What is organic Whisky?

Did you know that whisky can be organic? Meet the distillery leading the way: Deanston. Colin Hampden-White, tells all…

In recent times, a few distilleries have been making whisky with organic barley. Benromach have an expression from 2010 which they bottled this year. Laphroaig bottled one for the Highgrove estate and Bruichladdie have an organic whisky from 2009. There is even a distillery which has only just opened which is 100% organic, the Ncn’ean distillery. There is however, a distillery which has been thinking about and producing organic whisky for longer than all of these: Deanston. Deanston has a 15-year-old organic whisky, which means they started making organic whisky as long ago as 2003 when whisky was only just starting to grow in popularity in the way it is today.

How Do You Make Organic Whisky?

To make organic whisky, the barley or course must be organic, which is more expensive. The casks also must be organic. They need to be scraped and charred deep enough so that the spirit doesn’t come into contact with any non-organic material, so the easiest way to make sure of this is to use ‘virgin oak’ casks. Deanston finish their organic spirit in virgin oak casks, which gives is a lovely, extra sweetness.

Virgin oak casks are made from American oak which have not previously held any other liquid before the new make spirit is placed in them. Lastly, and by far the most difficult part of the process, is the cleansing of the distillery itself. To be certified as an organic whisky, the spirit can not be created in the stills if a non-organic run of spirit has been passed through them. The easiest way to manage this is to make organic spirit directly after the distillery has been cleaned during its maintenance period, usually over Christmas. However, Deanston still do sometimes make organic whisky at other times of year, which impacts on the main production. I asked Dr Kirsty McCallum, Deanston’s master blender, why they make organic whisky, she told me there are two reasons:

Deanston Makes Organic Whisky For Two Reasons

The first reason was that the distillery was founded in 1967 by entrepreneurs who decided that creating organic whisky continued on the entrepreneurial spirit. The second reason however, is because it tastes good, with a slightly different character to their other whiskies; more floral and delicate.

Ideally, Deanston would like to have their organic barley grown in the local area giving the whisky an even stronger sense of place. One thing is for certain though, if they manage to create such a whisky, it is going to be delicious.

RRP £95.50 Find it here.

What is Peated Whisky?

Peated whisky: because what’s the point of drinking whisky if it hasn’t been heavily flavoured by thousands of years of decaying organic matter?

I mean sure, when you put it like that maybe you can understand why peat tends to split whisky drinkers into two distinct camps. Some compare it to licking an ambulance brake pedal, and some compare it to licking an ambulance brake pedal and are genuinely excited by the idea. Regardless of whether this appeals, if you want to learn more about whisky, you need to learn a little about peat, because this mysterious substance has the amazing ability to impart rich and unique flavours into your glass.

So how does peating whisky work?

Dried peat has been used as fuel in Scotland for hundreds of years. Peat bogs are naturally occurring ‘carbon sinks’ i.e. areas that accumulate and store carbon-containing chemical compounds for an indefinite period. In fact, peat is so good at this, that it is the most efficient form of carbon sink on the planet and dried peat will produce more energy than coal when burnt. As well as this, peat is unique to bogs, mires and moorland – the sort of areas that appear in quite high frequency in, shall we say, the damper areas of Scotland, such as the north-west Highlands and the islands of Islay and Jura.

Thanks to these excellent energy rates, peat has therefore been used in the whisky making process for hundreds of years, and the primary way that peat’s distinctive flavour characteristics make their way into your dram is through its use as a fuel source in the malting process.

At this stage in production, the germinating process which has been started by soaking and turning the barley needs to be stopped, and this is done by the application of heat. Traditionally this was provided by a peat-fired kiln which caused the malted barley to absorb a significant quantity of peat smoke (depending on the drying time and the distiller’s preference). Perhaps surprisingly, this flavour is so strong, so persistent and so recognisable that it survives the entire distillation process, making its way through the mash tun, washbacks, stills and warehouse to remain detectable in your glass of whisky.

Is Islay the only place for peated whisky? And where is peat used?

Now, when people talk about peated whisky they generally think of Islay malts, but the use of peat isn’t limited to Islay now, and certainly wasn’t in the past. A number of factors means that peated whisky is still mainly linked to the islands and western highlands however. This is partly because these are the areas where peat preponderates, but also because many Lowland and Speyside distilleries took the opportunity to switch to firing their kilns with coke (a processed form of coal) when access to the railways made this a viable and cheaper option. As a result, for many years, the perception has been that if you want a peated whisky you need to head to Islay.

