Last year, Waterford Distillery released the world’s first biodynamic whisky, made from biodynamic Irish barley. The whisky industry is booming in Ireland and worldwide. Everyone is trying to find their niche in the market, and at Waterford Distillery they are producing something quite unique. By focusing on biodynamics, they are seeking to maximise the character and quality of their whisky through the barley.
“Where barley is king, provenance is all.”
Biodynamic farming is essentially stepping back in time. It focuses entirely on the importance of soil, the cycle of the seasons and all other aspects of terroir. It is a holistic, ethical, and ecological approach to farming and gardening, where the sole purpose is to create the optimum conditions for healthy crops using natural methods. All of this translates into one thing: enhanced flavour.
To be able to understand biodynamics, you need to understand the term terroir. Terroir unfortunately has no equivalent word in English, but it means the complete natural environment in which your ingredients – be they tomatoes, grapes, roses, or barley – are grown. Terroir embraces the synergy between climate, soil and place and how these impact on an individual plant.
Each plant can be reshaped by microclimates, soil changes, or farming methods, so whilst terroir is a relatively simple and straightforward concept, it’s challenging to execute well. It requires the creation and maintenance of the perfect environment to allow the fullest natural development of mineral-rich nutrients in our soil to bring flavour to our foods. Simply put, this soil nutrition is flavour.
At Waterford Distillery they believe that the type of barley and the specific soil and location where it grows can strengthen the flavour of a spirit. Currently they are working with over 100 Irish farms, all operating with diverse soil types from the different regions of Ireland, different forms of agronomy and different barley varieties.
By focusing on the individuality of each farm and its crop, the distillery can properly analyse the effect each farm has on the final whisky. The results may surprise you. Even small differences from farm to farm can produce dramatic differences in flavour. It is a huge project, but a really interesting and innovative one.
What is biodynamic farming?
Biodynamic farming is nothing new; it covers thousands of years of agricultural know-how, when the farmers had to make do without sophisticated equipment or fertilisers. They made sure nothing went to waste.
The mineral silica or organic manure (fertiliser) is stuffed into cow’s horns, which are also rich in calcium. These horns are then buried underground where the bacteria, microbes and minerals are left to ferment together for six months. Biodynamic farming is time-consuming, and one needs to have a lot of patience and attention to detail. Biodynamics is a way of life.
This method will have a clear impact on the aroma of the barley and therefore of the new make. According to Waterford’s in-house terroir specialist, the biodynamic spirit has more depth in its flavours. They tend to be levelled up, louder, so to speak. The specific flavours are stronger compared to a conventional farm.
It makes sense. Conventional farming methods can ruin the soil with their excessive use of chemicals and hormones, which also contribute to crops with fewer vitamins and less flavour. By using biodynamic farming methods, the soil stays healthy, nothing goes to waste and the barley will be free of artificial add-ons. It will also have a positive impact on the surrounding wildlife and the environment.
But why is Waterford Distillery interested in biodynamics?
Mark Newton, the head of communications at Waterford Distillery, tells me the simplest answer is because they are interested in what it does for flavour.
We want the most intense, natural, purest possible flavours of barley; barley being the source of malt whisky’s flavour. Barley being why malt whisky doesn’t taste like rye, for example. And where does barley get its nutrition from? The soil.
The soil – which is not just derived from geology, but that more complex intersection of geology and biological matter, otherwise it would be dust.
And there’s more! Modern barley varieties tend to have shorter roots; so now our biodynamic growers are using the heritage variety, Hunter; its longer roots can dive deeper into that sumptuous biodynamic cake-like soil and make the most of it.
How can you really know if the biodynamic barley makes a difference?
If barley gets its nutrition – especially micronutrients – from the soil, then creating a richer, turbocharged, biologically life-filled soil will in theory give more nutrients to the plant, resulting in more intensity of natural flavour in the spirit we can extract from the crop. That’s the theory, right? Yet pleasingly, our own blind sensory panels, an extension of our own academic work, are showing just that. The panel reports that biodynamic spirit has more depth of flavour, more complexity.
How do you compare the taste of organic whisky and biodynamic whisky if the barley is from a different farm?
You’re right: the biodynamic farms are all clustered in Kildare; so we can’t quite do a like-for-like when the organic farms are located elsewhere. We’d be able to compare the organic farms to each other with the three organic Single Farm Origins.
Perhaps it is more accurate to talk of biodynamics being the ultimate expression of that particular Kildare terroir, for that’s what this curious methodology is all about: it’s really getting the barley to sing of where it comes from.
Are you worried that a long maturation period may take away from the terroir?
Not at all, though that’s probably not the way I look at it. If maturation hammered out flavour nuances, then surely after 20 years all malt whisky distilleries’ output would end up tasting the same? Obviously, they don’t; so, what you start with matters.
