Bruichladdich – ‘The Organic 2009’
We freely admit that the original motivation behind our exploration of organic barley was the exploration of new flavours. While we were aware of the environmental benefits of organic, our initial interest was driven by the question: “what would an organic Bruichladdich taste like? We love variety and we were simply interested not in whether organic tastes better – but rather would it taste different?
Our question was answered the moment we first sampled organic new make spirit as the contrast was almost startling. The taste, the aroma, even the mouthfeel was brim full of, let’s call it an organic creaminess, the like of which we had never previously experienced.
But we have now been distilling organic grain since 2003 and we are increasingly aware that there are also ethical as well as sensory issues to consider – should we be supporting organic farming simply because it is the right thing to do?
Most of the civilised world realises that we are facing human induced global warming that is driving dramatic climate change. We all need to adjust our lifestyles. Could thinking, and drinking, organically help?
Not that long ago all agriculture was organic but the world’s problems are unlikely to be solved by horse drawn ploughs and the scythe. There is another, progressive view of organic farming, and it is an uber-high-tech-vision of the future.
We have been sourcing organic barley from William Rose at Mid Coul since 2003. Mid Coul is a big organic farm of some 2,700 acres located on Scotland’s Moray Firth. Conventional modern farming relies heavily on the addition of petrochemical based fertilisers being added to the land to replace the nutrients drawn from it by the crop. This has a number of short term benefits, one of the most important being that the same crop can be grown on the same land for a number of seasons in succession without the land becoming exhausted.
Unfortunately, doing this means It is very easy for insect pests, weeds and fungal infestations to become established, which can be devastating. So farmers are forced to deploy insecticides to control the insects, herbicides to control the weeds and fungicides to control the fungus. If they don’t, they risk losing the lot.
The results are plain for everyone to see. A well-managed field of conventionally-grown barley is an extraordinary achievement, but it is a monoculture. It may look impressive, but there will be no hum of insects, no birds singing or scatter of poppies and cornflowers, just a uniform sea of grain. This is marvellous for farming yields and food prices, but potentially disastrous for our environment.
Organic farming does not use petrochemical fertilizers, or insecticides, herbicides or fungicides. This is possible because soil can be fertilised organically using composts and manure, both of which are excellent soil conditioners.
Mid Coul solves the problem of returning fertility to the soil by combining the oldest idea in farming, crop rotation, with one of the newest, the generation of renewable energy from biomass. Giant green domes sit rather futuristically in the landscape and work rather like the four stomachs of a cow, converting vegetable matter to biogas and producing methane which is either fed into the national gas grid or burnt to generate electricity.
The waste ‘digestate’ from the process is then spread back onto the fields as a nutrient-rich fertilizer to support complex crop rotation that includes barley, oats, rye, clover, beans, carrots and parsnips plus lots of grass and clover. Sheep are also raised, and organic cattle fattened for market. There is even a small farm shop that operates on an honesty box principle when supplies of organic vegetables are available.
Our barley therefore has to take its place within this complex organic cycle. Seeing it in the field the rich understory that organic methods promotes is immediately apparent. This is evidently not ideal if the aim is maximum yield, but what if quality, rather than yield, is the primary aim? The idea is very aligned to our philosophy at Bruichladdich.
In recent years William has invested heavily in specialist machinery to assist with the weeding of organic crops and new approaches to cultivation. GPS-based driverless technology means that a tractor operator does not have to worry about guiding the vehicle, he can concentrate on other tasks such as monitoring the cameras that are linked to weed identification software and enabling their mechanical removal.
These high technology production methods sit comfortably alongside wild and biodiverse hedgerows and field margins that teem with birds, butterflies and wild flowers. An interesting example of this is a good local population of corn buntings, farmland birds that used to be abundant but are now scarce. According to the RSPB the UK population of these buntings fell by 89 per cent between 1970 and 2003. This is mainly because modern herbicides and insecticides mean fewer seed and insect food sources are available to them on ‘conventional’ farmland. Their presence on Mid-Coul is indicative of the benefits of organic farming to wildlife.
One is left with the impression that if we are to maintain our lifestyles in the long term then it will surely be farms like Mid Coul that lead the way by really addressing sustainability. An idealistic vision, yes, but one that William Rose is determined to deliver in a rational, commercially appropriate way. And judging from the number of beautiful dragonflies, butterflies and flocks of seed-eating birds to be seen thriving on his rich organic farm, it is a vision that can only be of great benefit to our native wildlife as well as people.
‘The Organic 2009′ from Bruichladdich is an unpeated single vintage, single estate Islay single malt Scotch whisky