They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Fortunately, that wasn’t something Deanston Distillery had to contend with on releasing their organic range of whiskies. It was precisely the old tricks - including the use of high-quality organic Scottish barley - that have ensured they stay at the forefront of sustainable Scotch.
Organic whisky is, and will always be, intrinsically linked with action on climate change. Many distilleries - including Deanston - work closely with the Scotch Whisky Association on sustainability issues. The SWA recently released a short video outlining some of the current steps being taken.
However, in marking the latest release of Deanston’s 2002 Organic PX, we’re propping up a case for organic whisky’s strengths beyond being eco-friendly.
It’s a truer reflection of the home of the barley. Now, you can look at this in one of two ways. If the producer is not worried about where their barley comes from - perhaps concerned only about how affordable the barley is - then they may not be keen to draw attention to the provenance of the grain. However, when it comes to calling a Scotch a Scotch, barley that has grown-up all by itself in the local soil may be favourable.
The term terroir has caused a divide in the whisky community, with some putting more or less weight on the concept. If you’re not familiar, the terroir is how a particular region's climate, soils and terrain affect the taste of whisky - in some cases even narrowed down to fields within a region.
But is it something whisky-drinkers should take seriously? A recent report from the Whisk(e)y Terroir Project suggests so. Dr John Herb and the Waterford Distillery in Ireland investigated. They planted the same common commercial barley in two separate locations in Ireland; at Bunclody, closer to the coast, and Athy, further inland. The crops of each barley variety at each site were harvested, stored, malted and distilled in a standardized way. Once distilled, it’s called “new make spirit” - it needs three years in the casket to become a whisky.
The team used gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and the noses of a six-person trained sensory panel to determine which compounds in the barley most contributed to the aroma of the new make spirit. That analysis, in addition to further mathematical and statistical analysis, found that the environment in which the barley was grown had a more significant contribution to the aroma of the whiskey than the variety of the barley. That was the clear indication of the impact terroir has on the new make spirit.
Now, this report is by no means conclusive and does not yet extend to the taste of the whisky. And of course, many distillers remain more concerned with achieving a certain trademark taste that symbolizes their distilleries versus the grain, climate or growing conditions. However, it seems that there may be some value in considering where grain is from; and the methods of cultivation that ensure it sticks truer to its roots in the final result.
Despite being a largely modern demand, some distilleries have been seeing the results of organic whisky for a while now. Deanston’s 2002 Organic PX is set to be one of the oldest organic whiskies on the market when it’s re-released in March. Describing their organic whiskies as floral and delicate notes than other whiskies. It is certainly a consideration for those on the hunt for new - or older - exciting expressions.
4) It’s becoming more popular
Much like organic produce as a whole, there is growing popularity in organic whisky. This means more variation and more discussion around this exciting segment of the market. Sales of organic food and drink rose sharply in the first UK lockdown – soaring by double the rate of non-organic equivalents. Of course, organic doesn’t always mean good - so do your research if it’s a segment on the market that does interest you.
In the case of Deanston, their whole process is certified by the Organic Food Federation. Aside from the grain, their casks are specially selected and they opt for de-charred/re-charred casks and virgin oak. This ensures no trace of a non-organic prior liquid in the wood, and organic sherry casks. The dedication to the organic label extends to the distillation - it takes place after the summer shutdown, so all the equipment is cleaned before the organic malt is processed. It appears that some distillers take the organic title very seriously.
A key attraction to organic whisky - and many other organic products and dishes - is the concept of consuming something enjoyed by those who came before us. We hear the stories of Roman baths and their liberal occupants lounging around drinking wine, and we want to taste the wine they were tasting. The same can be said for whisky, particularly Scotch. Even more so again for those who travel to Scotland to experience it. There’s an exciting sense of connecting with history as we experience the same natural notes as those who enjoyed them in centuries past.
It’s clear that whilst still only making up a small segment of the market, there are many advantages to organic whisky. Beyond being a positive option for the environment, it may also bring something different to that first sip.