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Harvest Report 2023
November 24, 2023 | article | 10 minute read

When the going gets tough

Dennis Dalton, the man in charge of our ‘Jurassic Park’ heritage variety barleyfields at Donoughmore, County Laois isn’t a man to mince his words, and he certainly didn’t when it came to the 2023 growing season.

‘2023 was probably the worst on record – it was the complete opposite to last year,’ he tells us. ‘2022 was a dream. This was just a very, very difficult season.’

Waterford Whisky is agricultural produce. We are dependent on individuality of barley origins – the ingredients, our building blocks – and these are dependent on the vicissitudes of the seasons. In some years, last year being a good example, the weather gods smile and conditions line up perfectly. In 2023 our growers saw challenges at every conceivable stage.

Lacken, SPRING 2023
Lacken, SPRING 2023

WETTEST MARCH SINCE RECORDS BEGAN

It began, as we’ve seen, at sowing. An atypically mild January and February meant that conditions for many of our farmers were dry enough to get seed in early – and some of them did. But in mid- March the rains came with interest. The wettest since records began. Those who hadn’t had the chance to get their seed down were left waiting for weeks. It was such a late sowing for some growers that it wasn’t until May that we were able to publish our report. Not the start that anyone wanted.

‘We got lucky,’ admits David Walsh-Kemmis, one of our veteran growers at Ballykilcavan in Co. Laois. ‘We’d managed to get everything sown before the weather broke in early March and that made all the difference.’

‘We normally like to sow the heritage varieties in March, or certainly by the 10th of April at the latest,’ Dennis tells us. ‘But this year we sowed the Spratt-Archer around the 7th or 8th of May –- that was as quick as we could put in because the weather of the spring was bad. When we sowed the Old Irish it was about the 16th of April.’

Windy, showery days at the start of May looked like helping later sowers to catch up with lost time, but then, part way through the month, the rain tap turned off, and wouldn’t turn back on again for weeks.

MERMAID VARIETY, PHILIP KEHOE, MARCH 2023
MERMAID VARIETY, PHILIP KEHOE, MARCH 2023

Then a Drought

Nowhere in Ireland saw any until a good way into June, and those who had sown late were particularly affected. Our heritage and biodynamic growers, those last of all to sow, watched as plants struggled to move at all. Even those who had got their barley in early were affected.

‘The drought in June brought it in early,’ David says, ‘and it was our first time ever cutting malting barley in July.’

Our organic growers were generally less affected by the June drought. With their nutrient-rich soils encouraging deeper root growth, the organic barley retained water reserves even during the tougher weeks.

‘Drought didn’t effect it,’ Paddy Tobin comments. ‘Organic ground can hold it very well.’

With most growers despairing of drought and praying for a drop of rainfall, the pendulum swung in mid-June with a vengeance.

SHEESTOWN, MARCH 2023
SHEESTOWN, MARCH 2023

Summer Deluge

‘It just started to rain and rain and rain and rain and it never stopped raining,’ says Dennis frankly. The rains carried on right through July and into August; an appalling run of weather by any standards.

‘The weather threw the kitchen sink at farmers,’ Jeff O’Connor, Senior Agronomist at our malting partner, Boortmalt, assesses. ‘This brought about many challenges, with crops lodging, higher average moistures and some grain skinning to name but a few.’

A Different Story for Heritage Barley

For our heritage varieties there was an additional challenge. These old grains, not bred for convenience, grow to astonishing heights if they are allowed. And the weather created the perfect conditions for them to do just that. Towering at around five feet, their kernels swollen with the rain, the heads bowed on their long, slender necks and lodging became inevitable – a nightmare when it comes to harvesting, for varieties already notoriously low-yielding.

In another sense though, heritage barley was at an advantage in this toughest of years. ‘The heritage barley are like old Clydesdale horses. And the modern barleys are like racehorses,’ is Dennis’s analogy. ‘When the modern barley gets weather characteristics that it doesn’t like, it just collapses like a racehorse would. But the heritage varieties are like a Clydesdale horse – they can just keep trundling along, and by its nature it will survive. The yield will be down, it might be later in the year, but it will give you a crop. Because those varieties, years ago, before harvest became mechanised, used to go on into September, early October.’

