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Why are we here?
June 19, 2023 | ELEMENT: barley, terroir | editorial | 5 minute read

Why do we choose to make our single malt whisky in South East Ireland?

The answer is simple: because of our ingredient. The primary raw ingredient for single malt is malted barley, and it is our conviction that south east Ireland grows the best malting barley in the world?

But why should that be?

The answer is that a particular set of unlikely circumstances have convened to make South East Ireland a naturally perfect growing environment specifically for the barley plant.

Sun

320 hours more than Scotland’s barley country; more even than southern England

An unlikely-seeming subject when one discusses Ireland, perhaps. But consider that South East Ireland sits hundreds of miles south of both Scotland’s primary barley growing areas, and its most famous whisky island: Islay. Indeed it sits on the same latitude as Cambridge, in southern England. Sunlight hours are therefore high compared to whisky making rivals. 

With 1600 sunlight hours a year, South East Ireland sees a third as many again as Islay (1200), 350 more than Northern Ireland (1250) 320 more than Eastern Scotland (1280). 

And, surprisingly, even very slightly more than Southern England (1593).

Carlow, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford — the counties in which the vast majority of our farms can be found — are collectively known as Ireland’s ‘Sunny South East’.  They enjoy between 5-7 sunlight hours a day during summer months. Tellingly, the majority of these sunlight hours fall into barley’s key growing period.  More sunlight, more energy, more photosynthesis, more ripeness — whilst of course never staying into too hot territory.  It is a Goldilocks sweet spot — ‘just right’. 

Soil

Free-draining, complex soils that hold nutrients well, with deep water table.

Much of Ireland is useless for growing barley.  Like Scotland, over a fifth of the country is covered in peat bog. The last glaciation being a mere (in geological terms) 15,000 years ago means that Ireland’s soils are relatively young and glacial till-derived. Thus only a portion of it is prime arable country.  Specifically the portion in the South East.

In this lowland region, Brown Earth and Bodzolic Soils derived primarily from limestone and sandstone dominate, along with tiny pockets of Ordovician shale in Wexford. Study a geological map and you will see that there is far greater complexity of bedrock than on any other part of the island.

What’s more, soils are free draining and sit above a deep water table. Thus they hold on to their ample nutrients and — crucially, don’t hold on to too much rainwater.

Although, on that subject:

Rainfall

800mm less than Islay, ideal levels for barley nourishment

Though there are days when it certainly doesn’t feel like it, compared again to other whiskymaking nations and to other parts of Ireland, the South East doesn’t experience all that much. Sure, the barley and the soil it grows in sees all that it needs for nourishment — there are certainly no drought or irrigation issues here. 

But with 1000mm rainfall annually, the South East is 150mm a year lower than Northern Ireland, 180 lower than Eastern Scotland and an enormous 800 a year below Islay.

Many of our farms further benefit from the rain shadows of the mountains to North and West. A good example being Ballymorgan, in County Wexford, whose position in the shadow of the Wicklow Mountains means that it does occasionally find itself experiencing particularly dry seasons. 

Terrain

Flat, gentle, perfect for working with the barley plant

Critically, whilst protected by the mountains, the South East counties are largely low and flat. Sometimes preternaturally so, as in the case of Hook Head.

What hills there are, as at Sheestown or Ballymorgan, are gentle, rolling and ideally suited to the cultivation of barley and its harvesting through mechanised agriculture. This relative flatness could, of course, cause a drainage issue, were it not for the combination of free-draining soils, water table and rain shadow. As it is, the elements combine perfectly for barley farming.

Credit to Muir Way

Climate

Benefits from Gulf Stream — good distance from both poles and tropics.

Like the wine regions of Western France — particularly Bordeaux — coastal Ireland benefits from the warming effects of the Gulf Stream.  (Without it the latitude would be a startling 20 degrees colder). 

However, once again we sit in a ‘goldilocks spot’ so far as pressure systems and barley growth conditions are concerned. Far enough south that returning polar air is modified and warmed by its Atlantic crossing. Northerly enough that any tropical humidity has been cooled on its way up from the Gulf of Mexico.

Perfect Storm

In isolation, any one of these factors would be a boon to barley farmers in South East Ireland. But it is their almost improbable, multi-dimensional coming together that creates the ‘Goldilocks effect’ of perfect conditions that drew us to make single malt whisky here. For like any plant, barley’s quality and character is dependent upon the environment in which it grows. And if it is one’s primary ingredient, it only makes sense to place oneself where the barley grows best. 

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