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Why should organic farming impact flavour?
January 23, 2023 | editorial | 10 minute read

So we’ve created an organic whisky. In fact we have bottled three, although if one includes uber-organic whiskies – which is to say biodynamics –  we have even more, all of which are appearing on shelves or in restaurants across the globe. In fact over 30% of our distillations are now organic, biodynamic or of heritage grains.

But… so what?

‘Organic’ is a word we see far more frequently these days, even though the organic movement in Ireland has yet to really take off — accounting for only 2% or so of Irish agriculture, compared to nearly 25% in Austria, for example.

Supermarkets take pains to emphasise when their produce is organic. Whole farm shops are dedicated to such natural wares. It has featured on wine labels for a good couple of decades now and whisky, always rather slower to the party, is starting to catch up. We’re far from the only folk taking an interest in these older ways of agriculture, though we are the biggest distillers of organic whisky in the world and we take all of that special Arcadian barley that we can possibly get our hands on.

Many people probably don’t consider what the word ‘organic’ actually means. For most it may well seem like just another buzzword wrapped up in the ubiquitous terminology of the moment — indelibly linked, perhaps, to that criminally and cynically overused near-meaningless word: ‘sustainability’.

Armed with the term ‘sustainability’ there can also be a tendency to binarise agriculture — as though to say ‘organic good, conventional bad’ — a position that flies in the face of the vast spectrum of practice within ‘conventional’ farming. The majority of our barley farmers would be classified as ‘conventional’, yet to visit any one of them is to witness a huge array of regenerative faming practices, many of them taken straight from an organic playbook. As with all things, agriculture is seldom a case of black and white.

Nevertheless, organic farming, perhaps particularly the organic farming of crops, means something not only tangible, but of demonstrable benefit to the interested consumer; the gastronome after a deeper level of flavour. So let’s talk about what that means.

Starting with worms.

Happy worms, happy land

Whenever we speak to an organic or biodynamic grower — be it Trevor Harris in County Kildare or the Jacksons in County Tipperary, ‘our friend the earthworm’ is near the top of the conversational bingo card.

In the first instance, a healthy earthworm population is simply a good indication of healthy, living, self-sustaining soil. This isn’t rocket science; the diet of treatments in conventional agriculture is designed for plants, not animals.

Trevor Harris has farmed his land since the tail end of the 20th Century, and originally converted it from a conventional to an organic farm. He describes the worm population when he began as not only been small, but as ‘a bit green and ill-looking’. Twenty years later you can’t put a spade in the ground on Trevor’s farm without unearthing fat, pink, wriggling specimens by the dozen.

But the worms serve a practical purpose too. As they burrow, they break up the soil in which they live, physically changing its structure; loosening it such that roots find it easier to penetrate. And as they excrete, they alter and enrich the biology of the soil. Not only can roots reach further down, but they find more food as they do so. Two ‘legs of the stool’ taken care of for the price of one.

Every plant has its place

Standing with Martin Garigan in his County Dublin fields just outside the airport, you can practically feel his hands twitch at the sight of wild oats sprouting up amongst his barley. Martin farmed conventionally until just a few years ago, and there’s still that instinct to spray at the sight of these rogue interlopers. But even invasive plants like weeds have a role to play. Certainly they wouldn’t be allowed to overrun — Martin will go through the fields and heave many of them up by hand, but a little competition encourages the barley to grow deeper and stronger, and the weeds themselves with their voracious burrowing roots will perform a similar role in breaking up the soil as the earthworms — and will penetrate further than the liquid treatments of conventional agriculture might to boot.

Back in County Tipperary, the Jacksons will allow whole fields on rotation to develop levels of weeds. It’s all part of organically preparing that field for its next round of barley. The weeds crumble and churn the soil allowing, when they are removed, a softer and more yielding bed for barley roots to take advantage of.

One of the most important plants to the organic farmer is clover, particularly red clover. Red clover has the ability to extract nitrogen from the air and feed it directly into soil via nodules on its plant roots — literally ‘fixing’ the chemical composition and nutrient levels of the farm. Indeed it achieves this so effectively that red clover can fix 250-400kg nitrogen per hectare, whilst, to those who also farm livestock, providing the additional boon of a particularly protein-rich sward. Red clover is particularly important to the farmer who is converting their land from conventional to organic farming. It takes two to three years for the chemicals of conventional agriculture to be sufficiently removed from the land to achieve Certified Organic status. During that time the farmer must move their soil off a ‘liquid’ diet and ensure that when they sow again, their plants, deprived of the crutch of conventional treatments, are not starved by nutrient-depleted soil.

The combination of nutrient-enrichening clover and the excavations of weed roots mean that once the organic farmer comes to sow the ‘rested field’ is has been prepared as comprehensively as possible — physically, chemically and biologically — for the next vintage of barley.


Flavours of the earth

When people talk about organics, it is often in terms of what the farmer doesn’t do. No conventional pesticides, no fungicides. And sure, in terms of the environmental impact, that’s all jolly good stuff — and enough for most people to justify buying organic.

But what about quality? What about flavour? These things don’t come from a vacuum, they come from input. Matter. Nutrients.

Organics interests us because it is a way to pack more flavour into the crop from which a drink can be made — in our case barley for single malt whisky. To us, the key point of eschewing chemical treatments, treatments that only penetrate an inch or two into the earth, is to force the plant to work harder. To go deeper in search of food. To grow longer roots — roots which can take in more nutrients, more flavour.

Every part of organic barley farming; the worms, the weeds, the clover, is geared towards facilitating those deeper roots and packing the soil not only with nutrients, but with a more complex diet of nutrients than would be available through conventional treatments. Longer roots, more access to food. And not only that, but a deeper-rooted plant is a stronger one; a more upright one; a plant which is better placed for photosynthesis. More food once again.

To flavours of whisky

We believe that produce is only as good as what goes into it. When it comes to barley, that means stacking the deck with as nutrient-rich a soil and as deep-rooted a plant as possible. These are where the flavours of barley come from, and this is why organics and biodynamics hold such interest for us.

Because single malt whisky, in turn, is only as good as the ingredient from which it is made. Of course that ingredient needs carful handling; loving treatment throughout fermentation, distillation and maturation — the best chance to fully express itself. But just as the greatest plates of food can only be achieved by the most painstakingly grown and selected ingredients, so the ultimate potential for a whisky’s greatness can only be achieved by unearthing the best barley.

It is through the old, Arcadian ways of farming that we believe this barley can be found.

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