I have an axe to grind on the debate around barley, terroir and flavour, I’ll be honest. It’s with industry mouthpieces like scotchwhisky.com that publish articles with two sides to the debate. “Do these things influence flavour or not?” and so on. This is an old US news trick, a sort of he said, she said, in order to present apparent neutrality. When, in some cases, it actually provides a distorted view of matters. Like in discussion of terroir – which is how soil and microclimate in which barley is grown can affect the flavour of the spirit – and even the barley variety itself, and how that influences aromas and taste. “Does it or does it not?” Yes, of course it does.
Presenting two sides in this debate does no one any favours – except to those producers who have plenty to lose. In short, variety and terroir do influence flavour. The worst thing that these bigger producers are doing is to associate generic landscape, regions, or even being near the sea with terroir, which ultimately makes the whisky industry look utterly stupid among its peers. It’s terroir as viewed through the cheap lens of tourism – at worst it’s deliberate confusion.
On the subject of terroir – which again, is barley, interaction with soil, microclimates – there are no “sides” on Malt. Barley is a plant, simply that, and it’s affected by where and how it’s grown. I’m sure any gardeners out there will easily understand the concept. You can literally taste such differences in new make spirit.
My annoyance with such a poor discussion of terroir online encouraged me to approach the guys at Bruichladdich Distillery directly. (It’s about time I interviewed someone from the distillery, as I have reviewed, god… nearly 40 distillery bottlings on this site.) Bruichladdich has historically led the charge on terroir and whisky, and they were commenting more and more about barley trials and science, so who better to actually have a sensible debate about the matter. I’d also recently sampled the Octomore Eights Masterclass, and was in the mood for some fighting talk.
So we discuss production stuff, not just terroir. We get wonkish about how whisky is made. We talk about barley and wood. And, I challenge them on what they’re doing with terroir, because we love a good scrap on Malt – and they fire some shots back. (Former MD Mark Reynier even makes a guest appearance…)
It’s an epic interview. On with the show.
Interview with Allan Logan and Adam Hannett of Bruichladdich
Malt: I’d be very interested in getting to the details of production, the wonkish zone. But before then, it’d be lovely to get a bit of an overview where things stand now. How many litres is the distillery producing each year now, and are you working the stills flat out to keep up with demand? Are you managing to keep up with the commitments to provenance, if the production has increased greatly? Is there a temptation to make efficiency savings to meet with demands?
Allan and Adam: We are nowhere near flat out in production terms. If we really thrashed the distillery 24/7 for 48 weeks a year we could probably achieve over 2 million litres. We have never tried to do that but in theory it would be possible.
A few years ago we were asked to ramp up production to 1.5 million but we never actually achieved that. We managed around 1.3 million for a couple of fiscals but in fact, we have backed off even from that and are currently around 1 million. Less than half of what we could produce.
So the truth is that production has not increased as much as we thought it would.
Our commitment to provenance is unrelated to that but in any event is stronger than ever. There were years in the past when we simply did not have the infrastructure in place to be as geeky as we do now. You will see that change as the vintage and harvest based releases roll forwards.
So to be specific about answering your question, efficiency and demand are simply not related at Bruichladdich. But what is efficiency?
Everybody has to be ‘efficient’ to some extent of course. We could employ 193 people here, but we are very efficient so we only employ 93…! Other distilleries certainly consider themselves to be much more ‘efficient than us’. They certainly employ fewer people as a result – while distilling far greater quantities than us…
Some key people from the Reynier era have moved on – Duncan and Jim. You now presumably have some excellent stocks of well-made spirit. You could, presumably, keep things precisely as they are at the distillery and you’d likely continue to make good spirit, and we’d all be dancing a happy jig. But this was also an era of innovation – from the insanely peated Octomore, the X4 whiskies, race cars, organics, and a wood policy that, I think it’s fair to say, changed the language of the industry, if not attitudes themselves. How do you build on a legacy like that? Like, I’m not after some lovely marketing fluff here – I’m genuinely curious as to what you guys did with the production to put your own signature on things. Where did you even begin?
We will never forget or downplay the innovative ethos that we have inherited. It is in the DNA of this place now and we have no intention of changing that. As we previously hinted, local infrastructure changes have enabled us to drill even further down into the provenance of our Islay-grown barley.