Even so, Dennis admitted to being surprised at the quality brought in, given the weather. ‘I expected the quality to be poor,’ he says. ‘But it wasn’t.’

Hunter variety, Trevor Harris, August 2023
BALLYKILCAVAN, JULY 2023
BALLYKILCAVAN, JULY 2023

Achieving against the odds

Unquestionably this was a year that tested our growers. But we have been astonished by the results that some of them have achieved in such testing conditions. Biodynamic grower Alan Mooney’s fields, in particular, were in remarkable health when we visited just before his harvest.

‘We decided that the harvest looked as if it would be in two stages due to ripeness differences even though all were sown within a two day window,’ he says. ‘Poor weather delayed the start but we commenced on Wed 16th August. No other immediate crops pending for the contractor allowed us to start “The Racecourse” field a few days later. All was standing well.’

Alan, typically, isn’t one to blow his own trumpet, but Head Brewer Neil, who has seen more barley fields than most this year, was effusive in his praise. ‘Top grower,’ was his comment. ‘What an achievement growing our heritage Hunter variety to this quality in extreme harvest conditions.’

Alan wasn’t our only grower to achieve fine results against the odds though. Paddy Tobin was similarly pleased. ‘Barley performed very well,’ he says. ‘Good yield, good bushel weight and no losses.’ The natural advantages of organic and biodynamically-managed soil, as well as deep-rooting heritage varieties, have certainly been apparent this season.

Experience and perhaps a little educated guesswork have told, too. Trevor Harris, another of our biodynamic growers and the last of all to get seed in the ground was another who gave a frank assessment.

‘Everyone involved in growing crops has had a tough year. The wet weather in July was not particularly helpful for grain fill. The hope was for a bit of sun for the harvest. Thankfully we were lucky and had a couple of glorious days to harvest.’

ALAN MOONEY, HUNTER VARIETY, AUGUST 2023
ALAN MOONEY, HUNTER VARIETY, AUGUST 2023
HUNTER VARIETY, AUGUST 2023
HUNTER VARIETY, AUGUST 2023

IN SUMMARY

There’s no point beating about the bush though: 2023 was simply an incredibly tough year for Irish barley. For each of our growers who have triumphed against the odds there has been another for whom the cards didn’t quite fall. The hot but soaking wet weather of July meant that diseases like mildew and fusarium have wreaked havoc right across Ireland – this wasn’t a year of great regional variation – lowering yields again.

Outside of our organic, biodynamic and heritage growers, there’s a clear difference in both yield and grain quality between growers who got their sowing done before the March rains versus those who were forced to wait the extra weeks. Unquestionably there will be less barley – and less whisky – from 2023 than there was, and will be, from the magnificent 2022.

‘The general gist is that proteins are out of specification across the board,’ said Neil. ‘Our specification is 8.8% protein. The average for our conventional growers was 10.2% so we needed derogation for this year to get batches across the line.’

If this harvest has been a reminder of anything, it is that reiteration that whisky, ultimately, is a drink of the land. Like wine it is subject to the conditions in which its ingredients grow. Just as with any great wine region there will be good vintages and more challenging vintages. As the old adage goes, it is the difficult vintages in which growers and makers really earn their stripes, and certainly our growers have more than earned their drams this year.

Natural whisky is our celebration of Irish barley and Irish terroir. It is compact of grain and soil, of sunshine and slanting rain. It isn’t born in oak or copper, but in Irish earth; in the hands of men and women squinting at the sky, muttering darkly at gathering clouds, crossing their fingers and preparing as best they can. As agricultural produce, grown by farmers. This is something we revel in; something we wouldn’t change, no matter the vintage. And coming through a year like 2023, seeing the lengths our growers have gone to, only strengthens our conviction in the profundity of this natural ethos.

As Trevor Harris put it: ‘The yields certainly won’t break any records, but at least we’ll have some whisky ‘23 to savour.’ The upshot of these protein issues will be seen once the barley reaches us at the facilitator – higher proteins mean lower yields. Flavour though, thankfully, is a different matter.

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