We are all familiar with organic fruit, vegetables and bread, but organic whisky is another matter entirely. However, it is a clear niche market and one with great potential for growth. Both Benromach and Bruichladdich distilleries currently offer organic single malts, and a 4 Years Old blend called Highland Harvest is also on the market.
Organic Whiskies, based in Wales and run by organic farmer John Savage-Onstwedder, retails an organic Springbank from 1992 under the Da Mhile (Gaelic for ‘two thousand’) name, along with an organic single grain, distilled at Loch Lomond in 2000, plus a blended Scotch comprising 70 per cent Loch Lomond and 30 per cent Springbank whiskies.
At the heart of most organic produce in the UK is Soil Association certification, guaranteeing production methods conform to its clearly defined environmentally-friendly standards. In terms of whisky production, gaining that all-important Soil Association certification means in the first instance that the malting barley must be grown without the use of chemical fertilisers and with restricted use of pesticides.
One result of this is lower alcohol yields, and Benromach distillery manager Keith Cruickshank recalls: “When we made our first batch in 2000 the yields were pretty low, but in the last four or five years, there has been more organic barley available and things have improved. With
‘standard’ malted barley we could expect to get 410 to 415 litres per tonne of malt, and with organic barley we average 400 to 405 litres per tonne. We buy 55 tonnes of organic barley from a local farmer, and after it has been malted we will distil with that for five to six weeks per year.
“It makes up between 10 and 13 per cent of our total annual output of Benromach.”
Cruickshank explains: “The farmer is not using fertilisers and nitrogen, and he gets a smaller yield per hectare than a non-organic farmer. He is paid a premium for his crop to compensate for this. When it comes to processing the organic malt, it has a lower starch level, leading to less sugar, while there are higher levels of protein and nitrogen. All of which mean that we get less spirit per tonne.”
Mark Reynier is managing director of Bruichladdich Distillery Company Ltd, which produced an Organic 2003 bottling, described as a “Single vintage, single variety, single estate expression.”
“The casks certainly account for a great deal of the flavour difference. You get lots of vanilla and coconut notes, and chocolate and orange come through, too. There are flavours we don’t get using ex-Bourbon or sherry casks"
Subsequently, a multi-vintage organic vatting of two barley varieties was released as Bruichladich 2010 Organic, and the label names the three individual mainland farmers producing the barley used in the bottling. “Around half of what we distil is now organic,” notes Reynier, “that’s 1,000 tonnes per year from eight farms. We don’t dictate which varieties they use; they know what grows best on their ground and in their micro-climates, but we have had Maris Otter, Chalice and Golden Promise.”
He adds: “Organic barley was always significantly more expensive, but the disparity between that and ‘standard’ barley is coming down. As the cost of oil goes up and adds to the expense of fertilisers and pesticides, so non-organic barley prices have risen.”
The yeast employed for fermentation must also have Soil Association certification, Keith Cruickshank says: “We use Kerry yeast, and it’s simply a case of having it certified as non-genetically-modified.” He adds that apart from lower yields, there are no real processing differences between organic and non-organic whisky production, maintaining that for him the most significant influence is the cask. All organic Benromach is matured in Missouri virgin oak casks, made with wood from sustainably managed forests.
“We have the casks charred and toasted to our own specification, and after six to six and a half years of maturation we bottle it,” he notes. “The casks certainly account for a great deal of the flavour difference. You get lots of vanilla and coconut notes, and chocolate and orange come through, too. There are flavours we don’t get using ex-Bourbon or sherry casks. We also use some refill-Benromach organic casks, which are much slower to mature.”
For Mark Reynier, there are fundamental differences in the character of the organic new-make spirit itself. “You can smell the differences during production, and it tastes better,” he asserts. “The new-make has a greater intensity, definition and precision. It’s a more barley-flavoured spirit. The difference is subtle, but it’s there.”
When it comes to the practicalities of ensuring compliance with Soil Association certification criteria Keith Cruickshank says: “Everything has to be cleaned in an approved manner. Even our bottling line in Elgin has to receive certification. At Benromach It’s essentially like starting a distillery from scratch, or after a long period of closure.”
Given the additional expense, why make organic whisky at all?Reynier points out that “We’re not eco-warriors. It’s about our belief in place and provenance. It’s good farming practices.”
John Savage-Onstwedder knows all about such practices, having farmed organically for many years. Such is his belief, he is commissioning the UK’s first fully-organic micro-distillery at Ceredigion in West Wales.
It will use the Da Mhile brand name and boasts floor maltings and a 350-litre, German-made pot still, with the whole sustainable enterprise being powered by the burning of wood.
Perhaps the future of whisky is not golden but green.