The Hand that Stills the Barley
Off the west coast of Scotland, the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides, lies an island whose economy relies almost entirely on the availability of a single crop. Barley is the very essence of life on Islay, which is home to no fewer than eight distilleries. The isle of Islay itself is one of only five separate distilling regions whose identities are protected by Scottish law, and it produces some of the best known whiskies in the world.
This spring, I was lucky enough to be among the crowds that flock yearly to Feis Ile, a nine-day celebration of music and malt. Each of the Islay distilleries, joined by the Islay Ales brewery, Islay Wines, and the distillery on neighboring Jura, are involved in special events throughout the week, from tastings and masterclasses to Cèilidhs and concerts.
One distillery that I knew little about before my trip is called Bruichladdich. Bruichladdich products are many and varied, but today I shall focus on a single whisky. The Port Charlotte Islay Barley is a single malt produced from 100% Islay-grown barley, sourced from six local farms. According to Bruichladdich, this is the first time in the island’s history that such a whisky has been possible.
It is unsurprising that the farmland and population of a small island could not provide the volume of grain which is required by Islay’s host of distilleries. It seems reasonable enough that these large operations, requiring many tons of barley each year, will end up sourcing the product from big companies outside of their Hebridean home. That does not, however, diminish the Islay identity of the whiskies they produce.
But the people of Bruichladdich wished for a whisky with an even deeper sense of place. If Islay distillation and Islay maturation are already the standard, then what is more natural than beginning the process with Islay grain? This quest for a truly local single malt led the distillery into formal commitments to local barley farms.
This initiative spoke strongly to my sense of appreciation for the homegrown. This popular distillery, with many high-quality, well loved products, sought something still greater, and they found it only when they finally looked in their own backyard.
Like a distillery that creates great whisky with commercial barley from far away, we can feed ourselves and our loved ones good food made from produce we buy at the supermarket. Because the shop imports produce from wherever in the world it happens to be in season, the food is as reliably consistent as anything from nature can be, and that’s wonderful. But when we seek something more, something with a sense of place, it’s nice to have the opportunity to look in our own backyards, where we may just find that we’ve grown a bit of community.
This is something I’ve learned from my family at Spray-N-Grow, and now I’m glad to share it with you. Until next time, my friends, happy gardening.