Production

Going organic

Ian Wisniewski looks at whether the trend for organic proucts has a place in the world of malt whisky
By Ian Wisniewski
Helping to make the world a more beautiful and sustainable place by drinking organic malt whisky is an evocative concept, with a few pioneering distilleries making this dream become a reality.Although this is something of an innovation, it’s also of course a return to traditional practice, when all malts were distilled from organic barley. Whether organic malts have something extra to offer, beyond ideology, depends on whether, and to what extent, organic barley can influence the character of a malt.The first opinions to canvass are from farmers rather than distillers.William Rose is among the few Scottish farmers cultivating organic malting barley, at Mid Coul and Culblair farms in Dalcross, Inverness. Certified by The Scottish Organic Producers Association, his first organic barley variety was chariot in 1995, though chalice is now the main variety.“Chalice performs remarkably well within the organic system,” says William Rose. “It doesn’t suffer greatly from any given disease, seems not to absorb high levels of nitrogen, and is a good all-round performer.”Nitrogen levels are crucial, as higher levels mean a lower starch content and a lower yield of alcohol. Organic barley typically has higher nitrogen levels than non-organic, raised by factors such as using animal fertiliser, although climate can also influence the nitrogen levels of organic and non-organic barley.Non-organic farming sees nitrogen added to the soil within a compound fertiliser, usually at sowing time and mid-way through the growth cycle. Farmers calculate mineral levels in the soil, and how they need to be supplemented.Nitrogen promotes growth, and the production of green pigments used for photosynthesis, which is how plants build up starch granules within the seeds.“We can’t add anything and try to build up the fertility naturally, like using clover to fix nitrogen levels in the soil,” says Rose.Clover absorbs gaseous nitrogen from the atmosphere and converts it into a chemical form within the soil, which plants can use. However, it’s not as controllable as adding nitrogen within a compound fertiliser, and can also mean bursts of nitrogen being released when the farmer least wants it, such as the final phase of the cultivation cycle.Another aspect of organic farming is planting in wider rows.“More air getting in between the rows means better ventilation and less muggy conditions, which avoids disease better,” says William Rose.“Organic plants tend to be healthier and tougher as the plant has to do all the work itself, whereas chemicals do all the work for non-organic plants. The root system of organic plants tends to be bigger and goes deeper, forming a better symbiotic relationship with the soil.”Chalice is a fairly early maturing variety. Although the difference between late and early maturity may only be a few days, this margin still provides a safeguard against adverse autumn weather, with late maturing varieties entailing a greater risk. And once the harvest is gathered, balancing the books is another skill.“We spend less money on chemicals as we don’t use them, but spend more on weed control, so overall costs are higher, while yield per acre can be 20 per cent less than on a conventional farm,” adds Rose. But does organic barley actually differ?“It is widely believed that organic grain has a more complex mix of nutrients and trace elements, and theoretically this gives a different character to the new make spirit,” says William Rose.Maltsters supplying organic barley include Baird’s, which malted it’s first batch in 2000.“Demand for organic is growing but is still relatively small, with chalice the key organic variety. Three out of our five malting sites have organic accreditation,” says Mark Kinsman of Baird’s.Audited by The Organic Food Federation, this covers supplier details to ensure traceability, and stipulates dedicated bins for storing organic barley. Vessels routinely used for non-organic production are ‘purged’prior to an organic cycle. This entails an initial run of organic barley through the system, which is then combined with non-organic malt.“We maintain an audit trail from delivery to dispatch, which is essential to maintain the standard,” says Mark Kinsman. So, are there any differences when malting organic grain?“Organic barley behaves in a very similar way during malting, though the grain size tends to be smaller and the level of nitrogen higher,” says Mark Kinsman.Another comparison is entirely financial, with the price of organic barley about twice that of non-organic.“The additional cost of the product relates more to the poorer yield of the grower,” adds Mark Kinsman.The yield of alcohol is also lower, with a ton of organic malt producing around 395 litres of spirit, compared to non-organic at around 410-415 litres (which may solely reflect varying nitrogen levels).Regulations for distillers resemble those for maltsters. Benromach’s first organic production, unpeated chalice in 2000, entailed emptying foreshots and feints from the receivers, before cleaning all equipment as a safeguard against any lingering nonorganic elements.When subsequent batches of organic chalice, peated to Benromach’s usual level, were distilled in 2001 and 2004, the system was ‘flushed out’ with an initial run of organic spirit. This was used in regular Benromach, with the following cycle collected as organic spirit. Non-organic production is currently optic, although Benromach’s inventory also includes spirit distilled from non-organic chalice.Comparing new make spirit from the same variety of organic and non-organic barley (ideally with the same nitrogen levels) is the next consideration.“When Springbank distilled organically grown optic, which was cultivated close to Dundee and malted at the distillery, it was treated exactly as it would be for the regular Springbank expression,” says Springbank’s Frank McHardy.“Everything was exactly the same and the spirit yield was comparable with that obtained from non-organically grown barley. No discernible differences were noted in the flavour of the new make spirit, and samples taken from casks, which have been warehoused for four years, initially show no real difference in nose and taste when compared with whisky produced from non-organically grown barley.”The verdict at Glenmorangie is the same.“We did distill some organic barley in 2001. We compared organic spirit to the usual spirit in various tests, and didn’t find any difference. It’s progressing pretty much the same as Glenmorangie of that year, and I think any differences in the future would be down to the wood it’s aged in,” says Dr Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie.Mark Reynier of Bruichladdich has a totally different perspective.“Doing organic barley for the hell of it is a waste of time, I’m doing it for the quality of the spirit. There is a chalk and cheese difference between spirit distilled from non-organic chalice and spirit distilled from organic chalice, which has more fruit, sweetness and oilyness.“We only use Scottish barley, and my reason for doing this was to prove that the origin of the barley does matter. With our Victorian machinery we can say we’re producing a pre-industrial spirit.”The distillery’s first organic spirit run (unpeated chalice) in 2003, was followed by another batch last year, with another scheduled this year.“You can see the house style coming through, but there’s a distinct difference between the spirit distilled from organic chalice from the same farm in 2003 and 2004, so there are also vintage differences,” adds Reynier.“The maturing spirit has so much more dimension, with the differences in the spirit being accentuated.”Speyside Cooperage has been supplying certified organic oak casks since 2000, with the interiors toasted by burning organic offcuts, rather than applying a gas flame.“It’s very small orders, and we’re only offering American oak, as it’s easier to get organic accreditation for American rather than European oak,” says Douglas Taylor of Speyside Cooperage.Benromach is one of the distilleries sourcing casks from Speyside Cooperage.“They’re plain wood not used for anything previously. As the whisky is the first fill, an initial concern was how quickly oak character would build up, so we sample regularly to see how it’s developing,” says Gordon & MacPhail’s Ewen Mackintosh.“We will continue to buy organic casks and create our own future supply of second-fill casks. We’ve also looked at sourcing organic sherry and wine casks.”Whether any characteristics or flavour benefits can be attributed directly to the organic status of malted barley depends on who you ask; but then opinions on numerous aspects of malt whisky can vary significantly. Eventually everyone should be able to decide for themselves, ideally by tasting samples of new make spirit, as well as mature malts.