-> 2008 -> Mark Reynier's Islay Barley Rant

Wednesday, 17/Sep/2008

Mark Reynier's Islay Barley Rant

Today I'm going to do something I haven't done before and must admit feel slightly uncomfortable with. I'm going to publish someone elses thoughts complete, without much of my own thoughts and unquestioned. But after writing down my own thoughts and questions about what makes an Islay Whisky Islay Whisky last week I can't resist experimenting and sharing Mark Reynier's of Bruichladdich distillery thoughts about the topic of Islay barley and related issues in full and without much further comments from my side:

I believe that 12 distilleries were about the maximum that this island could ever have supported back in the 1820s - with lower yielding varieties, poor quality soils, less effective fertilisers, and of course smaller sized distilleries. In effect, distilling capacity was limited by availability of barley. Some went, new ones arrived. Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain were, I believe, both built in 1881 because the newly arrived idea of the steam puffer allowed the bulk shipment of coal, barley and barrels to and from the island more effective and safer, changing the economics of distilling, and allowing larger volumes to be made. Of course Islay could never produce enough barley for today's self-sufficiency.

More reliable and cheaper barley sources were located, resulting in the abandonment of barley growing on the island. We have spent the last 6 years encouraging farmers to grow barley again and now are up to 50% of our current requirement. Our requirement is increasing, so more farmers are still needed, but 50% is about right - all eggs in one basket and all that (have you looked out of the window recenty?). In 2007, our maltsters reckoned that the best barley they saw all year was the stuff grown here. Certainly there is a distinctive character (sandy soils?).

But I believe there is an added benefit - not only to the quality of spirit and Islay Appellation, but also to the farmers and us at the distillery. It is a great pleasure to see farmers invigorated by growing barley again rather than subsidy farming or RSPB brown envelopes; the involvement in something tangible, they can see and end product to their labours - as well as a cheque. Hearing the advice, banter, leg-pulling between the farmers at harvest time is great. Seeing the friendly rivalry here at the distillery when each farmers' barely is distilled is priceless. And for us, the excitement of seeing the barley grow, the year's cycle, the raw ingredient, nature's impact, the weather, the harvest, the logistics FEELS right. The satisfaction is so much more than just barley.

And what of the Islay "appellation". Of course it should be whisky distilled - and matured here. That's what everyone else in Europe understands by Appellation. That's what Manzanilla sherry is - fino influenced by the Atlantic during seaside maturation at Sanlucar. Ardbeg - after years of mocking this idea - I am pleased to see are to build warehouse here to mature whisky. Other distillery's warehouse exist here of course, but a simple calculation of brand sales versus barrels required for Islay storage shows that there is simply a token presence.

I was once told by a famous ‘brand ambassador’ that his PR people had told him it was more important to talk about using barley malted on Islay, than to admit where the barley came from. Barley from Timbucktu, malted on Islay. Malting - essentially a drying process with hot air - can happen anywhere. And it does after all say Scotch on the label, so what is Scottish about it when the main raw ingredient comes from anywhere else other than Scotland?

Whisky industry propaganda is truly shocking - and effective. The deception, manipulation of half-truths and outright lies is awesome. It is no wonder about the ignorance of the consumer, he's been wrapped up in romantic images, iconic props and spoon fed implausible nonsense for so long by eager marketing departments. This Stalin-esq control of The Truth is shameful, and something that we will continue to expose; unfortunately, it goes right up to the top. If the SWA can't help themselves, what chance the rest of the industry.

The industry desperately needs some truth, some honesty as the consumer is becoming more educated the old lies and deceipts cannot continue. Economics can be a perfectly valid reason - just be honest with the consumer. The Islay appellation is essentially meaningless.

I hope it's OK to share this in this form, may be to start some further discussions what it actually all means. Do you feel differently about how Islay whisky should be defined and marketed and are happy to share your thoughts? Feel free to let me know either via e-mail for a future entry or post your thoughts in the comments. While Mark sometimes writes very opinionated I have the impression he can also take it if you disagree.

Other people say:



[Previous entry: "4 Islay Accommodation Links"] [Home] [Next entry: "A Rather Different Islay Video"]