So what does peat bring to whisky?

Peat is whisky terroir

In a very literal sense, peat is terroir (take that, wine!). As a result, different peat will impart different flavours, and different distilleries will use peat for different length of time when drying their malt. If you want to get technical, the concentration of peat in whisky can be measured by PPM (phenol parts per million). Phenols are the class of compounds in peat smoke which are retained by the malted barley and their prevalence therefore has a big impact on taste. On Islay, whisky can range from 1-2ppm up to 54ppm. What does this mean? In terms of tasting notes, a peated whisky is likely to give you sulphur, smoked meats, iodine, rich bonfire smoke.  If this sounds good to you, perhaps you should explore some Islay whiskies?

Where to start your peat odyssey

Why not start at Lagavulin?

The oldest distillery on Islay can trace its (unofficial and highly illegal) history back to a collection of small bothy distilleries in Lagganmhoullin dating from 1742. These were brought together into a legitimate business in 1816, which means that the brand has been producing highly-regarded peated single malt whisky for at least two hundred years now.

The old settlement of Lagganmhoullin is now a small town on the Lagavulin bay where the distillery is positioned - open to the wild weather of the north Atlantic, which gives the spirit a lot of its coastal aromas of seaweed and smoked fish.  This coastal spot also provides a distribution route with the distillery owning its own Clyde puffer up until 1956, meaning barley could be brought in by sea and finished spirit sent back down to Glasgow with just a slight detour around the Mull of Kintyre.

Both the peat and water are locally sourced, as they always have been - the Illeachs wouldn’t have it any other way – and the two intertwine on their slow descent to the distillery from Lochan Sholum, inland and 200m above sea level. From here the water flows two and a half miles to the distillery, soaking up moss and peat, but don’t get confused.  At this point the peat contributes only colour and a slight tang to the water – as it takes on the same shade as the finished whisky – the smoky flavour comes almost exclusively from the kiln.

Lagavulin no longer malts its own barley – the floor maltings closed in 1974, but they procure their own specific recipe from the Port Ellen maltings. It is dried over peat for a high proportion of the total drying time giving a final phenol count of around 37ppm.

After the excitement of distillation, the spirit rests in the coastal warehouses, seawater pooling on the earthen floors and breathes steadily for 8, 12 or 16 years before bottling. Maturation allows the spirit to soak up the atmosphere of this unique setting and takes just a slight edge off the wild smoky flavour of all that centuries old organic matter. Yum.

Try these classic whiskies from Lagavulin

Peated_Whisky_lagavulin-range-bottles-the-three-drinkers.jpg

Lagavulin 16 Year Old, 43% ABV, around £49 for 70cl – Long-time standard bearer of the range, dominated by Lapsang Souchong, hints of pipe tobacco, smoked fish and iodine.  A classic Islay single malt.

Lagavulin 8 Year Old, 48% ABV, around £52 for 70cl - Originally a limited-edition to mark the distillery’s bicentenary in 2016, but now part of the core range this expression is all woodsmoke, tobacco and pepper.

Lagavulin Distillers Edition, 43% ABV, around £74 for 70cl - Double matured in Pedro Ximenez casks, this is a mellow Lagavulin with flavours of seaweed, Christmas cake and sea salt.

Want to see The Three Drinkers cutting peat at Laguvalin in the sunshine? Watch The Three Drinkers do Scotch Whisky, now streaming on Amazon Prime!

Is single malt whisky better than blended whisky?

Is single malt whisky better than blended whisky? My answer? No. Job done. Feet up; mine’s a large Peat Faerie. Dammit, I’m 718 short of the word count. Ok, here goes then…

A typical whisky buying story

I overheard an interesting conversation in an off licence the other day. A young man came in and asked the shopkeeper to help him choose a whisky for his grandfather’s birthday.

“What does he like?” the shopkeeper asked.

“Erm, I’m not really sure,” the young man replied, “single malt Scotch?”

“And what’s your budget?”

“About £40.”

Now, this in and of itself isn’t a particularly interesting interaction; I assume it happens several times a day in most large whisky shops. What’s interesting is what came later. The young man left with a bottle of blended malt whisky, having been assured by the shopkeeper that this was the best that grandpa would be getting given the price ceiling his grandson had imposed.

