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Bruichladdich The Organic 2009

Bruichladdich Organic 2009

The problem with the whisky industry – in my eyes – is that hardly anyone cares about how barley, the key ingredient, is grown. I mean, most of it in the Scotch industry is shipped in from anywhere across the country – or continent. And sure, some will have a minor understanding of where it comes from – which is a start, I guess, though it doesn’t tell me much. But almost no one gives a damn about how the crop is grown.

This, to me, is completely remarkable – until you glance across to corporate giants, who have actively spread misinformation about barley over the years. That varieties, let alone the terroirs – which are the microenvironments in which the crop is grown – influence flavour, is a serious inconvenience to a whisky world that thrives on consistency.

It’s regurgitated at visitor centre after visitor centre: “we use quality barley!” But ask where it comes from, how it’s grown, and whether or not it matters, and the same trite nonsense is peddled. The barley comes from some vague location down south, can’t quite remember where, probably that nasty England place, and nah, it’s all the same, it doesn’t matter, we’re sure it’s good, we just won’t explain how. Anyway, it’s all about the wood right? Because we sold you a dud on the age statements for a hundred years, and now we’re peddling the wood concept as being the most important factor, brainwashing another generation of drinkers.

That means you, the consumer, now have your pants around your ankles; while they, Big Whisky, get away yet again without having shown much interest in the prime ingredient, the thing from which single malt whisky is made. Barley.

Take a look at the wine industry – or any sub-genre of the food industry – and you’ll find massive amounts of information on how a crop is grown. Differences in taste are good – not just easily detectable, but celebrated. Investigated. Interrogated. This leads to an absurd world where a £10 bottle of plonk has more enjoyable information about provenance than a £1000 bottle of whisky. That’s not my idea of a luxury product.

How you treat a crop does impact on its growth and its quality – you only have to ask any kitchen gardener or allotmenteer and they’ll nod – as well as the resulting spirit. But what gets me is that after so many years of being fed misinformation, quite a number of whisky drinkers are reluctant to be open-minded, let alone to think differently – or to consider that the same principles apply to barley. As if barley was not a plant like any other. Or get them this far, and then they shrug and say it’s all ironed out during distillation, as opposed to it augmenting differences like any eau du vie. And to which I would say: presumably if distillation makes everything taste the same, you only drink mass-market blends then and don’t care about single malts? Or if that argument fails, then it’s usually a case of it’s all ironed out in the casks. (Apart from whisky isn’t just about the wood.)

I’ve just spent my pre-amble ranting about something that I hadn’t intended to rant about, but that’s sometimes how it happens on Malt. And maybe this sort of intellectual curiosity into the raw ingredients of a whisky, how and where it is grown, isn’t for everyone. I get that, especially with the industry-wide brainwashing that’s gone on. But let’s not pretend it’s a figment of anyone’s imagination.

Yet, we know you can actually taste the differences in barley and terroirs.

Anyway, so what about organic whisky? In this case, it’s about the soil – or rather, what’s not been put on the soil. Whisky was once all organic, back in the pre-fertilizer, pre-WW2 era. Today organic isn’t some wanky label: it is merely a descriptor to say that artificial fertilisers and the likes have not been applied to the land. The concerns from the farmer are, among other things, with a long-term view to soil health: that thing from which barley draws its nutrients. If you ate nothing but Big Mac and fries for a month, instead of a healthy, balanced diet, you’d start to feel it – and the same applies to plants too. It’s not to say that organic automatically equals good, but that the conditions in which the barley is grown will contribute to something slightly different, hopefully, something interesting, perhaps even better in some cases, and we enjoy those differences in flavour here on Malt. Because we’re interested in exploring what makes a good whisky right?

Still with me? No, I’m starting to bore myself.

Maybe we should have a drink and talk about the details of Bruichladdich’s The Organic 2009. It’s made from 100% organically grown Scottish barley, farmed by William Rose at Mid Coul Farms. In old-school Bruichladdich style, there’s a lot more information on the packaging itself, which I’d encourage you to look at. The whisky was distilled in 2009 (from the 2008 harvest) and matured in American oak for 8 years. Bottled – as with most Laddies – at 50% ABV, it will cost you about £70.

Bruichladdich Organic 2009

Bruichladdich The Organic 2009 – Review

Colour: yellow gold.

On the nose: massive amounts of floral sweetness. Violets and old roses. Vanilla, floral honey. Golden syrup. Baked pears. Lavender. Citrus. Herbal. Something of the greenhouse about it. With time that perfumed note becomes astonishingly beautiful. And later, when that fades, comes a robust maltiness, the hay barns and a slight hoppy quality.

In the mouth: a wonderful, if somewhat blunt, contrast between the sharp, savoury, walnut-y maltiness that honeyed sweetness. And very sweet it is too. Lemon meringue pie. It’s a fat, vicious spirit – marvellously oily. That maltiness is so potent it reminds me of the ashiness or coal dust notes in peat at first. This needs time to calm down a bit in the glass. A coriander spiciness. Hoppy. Floral honey. Muscovado sugar. Pepper – but more the kind of rocket salad leaf pepperiness. The honey and citrus notes linger on the finish.

