We can learn quite a lot about a single malt scotch whiskey from its label. Scotch distilleries are often more than happy to reveal the source of one of their two main raw ingredients, namely the processing water the distillery is associated with and the specific and unique source of this water of life. This goes hand in hand with the alternative name for whiskey, ‘aqua vitae’. Moreover, the importance placed on the source of the supply is such that Scotch are even named after them, Ardbeg’s Uigeadail and Airgh Nam Beist come to mind. In contrast to that, the other vital raw ingredient, malted barley, is, save for reference to ‘peated’ or ‘unpeated’, mostly left forgotten in the shadows. Harvested, transported, malted, heated, smoked, mashed and even then, possibly eaten by local farm animals. The barley has to put up with quite a battering as part of its role in the production of Scotch. And now it seems, it is gaining recognition in the same manner as the precious water.
Back in 1999 Springbank distillery in the Campbeltown region produced the first organic single malt Scotch. This shone a flicker of light on the role of barley and the variety of the barley used. Benromach’s 2006 Organic release was the first whisky produced using organic barley to be fully certified by the United Kingdom Soil Association and added further recognition of the importance of this versatile grain. Whilst the Balvenie and The Macallan malts remind us from time to time that they grow barley on their own respective local farms, the fruits of their barley-culture have not appeared as products in their own right. Benromach shone the spotlight on our unsung hero once again in 2008 with the release of its 'Origins Range' where two varieties of barley were the stars in the limelight, with Golden Promise featuring in Origins Batch 1 and Optic in Origins Batch 3. Since the only difference between the two releases is the barley variety, whiskey enthusiasts can compare and contrast their differing profiles. This has helped add another nose to single malt.
Bruichladdich released its Organic 2003 Vintage in 2009 and set a precedent whereby not only did the Chalice barley have a starring role but the supporting cast, namely the farmer William Rose who grew the grain and his Islay farm Culblair on which it grew, were all named on the bottle. That small batch promptly sold out but its recent replacement, The Organic multi vintage, similarly named the barley, the farmers and their Islay farms. Provenance and traceability are now highly sought after by consumers of high quality goods including wines and foods but have been rather noticeable by their absence in the single malt whiskey market place. Bruichladdich has set an interesting precedent. But given the importance of tradition which is often conveyed by distilleries, acknowledging the people and the land integral to its production is considered a positive concept here at The Whisky Barrel.
Indeed, rather than resting on their laurels Bruichladdich went a step further and identified not only the farm but the actual field in which the Chalice barley was grown and from which its Islay Festival (Feis Ile) 2010 limited edition bottling Islay Barley 2004 was produced. Now we can savour the yummy Islay Barley 2006 Scotch and trace every drop directly back to its island roots and the ancient soils in Jubilee field on Dunlossit Farm where Jim Logan tended his crop of Chalice barley on Islay. Soils whose structure contributes to the unique characteristics of these unique Bruichladdich Scotch whiskies. Then again these are the roots and. ..old roots. The old roots of scotch whiskey were establish with an ancient variety of barley called Bere and Bruichladdich has just released Bere Barley 2006, a facinating and complex Scotch, with absolute traceability and provenance which allows our imaginations to roll back centuries of whiskey making in Scotland.
Perhaps a fad or a ploy to catch the headlines? Certainly not. Artisan Scottish cheeses and breads, quality meats and poultry, farm dairy produce and soft fruits, and family estate wines all with detailed traceability and provenance are readily available these days, even in major supermarket chains. Scotch whiskey has some catching up to do in order to enter this expanding niche in the global market place.
Distillery visitor centres provide consumers with the chance to develop an association with the whisky; continuing this traceability with the bottles themselves is another offering. Developing this relationship between the customer and the product does appear to aid the customer’s experience of a distillery and the whiskey and, therefore, helps to sell the distillery brand itself as well. This may be the first step towards immersing the customer in the ‘field to bottle’ production of some whiskies. And the ball looks to be rolling in the right direction. Available from December 2012, Isle of Arran Scotch Distillery has just announced the release of Arran Malt Orkney Bere 2004 single malt scotch, this Bere having been grown on the Orkney Islands, malted in on the mainland Inverness, processed and distilled and matured at Isle of Arran Distillery.
Each year since the mid-2000s Springbank Distillery has been producing a little spirit from a single variety of barley, including Bere, grown on specific farms in close proximity to the distillery at the foot of the Kintyre Peninsular. Abhain Dearg on the Isle of Lewis has likewise commissioned the local production of specific types of barley and barley continues to be grown in the fields around Kilchoman Distillery on Islay. The barley used at Daftmill Distillery in Fife is grown in surrounding fields by the Cuthbert family on their very own Daftmill Farm. Traceability and provenance are established aspects of the top end of global markets which a number of smaller Scottish distilleries have recognised and are aspiring to; we wonder who will be next and how soon. Or even if Abhain Dearg’s cows might get an exclusive bottling!