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A Terroir Trinity
August 16, 2023 | article | 5 minute read

Contrasting Dunmore, Dunbell and Rathclogh farms

Sometimes, as in the case of Hook Head and Ballymorgan, the differences in the terroirs of two farms are so striking as to be immediately obvious to even the untrained eye. No one could fail to notice, for instance, the salt-bleach of Hook’s June barley, or its wind-whipped shortness, compared to the verdant green of Ballymorgan’s. Different soil types, markedly different settings – Atlantic coast versus rain shadow of the mountains – it’s clear that these two farms would produce vastly different flavours. And indeed they do.

But just as fascinating – indeed perhaps even more so – are those terroirs which seem at a glance to share many similarities… yet whose spirits taste incontrovertibly distinct. Such a trio are Dunmore, Dunbell and Rathclogh.

Before digging into the nuances of their spirit, an introduction to the farms themselves.

Dunmore

Dunmore

Tucked between the Slieve Bloom Mountains and the Castlecomer Plateau in beautiful County Laois, and encircled by a circular copse of trees that lend a suitably fantastical atmosphere, An Dún Mór, ‘the big fort’ watches over John Tynan’s barley fields. A midland farm, at the point where the south-eastern region moves into the country’s heart, the place has overseen generations of change, from Baronets to arsenals, to relatives of C.S. Lewis. Today, like many of our Laois farms, it has a slightly isolate, aloof feel, a sense heightened by the gnarling branches of Dunmore wood that surround it.

Dunbell

Dunbell

Not to be outdone on the ancient architecture front, Dunbell, further south in County Kilkenny – increasingly a gastronomic heartland of Ireland – is overlooked by the almost Tolkien-esque Tullaherin’s tower, seen from Ned Murphy’s fields. Like so many of our growers, Ned’s is a farm of mixed agriculture – when our photographer, Caolan, visited, he was midway through calving. Many of our most striking terroirs sit in this fertile spot – Sheestown is just 10 minutes down the road – yet even in this small pocket, the distinctions are significant, Dunbell boasting some of the heaviest clay of any of our farms. A characteristic, as we’ll see, that has several repercussions.

Rathclogh

Rathclogh

Historically, Rathclogh has been as important from a strategic military perspective as it is today from a terroir point of view. There’s a reason Danesfort Castle sits almost beside it (Rathclogh possibly wins today’s local architectural top trumps). Built by James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde and Governor and Lord Justice of Ireland, in the 14th century, its commanding perspective took in land and roads for miles around. Today it is a quieter place; a fertile modern stronghold for all things that grow, from barley fields to apple orchards.

But how does that translate to single malt flavour?

Though all benefit from the maritime climate of South East Ireland, each of this trio would be classed as an inland farm, Dunmore sitting in Co. Laois and Dunbell and Rathclough in Co. Kilkenny. All relish the lush, thick clay soils of the Elton Series – and thus all show some of the unctuous, oily textures and tones of barnyard and dried fruit that we’ve come to recognise as this Series’ signature.

Yet the differences are unmistakeable. Be it the pronounced rich, toasty spices of Dunmore, the ripe fruits and baked pastry of Dunbell, or the signature maltiness of Rathclogh.

Let’s wander through Rathclogh first. (Indeed you can do this almost literally with grower Richard, here.) The gravel that crunches beneath one’s boots doesn’t go down very far. Drainage is fast – a quick-drying terroir and thus an efficient farm when it comes to sowing and harvesting. Though its geology is surprisingly complex – in the film linked above, Richard notes the sandy patches that sometimes take longer to ripen, and the gentle slope of the farm that washes into a nutrient-rich basin – the broadness of its potential window means the final crop always has the best chance of ripening evenly.

Richard Raftice, Rathclogh
Barley at Rathclogh

Compare that with nearby Dunbell. The thick, limestone-derived clay goes a long way down here. A good pair of wellingtons is an essential. Water goes in and is held. So the barley goes in later – but once it’s down, it has everything it needs in a terroir of astonishing, nutrient-rich lushness. Indeed that clay was augmented, rather sadly, in the 19th century, with clay from as many as nine ancient ring-forts, pulled down by a farmer seeking to enrich his lands. Needless to say, today’s occupant, Ned Murphy, needs no such historical crutches…

Dunbell Farm
Soil at Dumbbell Farm

Dunmore, of course, is a little further north in Co. Laois. A little colder, with a little less sunshine. But like Ballymorgan, it benefits from a mountain rain shadow – in this case the Slieve Blooms as well as, on its other side, the Castlecomer Plateau. This protection, augmented by the natural windbreak of Dunmore wood that fringes John Tynan’s barley fields, offers its own little micro-climate, keeping excess water in check. Soils again feature gravelly tilth; although the Elton Series loam holds enough water to nourish the barley through the growing season, that gravel keeps things from waterlogging. Very much a terroir of many moving, complementary parts.

John Tynan at Dumore Farm

The taste of a place

It’s easy to romanticise a ‘spirit of its place’, especially when the places are as handsome as the likes of fertile Dunbell or wooded Dunmore, and bedecked with historical curiosities like Tullaherin’s tower, looming beside Dunbell, or Danesfort Castle, near Rathclogh. And of course these are certainly part of the charm and story of our farms.

But aesthetics , as lovely as they are, overlook the tangible effects that the land’s physicality – its site and shape and place – has not only on the barley that grows there, but the way its resultant flavours subsequently manifest in whisky. That shallow ground and earlier sowing – a shift away in aroma and flavour from the deeper earth and the delay in the seed going down. That subtle, western-facing slope at Dunmore, that mineral-rich depression at Rathclogh – a twist in flavour again.

The degree that flavour can be impacted by seemingly small changes in the physical landscape has long been marked in wine. One only has to look at the contiguous Grand Crus of Chablis, along their south-facing slope on the right bank of the River Serein. Not to mention all the quirks and distinctions found amongst the vineyards of Alsace or the Côte d’Or. Magnified by distillation, it is (literally) mouthwatering to consider the ways these subtle variations of terroir might manifest in our single malt whisky.

Whilst we’re still very much at the beginning of our journey of unearthing how geographical feature manifests as natural flavour, our Single Farm Origin bottlings – such as Dunmore, Dunbell and Rathclogh themselves – offer curious drinkers the most practical (and enjoyable) opportunities to compare and contrast for themselves. Pour a measure of Rathclogh and find in its whorls and depths the pattern of the farm’s harvest and the slope into a mineral-rich depression. The wood-fringed nook of Dunmore that yields its roasty maltiness; the clutching Dunbell clay with a fingerprint of fruit.

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