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.
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 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.
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.