Conclusions

I’m not pretending this is some sort of magic whisky, nor have I appealed to bearded whisky hipsters at all during this post. Because this sort of whisky isn’t about posing with by the likes of the Instagram crowd – quite the opposite. It’s about that intellectual curiosity, the willingness to explore whisky in a different manner, and then to reap the rewards of a different kind of drinking pleasure.

Anyway. Lovely dram. An absolute charmer. Ranting over.

Score: 7/10

 

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. James says:

    Hi Mark,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece: eloquent and cogent. I am generally in total agreement.

    When you present the barley denying counter-argument above – ‘distillation makes everything taste the same’ – I take it you mean they think that, irrespective of the raw materials put in, the end spirit will taste the same from any given distillery? For the present whisky industry – for many of the reasons you outline above – I would suggest this is true. They engineer their distillation and maturation processes to have a more decisive influence on the character of spirit than barley might to ensure consistency. They do not want to faithfully translate what barley-beer has to say into a barley-spirit, so they allow their stills to rewrite and harmonise its message. I know first-hand that big distillers often experience radical variation between two batches of the same malt intake and so they tweak the process to get spirit back within desired character parameters.

    However, I do agree entirely with the meat of your rant and I see what you are getting at: you aren’t arguing that whisky is at present the same as wine or eau de vie; you’re saying it could yet be similar.

    It is all a question of intervention. The long-standing philosophy of wine and eau de vie makers is that nature has already given you everything you need, you just have to nudge it along. Broadly, the whisky industry holds the opposite view which I agree is regrettable, if not in any way surprising. That I am, by and large, the only person who comments beneath these types of article shows that even on a specialist and well-read site like Malt, people just aren’t as vexed about this subject as we are. Extend that to all those whisky drinkers who don’t read Malt at all and just want a tasty dram and you can see the difficulty in getting the industry to make better whisky. Please don’t stop doing it, though.

    Bruichladdich is a shining hope for the geeks. Next time I visit Islay I will be dropping in to see for myself what pursuit of terroir means for their malting, their mashing, fermentation, distillation, maturation. Given whisky’s tradition of manufacture, as well as the many more interventionist processes barley for whisky must undergo versus grapes for wine, the complexities of fine-tuning the equipment to maximise something as nuanced as a sense of place must be enormous. It must surely be like relearning how to make whisky. If anyone can do it, though, it must be the Bruichladdich team.

    There is a chance that their work could inspire other sectors, beer for example. I’ve done more and more beer research recently and it is fascinating that a liquid far more similar to wine than whisky is barely mentions malting barley at all: in general, the talk is all about roasting levels of the malt, the hops and the yeast. Maybe whisky makers are slightly ahead of their brewing colleagues in this fascinating area.

    Soil is king and I would recommend you read Dan Barber’s ‘The Third Plate’ which offers the best overview I’ve come across of how systems of agriculture and ecology map onto food and drink. Bruichladdich is on its way towards what Barber advocates.

    Best wishes,
    James

    1. Mark says:

      Hi James,

      Thanks for the epic comment. Re: “distillation makes everything taste the same” – yes, I’m not in disagreement on that point, I don’t think. The attitude as you point out is towards creating homogeneity. But that doesn’t mean that it’s also a truth. it’s just that Big Whisky projects that as truth, but it isn’t so. Take Waterford Distillery. Single farm distillations, each week, in complete isolation from field to barrel, and they all taste different. Some more subtle than others, but each their own different expression of barley, terroir, climate, environment, soil, all of the above.

      In fact (and though I have my biases, admittedly) Waterford is the only one where you can see this embedded truly in not just the philosophy, but the barley supply chain. one might say Bruichladdich is compromising terroir in some of their releases. The recent Islay Barley release was a mixed mash, therefore diluting provenance, and their regional trials stray even further from the idea of terroir. Waterford is the only one doing it properly, but then the same fellow started off doing this at Bruichladdich and he’s now doing it at Waterford on a bigger and better scale.

      You’re right about intervention, or lack of, and it’s a good word to raise – hard to achieve in distillation, some might say, but a worthy thing.

      Thanks for the book tip!

      1. James says:

        Yes, I think we are arguing the same thing, just from opposite directions: to mask the inherent variations in their raw materials, Big Whisky adjusts their production processes, points to consistency of outcome and declares that barley variety and terroir don’t make a difference. They aren’t allowed to make a difference. It is also true, of course, that no big distiller would ever release spirit the product of a single mash. As currently occurs, even if variations are experienced across a week’s worth of runs, the final vatting of all of these spirits would erase individual characters. That distillation makes everything taste the same is a confected truth, a half-truth, if you will.

        I look forward to Waterford’s releases, although it sounds like I’m going to need to do some extensive travelling in Ireland first if I’m to recognise the terroir that the spirit is intended to capture!

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