their families who have put in all the work through the year to bring the Islay harvest home again. We look forward to the final tally and eventual taste of 2020.

2020 Islay barley field near Bridgend

Further Reading

Adam Hannett tasting two previous vintages of Islay Barley:  Adam Hannett on the Islay Barley Series >>

Our Islay Barley current release, grown in 2011 Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2011 >> 

 

With thanks to Hunter Jackson of JFS farm supplies, Andrew Jones of Coull Farm Islay, and Stuart Doyle of Islay Taxis, for the aerial photo.

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