Understanding organic whisky

Understanding organic whisky

The popularity of produce free from artificial pesticides and fertilisers is growing, but what does this really mean for whisky?

Production | 05 Oct 2021 | Issue 178 | By Felipe Schrieberg

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Within the many secrets of malt whisky lies a simple and romantic fact often highlighted by distillers: it is made from nothing more than water, barley and yeast. Processed together, an incredible variety of aromas and flavours emerge. However, sourcing of the most important of the three, barley, is rarely questioned or considered by whisky drinkers. Nevertheless, some distillers are now beginning to rethink the impact of a particular element of their supply chain that has changed little over decades; namely, the one in which barley is grown as a monoculture with the use of significant volumes of added chemicals.

Sparked by consumer interest, Scottish government policy and enlightened industry insiders, some pioneering distillers are entirely reconsidering how barley is sourced for production. They are releasing organic whisky that enables them to ask wider questions about the supply-chain systems that reinforce current land use norms and environmental abuse for whisky’s sake. In line with the Scotch Whisky Association’s (SWA) goal to promote sustainable production and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040, these questions deserve answers.

At the most basic level, organic whisky is produced solely from grain which is officially recognised as organic by one of several independent certification organisations, in organic-certified facilities. Richard Swann, organic and biodynamic investigator for the Biodynamic Association, has inspected and helped certify a number of distilleries licensed to release organic whisky, among them Bruichladdich on Islay and Waterford in Ireland. He defines organic barley as that which has been grown without the use of chemical inputs, in harmony with nature using natural inputs for fertility, without any chemical pesticides and herbicides to control
its development.
It's all in the grains

However, this extends beyond sourcing for production. All facilities involved in the whisky supply chain – including maltsters, distilleries, and bottling halls – must also be inspected to ensure their methods do not mix organic and non-organic grains. Inspections also include products made from those grains such as wort, wash, new make and even the heads and feints from distillation.
According to Annabel Thomas, founder of Nc’nean Distillery in Morvern, whose west Highlands distillery produces only organic whisky, some serious paperwork is involved. “The most arduous bit is the actual records that we have to keep on site,” she explains. “For example, all our bags of malt have to be labelled ‘organic,’ and when they arrive we have to verify that the labels are there while keeping a record of that verification.

“At the end of the year we also have to prove that all the barley we brought in adds up correctly to account for the spirit produced. That means there’s no chance that a non-organic bag could have snuck in there at any point.”
The challenges don’t end there. Growing organic barley is a risky proposition for farmers, not least because of the crop’s increased susceptibility to pressures that can render it unusable. Poor weather can easily ruin organic barley crops, and both Bruichladdich and Benromach have been forced in the past to skip their annual production period of organic new-make spirit due to scarcity of suitable organic malting barley.
Casks at Benromach

Then there’s the expense. Organic barley can cost from around 50 to 100 per cent more than conventional malting barley and invariably leads to the production of less alcohol per tonne. In fact, as Benromach distillery manager Keith Cruikshank explains, organic barley is normally around 10 points lower in yield than non-organic.

Given these significant disadvantages, one would be forgiven for asking why any distillers bother with it at all. For Thomas, it was to make her whisky as eco-friendly as possible. The payoff: Nc’nean is the first Scotch whisky distillery to achieve net-zero emissions.
“Barley sourcing can become not just a matter of phasing out fertilisers and pesticides, which is important, but about improving where the barley has come from,” she adds.

Organic cultivation also presents an alternative to conventional methods, which are unsustainable and damaging to the land. Most of Scotland’s barley is grown in the nation’s east, where conditions and soil are best. Conventional cultivation requires adding nitrates to the crops via chemical fertilisers, manure, slurry, and other methods. While the crops absorb some of the nitrogen, remaining nitrates and other nutrients are often washed away, polluting nearby watercourses and groundwater.

These compounds also deprive the soil of necessary minerals; over time they degrade the quality of the land and its ability to retain moisture, and can further damage the surrounding environment, which in turn necessitates more intense use of these chemicals. Herbicides, fungicides and pesticides are also used to protect against weeds, disease and pests, further damaging the surrounding ecosystem.

Though Scotland’s waters are relatively clean – only 3 per cent of Scotland’s rivers were classified as slightly polluted, polluted, or severely polluted in 2018 by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency – the state of affairs in England serves as a stark warning about how serious the issue can get. There, only 14 per cent of rivers were designated as being in good ecological standard, while none were of good chemical standard in 2020. Agriculture is a significant contributor to this current water crisis, which is especially critical as many Scotch whisky distilleries rely on English barley for production.