There are also our ‘regional trials’ of Scottish mainland-grown barley which are now entering their fifth year. We should perhaps make it quite clear that the term ‘trial’ is perhaps a misnomer because each ‘trial’ run currently involves 200 tonnes of barley from each of three Scottish mainland farms. These are located in Aberdeenshire (north), Black Isle (east) and The Lothians (south). Combine these with our Islay barley (west) and our generic Scottish grain (central?!?) and we have the bases covered. And don’t forget that we are not TALKING about doing this – we have done it. There are significant amounts of this high-provenance spirit that is already old enough to be called whisky maturing in our warehouses.
So we continue to innovate around barley provenance, but we also continue to expand our cask exploration programme. A couple of years ago we were maturing spirit in casks from 200 different sources – that figure is now 280. We are particularly interested in virgin oak and have sourced new casks from Japan, Colombia and America as well as France. We are looking to acquire Scottish, Eastern European and Mongolian oak in the future.
Our relationship with Seguin Moreau, through Remy Cointreau, has given us access to tremendous expertise. It has expanded our knowledge of the origin and different species of oak, and how casks are built and toasted.
The options are literally mind-blowing and incredibly exciting. In Napa Valley, for example, a cooperage is utilising techniques to really analyse wood. How does air drying release flavours and how do charring and toasting bourbon barrels release their full potential? There is far more to this than just burning the shit out of American oak that has been kiln dried without any thought being put into: “How could this be done better?”.
We continue to source very exciting casks from the vineyards and spirit houses of Sauterne, Bordeaux and other regions of France, and indeed Europe. We are always trying to expand our network of people and relationships to source the best. Although we are now using more cask types we are also learning more about what works for us and what doesn’t. We don’t want to be gimmicky. We have to have quality.
It’s a weird industry that doesn’t like to show consumers what goes into its product. How are you finding the transparency battle, and is it a concern or an opportunity? Or do you guys just want to crack on with making whisky and let this fly under your radar?
We have actually been very restrained in our portrayal of Transparency but the campaign has been a great success from our point of view. It has genuinely transformed the perception and fortunes of the two multi-vintage cuvees that are central to our core range, being The Classic Laddie and Port Charlotte Scottish Barley. It is now blindingly obvious why these whiskies, previously perceived as just more NAS offerings, are positioned where they are in the marketplace.
We are delighted to say that this has been reflected in sales figures. Which have been brilliant.
We have had a couple of shots across our bows from the Whisky Thought Police as a result, but the intensity of our return salvoes has seen them disappear over the horizon. For the time being anyway. Maybe they will be back. Who knows?
So we are not sure that ‘battle’ is the right metaphor here. There is no denying that we have invaded some territory that whisky companies did not previously occupy – but no battle has ensued. Just some light skirmishing…
Say you could break an industry rule – which one would be for the chopping block first, and why?
I am not sure we are about rule breaking in that sense. As you are aware, our view of Transparency is not one where we are breaking rules. On the contrary, we simply refuse to hide behind them.
So rather than breaking rules, can we suggest we tighten them up? Scotch whisky must be made from Scottish barley? Islay whisky must be matured on Islay? A ban on the use of artificial colouring in single malt whisky? Just ideas you understand…!
Barley and terroir
I get the idea that the only companies who deny that terroir exists in whisky production are those physically unable to introduce the philosophy into their large-scale production process. Worse still, some confuse simple geographic location with terroir. Why do you think the concept – which is established in some industries (not just wine, but in mezcal production they also value it) – is harder to establish in the whisky industry? Is there deliberate denial from some quarters who should know better? Because I don’t even get why we’re still having this debate after so many years.
You are right. There are huge vested interests for whom a general understanding of terroir would be seriously inconvenient. Can you imagine how annoying it would be for Big Whisky if it had to present £40 bottles of single malt with the same level of information as that associated with £10 bottles of wine? All those different vintages and locations and grape varieties and real people talking about how they make their beautiful liquids. Imagine the whisky industry having to admit that single malt made from one year’s barley harvest might be different from that of the next?
Let’s face it. The only reason that terroir is not talked about by Big Whisky is because the consequences of terroir are difficult and expensive and disruptive. It’s much easier to homogenise and add caramel to iron out any inconvenient differences.
There are huge vested interests for whom a general understanding of terroir would be seriously inconvenient. Can you imagine how annoying it would be for Big Whisky if it had to present £40 bottles of single malt with the same level of information as that associated with £10 bottles of wine?
On terroir again, I just wanted to touch on your latest Islay Barley whisky. These used to be single farm distillations. One farm. A single terroir. But the ones that have been released recently mix several farms’ distillations into one batch, creating a sort of generic Islay provenance rather than the original single farm terroir. To someone like me, that looks like an abandonment of terroir. What was the thinking behind this particular approach and do you think that by mixing different terroirs at the point of production it compromises what you say to people about provenance?