This prompted a lot of thoughts. Firstly, is wee Jimmy going to get a smack for daring to bring anything other than batch distilled malted barley produced at a single distillery across the threshold of dear old grandpappy’s home? If he’s not, and in fact grandpa only cares about the taste of what’s in the glass, is this a distinction that matters to many people outside of the Scotch Whisky Association, or is it just a form of snobbery?

A quick history of whisky blending

I’m afraid my inclination is towards the latter. Let’s start by taking a look at the history of Scotch whisky. For years, Scotch whisky was blended whisky. In fact, when the industry began to boom, it was because it was blended – it finally could be blended. Frankly, back in the 19thand early 20thcentury, the single expressions of each distillery were pretty rough. Pretty rough, and incredibly variable. The early period of Scotch production can really be construed as a series of relatively wealthy, or aspirant, farmers giving distillation a crack. Monday’s distillate might turn out ok, but if you took your eye off the ball on Tuesday for a minute or two - maybe there was a drainage issue in the lower field - it’s possible that you just made a batch of spirit vinegar.  Weirdly, few consumers wanted to take a gamble on these terms. Or at least, at the more discerning end of the market, they weren’t going to come back if your last batch was a bit, erm, blinding.

This is why producers that cracked the process, and introduced some consistency, managed to create brands that were so highly regarded. They had to seek early forms of trade mark protection to distinguish themselves from poor imitations a few hundred miles away that still claimed to come from, say, Glenlivet.

Alternatively, enter the calm hand of the blender. Take John Walker, a grocer from Kilmarnock, or Messrs Chivas, shopkeepers on King Street, Aberdeen. It turns out that they had an alchemist’s touch – an ability to turn the rough into the drinkable – the sort of touch that means that many generations on, they are still household names.

How did single malt become better regarded?

So how did we get from this position, to a time where Pops now believes that the only whisky worth touching is single malt? Well, legend apparently has it that the boom in single malt whisky started when a work experience kid at Glenfiddich in the early 1960s was challenged to 'get rid of' an oversupply of 12-year-old whisky.  He came up with the bright idea of bottling it as a single malt and begin promoting it as 'better' or 'more genuine' than blended whisky. Fifty years on and Glenfiddich remains the biggest selling single malt in the world, and many consumers, at least in the west, still believe that single malt is somehow better, or ‘more real’ than blended whisky.  I hope he got a full-time job out of it.

Despite this, the reality for most consumers around the world is that scotch whisky is blended whisky. Just consider the biggest selling whisky brands: Johnnie Walker, Ballantine’s, Grant’s, Chivas Regal. In fact, the top twenty are all blends, so Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet (the biggest selling single malts) are not even close to a seat at the top table.

Are all of these consumers wrong? Well, of course they could be, but it seems unlikely, and if they're drinking what they like, then they're doing it right as far as I'm concerned. Think of it like comparing a fine red Burgundy to a fine red Bordeaux: the Burgundy will be made with a single grape variety (Pinot Noir) and Bordeaux will be a blend (Cabernet, Merlot and some others). Neither is necessarily better nowadays. It’s just a matter of style.

One thing's for sure; having tried my hand at blending whisky, it's seriously difficult, and those at the top of the game - David Stewart (William Grant & Sons), Stephanie Macleod (Dewar’s) and Richard Paterson (Whyte & Mckay) - are masters of their art; highly prized and with noses insured for over £2.5m.  I'm not going to tell them they're making an inferior product.

Discovering The Art Of Experimental Whisky

It’s a common belief amongst those that know a little about whisky that the regulations governing the production of Scotch are too conservative. In fact, it was only January this year that news broke of one large producer who was allegedly making “secret moves to amend the scotch whisky regulations” - allegedly borne of an interest in finishing whisky in tequila casks - and sparked a whole debate about whether the rules set and managed by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) are too strict and therefore stifle innovation. The SWA has a somewhat unenviable task in this regard, as it is required to find the almost imperceptible balance between allowing the industry to develop and advance technologically while maintaining the precise rules that guard the quality and reputation of Scotch whisky worldwide.

Protection Versus Innovation

This is where the tension lies. Everyone agrees that the reputation of Scotch whisky is a valuable asset and one worth protecting, but many also believe that the industry needs to keep evolving. Even the fact that there is an independent body that exists to police the category could lead you to believe that the Scotch whisky industry is a place where innovation is scorned, seen as dangerous or avoided. Fortunately, while the current regulations do set down some strict criteria, they also allow a lot of scope for experimentation.

