The World of Single Malt Whisk(e)y
Bruichladdich and Biodynamic Barley
If you’ve never heard of Biodynamics, I’m not surprised. It’s a small but growing movement that’s been around since the early 1900s, and while it’s most often associated with the wine industry, its roots are in agriculture. What does this have to do with whisky? To answer that, let’s head over to Scotland - to a wee whisky making region known as Islay, and one of the most prominent distilleries there: Bruichladdich.
Bruichladdich (pronounced Brook-laddie) employs over 70 people, making them the largest private employer on Islay. Since the distillery’s resurrection in 2001, they’ve been a progressive leader of innovation and sustainability, even going so far as attaining B Corp status, which they received in May 2020.
B Corp is a certification that measures not just product and service performance, but also takes into consideration social and environmental impact. Its rigorous testing measures a company’s standard of performance, from its supply chain to employee benefits to carbon footprint. Bruichladdich is one of only 2 whisky distilleries in the world to have achieved B Corp status and the only one located in Scotland.
It’s clear Bruichladdich is intent on making great whisky, while also doing their part to take care of the planet and be responsible with their sourcing. They strive to be “pioneers, provocateurs and change makers. Reconnecting the land and the dram, re-evaluating the prescribed ‘rules’ of the industry, questioning where flavour comes from and understanding why agricultural ecosystems are important.”
A Dynamic Partnership
Hot on the heels of their B Corp Certification, Bruichladdich announced their collaboration with Yatesbury House Farm, a Demeter certified grower of biodynamic barley located in Wiltshire, England. This might come as a surprise to those that know Bruichladdich, as they have been staunch advocates of only using Scottish-grown barley for their range of single malts. The reason behind using barley strictly from Scottish farmers was to provide traceability and support the grassroots operations and methods they truly believe in. It’s their aim to seek “meaningful partnerships with growers who are progressive and who are interested in the destiny of their produce, just as we are interested in its origins.”
The Bruichladdich distillers were already familiar with the concept of biodynamics, as their background was in fine wine and some of the best wineries in the world utilize biodynamic practices, and they were keen to see how it would work in their single malt whisky. But when there were no Scottish biodynamic barley producers to be found, they felt their self-imposed restrictions keeping them from working with Richard Gantlett at Yatesbury, and the flavour potentials of his biodynamic barley, were somewhat arbitrary.
What is Biodynamic?
Biodynamic agriculture was created as “a way to heal and revitalize the earth” - per the founder of Biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner, in 1914. It looks at the bigger picture of earth balance and the forces that influence that balance; if the soil is healthy and harmonized, the food it produces will be of the highest quality. Biodynamic farmers assess more than just their immediate crops to gauge overall wellbeing - they take into account the birds, surrounding plant life, the animals they keep (bioD farmers often have animals such as chickens, sheep, goats, and cows), microorganisms, water sources in and around their farm, and so on.
Farmers following biodynamic practices also promote biodiversity over monoculture. Yatesbury doesn’t just grow barley; they rotate their crops, which include oats and wheat, and also have a verdant underlayer of plants - 33 varieties of 24 different species, in fact, all of which are beneficial in their own way. Using this ley (living ground cover) helps control and suppress weeds, retain moisture, prevent erosion, and attracts beneficial insects and microorganisms. It acts as a nutrient fixer and recycler. It’s a living, diverse system which is absolutely crucial to producing exemplary barley, which in turn, plays a vital role in producing exemplary whisky.
Where conventional farmers might use chemical sprays and pesticides to kill weeds and combat pests, Biodynamic Preparations are mixtures of herbs, minerals, and manure utilized in various ways to aid the earth, the crops, and the overall ecosystem of the farm.
While there are 9 preparations (numbered 500-508), 500 and 501 are the most well known. 500 is a process where dung from a lactating cow is taken, stuffed into cow horns, buried at a specific time of year, and left for 6 months. When it’s dug up, it is dry, smells like fresh earth, and makes for a perfect fertilizer. This is then mixed with warm water and stirred clockwise and counterclockwise to oxygenate it before being sprayed onto the fields.
Now, this may all seem very “woo woo” but if you think about it, it’s a beautiful understanding of how the earth works. Dung from a lactating cow has different nutrients in it, being buried at a specific time of year and in a natural vessel means there are different microorganisms and critters in the soil that can process the manure, turning it into rich compost. Using warm water and oxygenating the environment invites specific bio organisms which work powerfully on the plants. This preparation is so rich that it makes the plants very big and heavy, and that’s where preparation 501 comes into action. Made from ground up quartz and fresh water, it’s sprayed in the air above the plants so it lands on top of them, bringing more light to the leaves and helping them rise up to the sun once more.
Biodynamic Whisky in the Warehouse
Head Distiller Adam Hannett is excited to have biodynamic spirit in the warehouses. He’s the one responsible for the creation and release of Bruichladdich’s first biodynamic whisky, and while it’s not ready yet, this is what he has to say about it so far: “There isn’t a huge amount of spirit but what we have is developing nicely. Texturally it is really rich. Most is maturing in ex Bourbon barrels so picking up lots of vanilla and toffee notes, the citrus element comes through, stone fruits developing nicely…”
For Bruichladdich, “barley is a living, organic expression of the land, of the terroir in which it is grown.”
They believe using biodynamic barley will produce a unique and exemplary whisky, and one that is in line with their ethos of sustainability and environmentalism. They currently have 5 years worth of whisky maturing on Islay which is made from biodynamically grown barley, harvested in 2011-2013, 2019, and 2020.
For those who are big Bruichladdich fans, don’t worry - they’re not stopping or decreasing their regular production! This biodynamic whiskey will be a new offering in addition to their other single malt labels, which include their Bruichladdich line (unpeated, natural, un-chill filtered, and colourant-free), and their Port Charlotte and Octomore labels, both of which are heavily peated. Bruichladdich also produces The Botanist Islay Dry Gin.
Some may dismiss it as astrological twaddle, but there is merit in looking to the health of the earth. And eventually, the proof is in the tasting, whether a biodynamically produced drink (be it whisky, wine, or anything else) out shines its competitors in terms of flavour. I, for one, am keen to sample this exciting and unique offering when it becomes available. Until then, I raise my glass to the pioneering team at Bruichladdich.