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

Enter your email address for articles & updates & to hear about new Waterford Whiskies.

IT'S JUST A QUESTION OF MATURATION. BY ENTERING YOU NOT ONLY ACCEPT OUR INTELLECTUAL CHALLENGE, BUT ALSO
THE USE OF COOKIES & INFORMATION COLLECTION TO ENHANCE YOUR EXPERIENCE.

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

2024 Sowing Report
May 22, 2024 | article | 5 minute read

STUCK ON A RED LIGHT

‘It’s like when you’re stuck in a traffic jam – you won’t get there any earlier if you panic’.

That’s Philip Kehoe’s assessment of the start of the 2024 growing season as we stand in a steep, waterlogged field in County Wexford the day after 34ml of rain has fallen in a single Monday.

‘You can’t rush mother nature,’ he says. ‘If a field is wet, don’t go near it. It’s weather dependent. It’s not that we’re happy to wait but we’re going to wait.’

It’s a sentiment echoed by virtually all of the growers we’ve spoken to so far in 2024.

Co. Wexford
PHILIP KEHOE, Co. WEXFORD

Last year represented perhaps the slowest start to sowing that any of our growers had ever seen – some of whom remember vintages as far back as the 60s and occasionally earlier. An unseasonably sunny January and February offered an early window. Those who didn’t take advantage of it were left with sowing to do as late as early May.

‘We were very lucky last year,’ David Walsh-Kemmis at Ballykilcavan tells us. ‘There was a four day window at the start of March, everything dried up, we got it sown and then it rained for 6 weeks. For the vast majority of spring cropping people this is the second horrific year in a row.’

The story of 2024 so far is ‘2023, but without the early window.’ Jimmy Dunne, agronomist with our partners at Minch Maltings, estimates that optimistically 3-4% of farmers across the whole of Ireland – not just those who grow barley for Waterford – got their sowing done early.

‘Dad is 77 and he’s been farming for over 50 years, and he’s never seen a season like this year,’ is Philip’s assessment. ‘We often had a wet March, but April would have been fine, or a wet April but March would have been fine, and we had ploughing done. Whereas this is very unique. There was no opportunity to plough in November, December, January, February, March. Since last July, barring two weeks in September, we’ve only had one or two spells of five days without rain.’

DAVID WALSH KEMMIS WITH CLEO AT BALLYKILCAVAN

What’s the issue with the conditions?

‘There’s no problem growing barley if you get the conditions. It’s one of the simplest crops to grow in my opinion.’

Con Murphy, our most local grower, on the Copper Coast of County Waterford itself, explains the issues farmers have been dealing with this year.

‘You need a proper seed bed,’ he explains. ‘A dry, crispy seedbed. Barley in particular, it’ll kick you in the teeth otherwise for sure. It doesn’t like being wet. From years of experience I’ve seen that if you can get a nice firm seedbed and get it in and covered it’ll be up in 10 days and it’ll never stop growing.’

The problem this year – a problem repeated across the whole of Ireland and indeed across the water in the UK and northern Europe – is that right across the first four months of the year there simply wasn’t a good enough stretch of dry weather; even as many as four or five clear days.

‘There’s not been a chance to sow,’ says Con ‘I was all geared up. I’m dealing with crops and corn since I was tiny.’

Con Murphy with Rinty. Co. Waterford
Con Murphy with Rinty. Co. Waterford

Did anyone get seed down early?

Very few growers were even as early as they were last year, never mind earlier. But Willy Deegan is one who bucked the trend – and in truly remarkable fashion.

‘This field we’re in went down in the 29th November,’ he tells us, as we visit him in County Laois. ‘We sowed last year in January.’

When Willy tells us he sowed in November we assume he’s talking about winter barley. But no, this is Laureate – a spring variety – merely sown months ahead of usual time. Willy admits that other growers thought he was daft getting Laureate down there, but his near-unique field of thick, healthy green shoots shows the wisdom of having bucked the trend.

Willy has 100 acres sown when we visit him in early April, and thinks he’ll get 4 tonnes an acre. Other growers we speak to fear they’ll be lucky with a little over three.

Willie Deegan's Laureate, January 2024

What of our Arcadian growers?

Sitting in his farmhouse in County Kilkenny, organic grower Paddy Tobin seems surprisingly relaxed about the late start. It possibly helps that he’s been working with barley long enough to remember tilling in May 1966 under just the same conditions.

‘You don’t want to go to early,’ he shrugs, when asked when the barley might go down. ‘Ten days, next ten days. If it dries up too much we won’t complain.’

‘Wet weather suits us better anyway organically,’ he adds. ‘The ground’s very light and it’ll burn off quick enough anyway. We need the moisture. We’re not going for big yields.’

Trevor Harris, one of our biodynamic farmers in County Kildare, is a little more anxious. He’s almost invariably the last of our growers to sow. Biodynamic methods and the heritage Hunter variety Trevor grows demand perfectly dry soil to get the barley really putting down its extra-long roots fast – but he’d hoped to be off a little faster than last vintage.

‘It’s been rough,’ he admits. ‘It’s been wet. Every time the land starts to dry out a bit it’s heavy rain again. We got 20-25ml rain on Monday [8th April].’

PADDY AND ROB TOBIN, AND SAM THE DOG.

When did the sowing really start to happen?

Late, is the short answer.

Around 10 days after we had these conversations with growers – which we’d deliberately delayed in the first place in the hope that barley would be down! – the sun had shone enough for soil to dry out and the sowing to take place.

Con Murphy had finished putting seed in the ground by 24th April – a similar point to all the growers across the country who hadn’t gone as early as Willy.

Con Murphy, sowing, april 2024
Con Murphy, sowing, april 2024

What does this mean for the vintage to come?

If we took barley from a wetter, chillier country – such as our Caledonian neighbours over the sea – the lateness of the sowing would be a real worry. Our Founder, Mark Reynier, reintroduced barley growing to Islay, and remembers the inevitability of summer storms that formed a fixed annual end to the growing season.

But we came to South East Ireland to make whisky because the barley-growing conditions are the best in the world for the slow creep to full sugar and phenolic ripeness. Few of our growers have serious summer storms to contend with, and even in a late year sowing-wise there is the chance of a full growing season before the barley comes in, summer conditions allowing.

The true difficulty of 2023 was the unseasonably awful weather at harvest-time, alluded to by Philip – one of the standout growers that year. All being well – and in the hands of our growers, some of whom have over half a century’s experience behind them – 2024 will prove a tortoise-against-the-hare year. And as natural whiskymakers, we embrace the inconsistencies of vintage, and revel in playing the hand that mother nature deals us.

‘Listen,’ says Philip with a wry smile, ‘it’ll add a new flavour to the whisky! That’s what it’s about. But the biggest thing is going with nature rather than against it.’

Featured Products
SHARE
READ NEXT
MOST READ
1
Take a virtual tour of The Facilitator
April 6, 2021 | ELEMENT:copper, life, spirit
2
April 6, 2021 | ELEMENT:spirit, water
3
Our search for whisky's most natural flavours
October 11, 2021 | ELEMENT:barley, spirit, steel, water