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Are you curious about the origins of Whisky's natural flavour?

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Are you legally old enough
(and sufficiently curious)
to enjoy terroir-driven whisky?

So you’ve made the conversion. You’ve gone all-natural with your fertilisers, your pesticides. You’ve fixed your land’s nitrogen balance with clover, perhaps, you’re rotating your crops, managing your land organically. 

Then you’ve moved up a level. Biodynamics. You’ve made your way through the exhaustive reading list, learned the minutiae, the down-to-the-day calendar, the esoteric preparations. Perhaps you’re making and maturing the 500P and 501 yourself, immersing yourself in the complexities and required patience.

Your soil’s looking richer, more fertile. The worms are happy – there are more of them, all a good, healthy-looking pink. Your barley is feasting on a banquet of unprecedented nutrition from the 500P washed down with all-new levels of soaked-up sunlight via the improved photosynthesis the 501 allows. Its flavours have never been better, as evinced by the far-higher intensity scores observed by our Terroir Specialist, Angelita, under the controlled conditions of our sensory panel.

500P

 

What’s next? How can the flavours of your barley be improved further? The answer lies in the barley itself.

We have previously discussed how modern varieties have been bred for broad adaptation and for consistency of yield. In the process, the genetic pool has been shallowed to such a degree that the barley varieties in use today share the same parents and thus the overwhelming majority of their genetic makeup. The result being, as we confirmed in the course of the terroir project, that the variety of modern barley used in a whisky offers far less to that whisky’s flavour than does its terroir.

What’s more, a steady diet of artificial nutrition sprayed on the surface of the soil has meant that successive generations of barley have had little work to do in order to feed. The upshot of this is clear to anyone who has pulled up a barley plant. Its roots are very short indeed. After all, they’ve no need of being any longer. But this in turn gives them less access to the nutrients, the minerals, of the soil itself as well as preventing those roots from breaking up the soil and improving the land’s physical structure. 

The further we go back in time, the taller barley gets. This makes it more impractical to grow, certainly – more likely to blow over in strong gales, more likely to brackle before harvest. Either way the farmer loses out on yield, which is why varieties have also been bred to be shorter, and why there are methods which can also be used to retard growth.

But taller barley means longer roots. It has to, or it wouldn’t stand a chance. Longer roots which can search down further into the soil, can break up the structure of that soil and can feed on more of what that soil has to offer. Which, if the soil has benefitted from biodynamic preparations, is rather a lot.

MODERN VARIETY (L) VS HERITAGE VARIETY (R)

 

It’s something that I’d been putting to Waterford from the start,” says Trevor Harris. “That we needed varieties geared towards our type of farming. My viewpoint being that a lot of modern varieties are bred to be paired with soluble nutrients –  so they have a very shallow rooting structure. They’re bred to be short so they’re not very good at smothering out weeds. And given that we’re biodynamic farmers we need a plant with a rooting structure that’s much more explorative and goes much deeper to make use of the full soil profile, not just the top two inches. We also need a plant that grows reasonably vigorously in the absence of soluble nutrients, and grows tall and has a smothering effect on weeds, because we’re not going to use chemical herbicides to kill the weeds.”

Last year, for the first time, Trevor sowed his fields with Hunter barley, a variety that once dominated plantings in Ireland and was lauded for its distinct flavours and malting quality. But, as is always the way, it was eventually replaced with a higher-yielding variety, and until a few years ago, only 50g remained, held by the Irish Department of Agriculture.

We’d worked with the Department to scale that 50g up over two years until it could be sown over a whole farm, and after it had been trialled on conventional soil our biodynamic growers finally got their hands on it. It’s fair to say that Trevor’s a happy man.

HUNTER BARLEY SEED

 

“I was really pleased with how the Hunter performed,” he says. “The way the plant looked the whole way through the year was far superior [to modern varieties]. I was really pleased with how it responded to the preps as well – you could see the effects. It does grow taller and it has a much better root ball to it. I diagnosed a huge difference in the agronomy of it and it suits me an awful lot better growing Hunter. It seems to perform better and I suppose it’s because of those two pillars.”

With its long roots plunging deep into indulgent, biodynamically-prepared soil, it’s no surprise that the Hunter barley from the 2021 vintage pleased Trevor so much. Nor that the spirit we have distilled from that barley is showing such intensity of flavour in the laboratory. But what really impressed us all was how beneficial the variety has been to the land.

“They certainly are,” Trevor says, when asking if the heritage varieties are improving his soil. “I see health in my soil, and part of that is down to what I’ve grown for the season.”

“I want the biology to be active to a depth, and it can only be really vigorously active in the depth where the roots are, because there’s a symbiotic relationship between the soil microbiome and the roots. There’s a hive of activity around the rootball, and the deeper that rootball is the more activity you’re going to have. And the deeper you have all that activity going on, the more your soil structure is going to be positive at that root depth too”.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that biodynamics and heritage varieties are of such pronounced mutual benefit. After all, both belong to the old ways of farming; both stem from a time when there were no shortcuts to improved soil or yield or vigour.

Make no mistake, if commercial benefits – tonnage per acre, most alcohol per tonne – are the prime concern, neither biodynamics nor heritage varieties make sense, and it is for this reason that both are viewed by some as throwbacks; relics. But if one is interested in flavour above all, then each individually offers treasure to those curious enough to look for it.

It is thrilling to discover – or, perhaps, rediscover – that there is even more flavour to be found when the two of them come together. We look forward to sharing our findings more once the spirit from Trevor’s biodynamic heritage barley has had a few years of patient maturation.

 

TREVOR & GRAHAM HARRIS

 

EDITORIAL