We’re discovering what’s going on in real time and trying to share it with the world. We’re curious as to what make some terroirs more vibrant than others after a few years. We also want to understand how terroir changes over time – indeed, this is ultimately going to be part of our own stream of academic research, to see the influence of maturation on terroir. It’s not a quick answer, unfortunately.
The holy trinity of terroir extraction
Warning: Technical stuff ahead…
There’s a “technological trinity” at the distillery: hydromill, mash converter and mash filter. Consider this as the ultimate terroir extraction method, unique in the distilling world.
The hydromill grinds the barley underwater. The purpose of this is to have unoxidised grist (ground-down malt), which then provides purer flavours. The wet barley is then put into the mash converter, where the sugar is extracted from the barley. This is how Mark explained it to me, “Our Incremental Mash Converter provides the ultimate in mash conversion – through optimum enzyme activity it delivers precision of flavour for every Single Farm Origin, every crop.”
The mash converter is followed by the mash filter. Usually at a distillery the next step would be to drain the wort out of the mash tun, but at Waterford it must go through to a mash filter. These are more commonly used by breweries than distilleries. The mash filter is a series of 54 in-line pneumatic presses – like wine presses – that completes the terroir extraction from the crop. Every drop of flavour is squeezed out of the wort and, according to Mark, this is the step that adds more mouthfeel to the spirit.
The fermentation is also longer and cooler than at most distilleries as this provides extra length and depth to the whisky. The fermentation takes at least 120 hours but can vary slightly based on the crop.
Waterford Distillery is now the world’s largest producer of organic and biodynamic whisky. The distillery’s total output is just under one million litres of total spirit per year, although they have capacity to distil even more. Organic and biodynamic growers now contribute almost 25% of their crops, but obviously their yields are less than conventionally grown barley.
Mark tells me they are now producing well over 100,000 litres of organic spirit a year, and it’s increasing every year. They are literally taking all the organic and biodynamic barley they can get their hands on – so long as it’s all grown locally in Ireland, he stresses.
The distillery has three different whisky series:
Single Farm Origin – One farm, one location
Arcadian Series – Organic and biodynamic heritage
Cuvée – Blends of Single Farm Origins
The Arcadian Series represents the old ways of farming. They are seeking more intense flavours. Currently the distillery has released three organic expressions (Gaia), which are a blend of organic barley from different Irish farms. Next year, however, we can expect an Organic Single Farm Origin whisky from the distillery.
Their first biodynamic whisky, Luna 1.1, was released in October 2021. It is made using barley from three certified biodynamic Irish farms.
Inka’s Tasting Notes:
Appearance: Light yellow, golden like a barley field in the sun
Nose: Sweet citrus, malted barley, toffee, melted chocolate ice cream, vanilla custard
Palate: Spicyyyy, green chillies, black pepper, Digestive biscuits, light texture/mouthfeel but plenty of spice all around, brown sugar, pastry with icing glaze
Finish: Pretty long, lingering finish, it has sweetness to it but with continued spice
After a drop of water (it is 50% ABV after all), I found that the aroma weakened. The palate was still spicy but became quite dry with notes of orange and lemon peel and malty biscuits. The finish was dry and the spiciness started to mellow slightly.
Overall, I preferred the tasting experience without water, but I would say I’m pretty used to sampling higher abv whiskies so do try it both ways. Like with most drams, I find time in the glass allows the air to work its magic and release more aroma and flavours to open up (with this one the sweetness becomes alive with air).
I like how Waterford Distillery challenges people’s perceptions about distilling and whisky production.
I’ve enjoyed following their whisky journey, how it evolves and how they are exploring wider possibilities when it comes to whisky and the pursuit of flavour. Even better when it is done in a way where old meets new. Results matter, and there is no doubt that the terroir has a material impact on the flavour and balance of a whisky (something wine producers have pushed for many years). Perhaps the surprise is, however, that even the most marginal differences in terroir can lead to a material difference in taste.
The importance of barley is often overlooked in whisky production; many varieties are simply mixed together, and sometimes barley is even imported from another country. One brand representative even told me once that the initial taste of a new make doesn’t matter as the flavour will change when it has spent time in a barrel. But why risk such an extensive (and expensive) process by not starting with the best possible ingredients from the outset?
I look forward to seeing how these organic and biodynamic whiskies will evolve with the single farm barley and the range of flavours coming from different locations. I’m hoping these can be properly compared with other conventional farm releases from the same area. There’s still a lot to discover.
If you would like to learn more about each step of the production or the terroir project in general, head over to Waterford Distillery’s website where they provide in-depth information about the whole production process, the farms and the whiskies, as well as an updated analysis of how the project is going so far.
Have you tried the biodynamic whisky yet?
Disclaimer: This post was sponsored by Waterford Distillery. Some of the links used are affiliate links. If you buy through the links, I may receive a commission for the sale. This has no effect on the price for you.