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Going Coastal

ELEMENT: BARLEY, TERROIR, WATER

Hunting for terroir in salt-sprayed barley fields

Terroir is more than just soil.

There are places in the world where the visual impact of terroir is so immediate that it is obvious even to those who may not be looking for it. The dizzyingly steep vineyards of the Mosel, for instance, where the aspect of the land ekes out every last available drop of sunshine. The crunch of deep, well-draining gravel underfoot as one moves into the best vineyards of Pauillac in Bordeaux – and the gloopy, sucking clay of Pomerol on the other side of the river Garonne.

Tea and coffee follow the same rules – the physical aspects of land, soil and climate directly shaping the physical properties of the plant and the flavours that plant is able to bring to its drink.

Among the hundred individual farms harvesting barley for us are several which lie along Ireland’s south coast. Three in County Wexford alone are Hook Head, Bannow Island and Kilmore Quay, the former two of which you may be familiar with as Single Farm Origin whiskies.

Hook Head Location
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Despite sharing a bay, these farms are not all growing their barley on the same soil series. Hook Head sits on a tiny pocket of Elton, rare to County Wexford, more common to the farms of County Kilkenny further north west. A fine, loamy drift with limestone that we now know to produce spirit of particular rich oiliness. Bannow Island is hemmed in on three sides by glacial sands with shale drift – whilst Kilmore Quay is on the Clashmore series, a coarser loamy drift with silicious stones.

Variations in the soil then, yet each farm shares clear similarities in their growing conditions, manifested most starkly at harvest time, when the brought-in barley stands barely up to the knee – around half the height of the same varieties grown further inland. The kernels, too, are smaller in size than those grown in the softer, more protected farms to the north.

If you have ever walked a coastline in springtime you will have some idea of the sorts of elements to which these barley fields are exposed. Whilst not as wild as Ireland’s west coast, the winds are near-constant, with gusts of fifty miles per hour a feature. The taller heritage varieties – Goldthorpe and Old Irish, for instance – which can top out at over seven feet, simply wouldn’t stand a chance. Caolan, in his photographer’s diary, has given an account of the ‘powerful’ weather that Hook Head, most exposed of that trio, routinely withstands. An almost unnaturally flat, slender peninsular, Martin Foley’s barley is absolutely at the mercy of the sea’s elements. To stand in one of his fields with the wind tearing in from the sea is to understand the challenge of working with this terroir.

The salty sea air, so evocative in its aroma, presents the barley with another challenge. Not only does it reduce soil water potential, naturally stressing the plant and reducing the richness of the soil; the salt stress directly acts on the barley itself, inhibiting its ability to grow once again. (Though, given the wind, that’s no bad thing). Later on in the season you can literally see the effects of the salt in little white flecks on the barley’s tips.

Bannow Island may be a little higher up than Hook Head, with grassy ridges that offer at least a modicum of protection from the winds, but the physical nature of its soil – those sandy alluvial deposits that surround it – provide a real challenge for nutrients, with manganese particularly low. Yet another stress for the barley.

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All this apparent adversity… and yet the spirit we are able to make from the barley grown at these farms is among the most flavourful and characterful of all of our Single Farm Origins. Our in-house Terroir Specialist, Angelita, describe’s Bannow’s in particular as one of her favourite spirits of all – one she is routinely able to distinguish on nosing it in a blind tasting. Hook Head, too, has been particularly well-received since its release as a Single Farm Origin.

Uncovering precisely the effect of individual terroirs on barley and its resultant spirit and matured whisky will be a long, likely neverending quest. However there is no question whatsoever that the total area – not just the soil type – in which barley is grown directly affects the flavours which that barley is able to produce.

Sea breeze, so rich in intense dimethylsulphide, the salt that soaks into the soil and bleaches the plant itself, the ocean-regulated temperature of the coastline – more consistent, however slightly, than those of the farms inland – all are factors that implant themselves over the four or five month growing season into the very matter of the barley: matter which can never be destroyed.

Winemakers have long known that a distinctive terroir more often than not produces the most complex and characterful wines of all. As we continue to explore the terroirs of Ireland it is possible that the flavours of the sea-sprayed coastal farms will prove some of the most consistently distinctive of all.

  




ELEMENT