Groundworks – Shore House Croft

IN

What should a distillery do with 30 acres of its own agricultural land?

Shortly after buying Shore House Croft in 2018, we invited maltsters, distillers, farmers, breeders, academics and agronomists to Islay, to help inform us on the answer to this question.

We’ve always been interested in testing the idea of terroir in whisky; different flavours depending on where and how you source your main ingredient – barley. We could be accused of being eternally obsessed with barley. Not only are we fastidious about where our barley is grown and about building a relationship with who is growing it, we have also been exploring less common varieties for distilling – barley varieties that went out of fashion in the 1970s or way back in the 19th century. We also want to make barley growing viable for our local partners, by finding or developing varieties that will thrive in an Islay biome, and by creating a market for other grains they might want to grow, such as rye.

Since we first distilled Organic spirit in 2003, and Biodynamic in 2010, as distillers, we have been continuing our education about regenerative farming practises. At first, this was in pursuit of flavour, but as the volume of environmental debates around agriculture has risen over the last five years, we’re ever more conscious about how land management can have a positive impact.

The most exciting thing about our croft land is the role it can play in research and development. We’re looking to the medium or long-term in learning and testing here. We are really lucky to have strong cross-sector partnerships with the James Hutton Institute, and the University of the Highlands and Islands, and the breeding programme at WSU Bread Lab. Other distillers are also beginning to look closely at funding PhD programmes to progress the study of net zero barley; we plan to adopt the same strategy adapted to Islay. 

Through The Botanist Foundation, we have been able to contribute to biodiversity conservation through local projects and the world’s botanical garden network. For the croft, this has translated into managing parts of the fields to preserve wild flowers, insect life, birds, hares… We were excited to see record numbers of Greater Butterfly orchids there in the spring.

Areas of the croft are being managed for biodiversity

Some of the steps we have been able to take in the short term are less glamorous – improving the drainage, erecting new fencing. We’ve also embarked on a five year programme to improve the quality of the soil through cover and cash crops. It was sown last year with a mixture of ryegrasses, white clover, and deep rooting chicory and plantain – whose roots enhance the soil structure. Gordon MacDougall, assistant distillery manager, has his sheep grazing it currently, naturally fertilising it as they go.

We want to absorb the risk of trialling new varieties, or exploring different methods. We hand-planted some trial plots in the summer of 2019 on the lower field, and shortly after, had our first crop failure. It likely won’t be our only failure, or our last, but we look forward to taking a more systematic approach once the groundworks are done – leaning on the expertise of our current or future academic partners. 

We’ve developed a greater appreciation for how nuanced and comprehensive good farming needs to be. After all, we are distillers, not farmers. Still, we are driven by the feeling that as producers of luxury goods, we are able and obliged to take responsibility for what is happening along the whole value chain. Every small detail we learn about new things that work or don’t work about sustainable barley growing on Islay, brings us closer to being able to keep doing what we do best – making Islay whisky – long into the future. 

Production Director Allan heads "into the field"

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