Ha ha. Perhaps you should ask Mark Reynier the answer to that one? [Mark @ Malt – I decided to ask him; see below.] Mark was MD in 2010 when the barley harvest of that year was consolidated. But seriously, we kind of answered that above. When the 2010 harvest came in the Wood brothers at Octofad (who dry and store our Islay barley) simply did not have the infrastructure in place to keep the grain from every farm separate. Some farms were kept separately (Octomore being the prime example), but many others were consolidated. But it is still Islay barley, a useful and powerful illustration of terroir.
And so much of what we do here is aspirational. We want to explore terroir but it is a work in progress. We are setting out in various different ways, some of which involve compromises, but all of which represent progress. We are a long way from achieving the kind of uber-control and evaluation exhibited by the vineyards of Bourgogne, but – hey – it’s still progress.
And there is no point pretending it is not complicated. For example – we are still at the point where we are classifying ‘terroir’ in terms of farms. There are obvious flaws in this approach, because farm borders rarely follow soil types or topography. So a classification by farm will only tell you so much. Some farms have fields scattered all over the place. Crop rotation will complicate the issue further. Unlike vines – barley fields move…
To illustrate just how complicated it can all be, take the example of our wonderful Bruichladdich Islay Barley release from the 2007 harvest at Rockside Farm. This was all drawn from the Ministers Field – and we presented the dram as a “single farm, single vintage, single field, single malt.” Quite correct. But a terroir purist would point out that a cross-section through Minister’s Field from top to bottom would show a loamy flat platform that drops down a gentle slope to a sandy lower plain. You could SEE the differences in the growth patterns of barley in different parts of a single field. It was fascinating. Does that render the claim we made irrelevant? Of course not… Does it mean that we may re-evaluate how terroir is presented, or classified, in years to come? Possibly… Because simply saying it comes from a single farm is not necessarily good enough. You would never get away with that in Bourgogne…
[Well, the guys said, “Perhaps you should ask Mark Reynier the answer to that one?” So guess what? I did. Here’s what Mark Reynier had to say.]
Mark Reynier: Certainly we never had the logistics to harvest, dry and store barley from individual farms like we do at Waterford. It was always complicated on Islay, though not insurmountable, to separate the individual farms. But at the time there was a reticence, fundamentally neither the will, understanding, or desire from within the relevant part of the company to make it really happen effectively.
Malt: Now where were we… Where are you sourcing your barley from right now and how do you see that changing over the years? Are you experimenting with different varieties or locations, and what changes in the spirit are you noticing?
Adam and Allan: We have touched on this above but we might as well try a comprehensive listing for 2017. This year we have worked with 17 Islay farmers who have grown for us. The whole harvest is not in yet (the weather has been awful) but we are hoping for a total of around 1,400 tonnes of Islay-grown grain. From the Scottish mainland we have drawn 200 tonnes from each of the three regional trial farms. We will additionally use another 2.5 – 3,000 tonnes of Scottish mainland barley, which is drawn from a 60 mile radius of our maltsters, Bairds of Inverness. We will be buying organic barley from Mid Coul near Dalcross (not sure how much yet – too early to say) – but we have been informed by the Agronomy Institute/UHI in Orkney that they have successfully harvested 97 tonnes of Bere – which is amazing.
I’m an admirer of the Octomore range and I’m excited to see the new announcements about four variants. I recall when the takeover of Bruichladdich came through, one of the things mooted was a streamlining of the releases, a time to simplify everything. Is putting out four Octomore whiskies giving the Agincourt salute to that idea, or is there more to the story?
Actually, the streamlining of Bruichladdich releases was mooted long before the involvement of Remy Cointreau. There was a period of relative consolidation, but it was only relative. Our French friends don’t get involved in what we release – they are happy for it to be led by us. I am sure that will continue to be the case so long as the propositions we make are coherent! Specifically, the release of a ‘Masterclass’ of four Octomore expressions is very much liquid led – we have eight year old liquid with which to celebrate chapter 8 in the OCTomore story… Need I go on?
Now that the various product lines have really become established over the years, how easy or difficult is it to communicate the differences between two excellent peated ranges – Port Charlotte and Octomore?
It’s very easy. Port Charlotte is actually fundamentally consistent in its structure – it is always created from malt peated to 40ppm. The barley provenance and cask management systems may vary but the structure of the spirit is consistent. Octomore is quite different. It is highly experimental and quite frankly anything could happen. Remember the Octomore ‘Discovery’ dram? You never know what we might have up our sleeves…