The entire whisky industry was, after all, born from the very real process of experimentation.  How else did the first pioneers of distillation in Scotland progress from reading ancient alchemical works from Persia to creating a range of local interpretations of aqua vitae based on the ingredients of the monastery or university garden? Why, they experimented of course.

Since then, the process (and the regulations) have tightened up, but there is still plenty of space for innovation in this ancient and revered process. Yes, the rules may require malted barley, but they also permit the addition of whole grains of other cereals – this is how some producers have been allowed to use heavily roasted ‘chocolate malt’ for example. Producers can also use rye as well as barley, and a Fife-based distillery will shortly launch Scotland’s first rye whisky for over 100 years.



How to innovate in whisky?

And even though the rules require Scotch whisky to be fermented, distilled and matured in Scotland for at least three years, innovative producers can still tinker with the use of peat during malting, or with many other stages of the mashing, fermentation or distillation process.

Arguably the most common tinkering time, however, comes after distillation, in the slowest moving, most relaxed part of the whisky-making process. The silent, sleepy maturation years.

This is because choices in this area have a significant impact. Whisky spends most of its time in the cask, and as a result is heavily influenced by the wood and the amount of contact and interplay with the previous contents.  Yes, the SWA regulations have insisted on oak casks since 1990, but oak was already by far the preferred and best wood to make barrels from, and no one objects too much about this restriction when there are also so many species to choose from.  From American to European or even the exotic mizunara oak of Japan.

The impact of cask maturation on wine had been observed since at least 500BC and choice of cask has always been one of the ways whisky producers have innovated. It is possible that some of these ‘innovations’ were romantic mistakes or fortuitous coincidences, but one thing’s for sure, they were all experimental.  Perhaps it was a coincidence that many blenders were based around the port of Leith which was also home to vast warehouses of wine. But it was a sense of innovation that brought the two together. This is how the early blenders began to experiment, putting their spirit into casks that had previously held port, madeira and sherry; or even claret, rum or brandy. To this day, any cask is available to the modern producer, provided they can demonstrate that it had historical usage in the industry.

Glenmorangie and Ardbeg as whisky innovators

Dr Bill Lumsden, Director of Distilling and Whisky Creation (what a title!) for the Glenmorangie and Ardbeg brands, believes that up to 60% of the flavour of a finished whisky comes from the wood and ‘indrink’ (the new make spirit’s interaction with the cask’s previous inhabitant). As a result, he has driven experimentation into this area, much of which, at Ardbeg in particular, has focussed on another crucial interface between wood and whisky – barrel char.




Charring barrels

All whisky barrels are charred before use, and between refilling.  This isn’t (as you might expect) done to add smoky flavours to the whisky, but rather to control the interaction between the wood and the spirit.  It is also a crucial step in the barrel making process. The application of heat helps to bend the staves, but also caramelises the inside of the cask to produce those delicious vanilla, spice and toffee notes that whisky drinkers adore.




Special Edition Products

In recent years Lumsden and Ardbeg have played in this area to release a variety of special editions based on different char levels, including:

Ardbeg Grooves (2018) - which was matured in ex-wine casks that had been charred so much that heavy grooves were formed in the surface of the wood.  This gave it a uniquely mellow twist on the classic Ardbeg flavour profile.

Ardbeg Alligator (2011) - named after the “alligator char” a phenomenon that develops after around 55 seconds of charring (as much as any producer will use) where the wood begins to crack and show the rough, shiny texture of alligator skin.

So if you have your choice of different barrels, and can push the limits of charring, where next?  The final frontier? That’s right, not content with alligator char, Ardbeg has also launched its whisky into space.

Whisky into space

Their first experiment took place in 2011 when they sent new make spirit and charred oak staves up to the International Space Station.  After orbiting the earth at 17,227 miles per hour, 15 times a day for 971 days it returned and was compared to a control sample that had been matured in the same manner back on earth, or Ardbeg Warehouse No. 3 to be precise.

Dr Bill Lumsden wrote up the “maturation secrets of the universe” in a White Paper available in full on the Ardbeg website, but in short, he described the difference as "noticeably different" in terms of aroma and taste.

Sadly, it’s not available for sale just yet, but maybe, in a galaxy far, far away space whisky already exists…