Benromach, near Forres in Speyside, has been producing organic spirit since October 2000. Its first organic release, The Organic, arrived in 2006 and was the first whisky certified entirely organic by the Soil Association. The distillery’s only unpeated whisky, it is matured entirely in new American oak casks that have also been certified as organic in the US. Each year, the distillery spends two weeks making The Organic’s new-make spirit, using 50 tonnes of organic barley.

Cruikshank welcomes the change from the peated house style he usually creates: “You really get the maltiness, the Horlicks, that breadiness. It smells like an entirely different distillery without the peat that’s usually around. It’s really refreshing to have a few weeks of the year.”

He has a personal connection to the whisky as well: his brother-in-law has supplied Benromach with its organic barley since 2013 and the farm, maltster, and distillery are all located in Moray. It means The Organic is currently the only single-origin organic Scotch whisky on the market, even if it doesn’t currently say so on the bottle.
Bruichladdich distillery

Bruichladdich also boasts an organic whisky, for which it began producing the new make in 2004. That marked the start of the Islay distillery’s journey into barley experimentation, which has culminated in recent years with the purchase of land (Shore House Croft) as a testing site for growing barley varietals and other grains. Production director Allan Logan places the effort as part of a campaign to push the distillery towards a more sustainable future: “In our exploration of flavour and how barley has an impact, we wanted to know what it would be like to use naturally grown barley that doesn’t have inputs, as barley used to be grown, and wanted to see if that could lead to something interesting.”

In the west Highlands, Nc’nean debuted its first whisky, named simply Organic Single Malt, last year. Further experiments and a single-origin release, all certified organic, are in the works. Going organic was a decision that Thomas’s mentor, the late industry legend Dr Jim Swan, originally opposed. Motivated to be as sustainable as possible in production, Thomas stayed the course. Currently, 10 farmers provide the Scottish organic barley used for the distillery’s whisky.

Bruichladdich and Nc’nean work closely with barley producers to expand the opportunities for organic whisky. For both distilleries, that means assuming responsibility for a part of the supply chain, applying an ethic of land stewardship to barley and wider grain cultivation. “We want to keep reducing inputs and provide an example, show that it’s viable, and encourage change,” says Logan. “We’re hoping from our research that in the future we can eliminate our dependency on agrochemicals and get as close as possible to becoming fully organic, and help others do the same.”

Outside Scotland, one distillery has taken full control of its grain supply, implementing sustainable management via regenerative practices. The Oxford Artisan Distillery (aka TOAD) works with its eight suppliers to use specific, regenerative agriculture methods developed by the distillery’s pioneering Canadian paleo-botanist John Letts.
The still set-up at TOAD

TOAD makes rye whisky in what can be described as a broadly American style, using mixed mash bills that can involve barley, wheat, and sometimes oats that are then distilled through both a column and pot still. The fields growing TOAD’s grains are neither ploughed nor subjected to chemical inputs. Heritage cereal varietals sourced by Letts are freely placed alongside other field plants such as clover that help keep the soil and crops healthy.

TOAD’s head of distilling, Francisco ‘Chico’ Rosa, claims that overall yield is improved through mixing grains: “By introducing a bit of wheat in the field, yields can increase by up to 30 per cent per acre, and all it takes is 10 per cent of the field to be planted with wheat.”
After the grains are harvested, the remains of the cereal plants are left on the field to create a layer of straw, which helps protect the seeds of the next crop and serves as an effective fertiliser. As a result, TOAD’s crops are resilient to climate risks that normally ruin fragile organic cereals. The mixed-grain fields can better handle heat waves, floods and droughts.
Chico Rosa examines a TOAD whisky sample

However, TOAD’s commitment to regenerative organic agriculture means sacrificing the ability to retain consistency in the flavour of its spirit, as the varietal composition of its cereals changes with each processed batch.

“We can be consistent by blending several batches,” says Rosa, “but I’ve told our marketing team that while we can ensure the quality of our liquid – it will always taste amazing – a consistent profile across batches is impossible. In this way, it’s similar to wine.” This would be a hard sell for larger whisky companies, as spirit consistency is a backbone of the industry.

While Logan dreams of a 100 per cent organic Bruichladdich, this is still a goal for the distant future. However, the very existence of organic whisky marks the start of a new era in which distilleries are asserting their influence in the supply chain to promote sustainability and soil health in cereal production, versus the damaging methods currently encouraged by the wider industry.
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