The unsung heroes of Scotch whisky

1st February, 2019 by Amy Hopkins

Master distillers and blenders are rightfully lauded for their invaluable contribution to Scotch whisky. But the success of the industry rests on the dedication of an extensive workforce spanning disciplines such as farming and tourism. Here, SB shines a light on those whose stories are often left untold.

Farmers

Andrew Jones – Coull Farm

By law, single malt Scotch whisky can contain only three ingredients – barley, yeast and water, all of which undergo a series of processes and interactions to create the final product. Despite the rigidity of Scotch whisky’s regulations, producers are intent on offering drinkers something new.

For Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay, barley is an expression of single malt’s terroir, drawing similarities with the world of wine. The distillery is continuously exploring how different varieties of barley, and the location in which they are grown, affect flavour. For such innovation to be possible, the team needs a close relationship with Islay’s farmers.

“A lot of people don’t want to be experimental; they want to stick to what they know,” says Andrew Jones, who has lived and worked on Islay’s Coull Farm all his life. “But we are great believers that you don’t know what’s out there until you’ve tried it.” Coull Farm, which is a mixed farm, spread over 2,000 acres, started producing barley for Bruichladdich in 2009.

“We try to find a happy medium, if you like, by trying to find varieties that suit Bruichladdich but are also cost effective,” explains Jones. “We usually put a field down every year of a variety we’ve not used before and see how it goes from there. If it suits, it suits and if not we’ll try another next year.”

It’s not only experimental distilleries that rely on skilled arable farmers – the entire Scotch whisky industry could not function without receiving huge quantities of reliable-quality cereals on a daily basis. Jones praises Bruichladdich for shining a light on the importance of farmers to the wider sector: “It’s good they are not taking all the credit and leaving the farmers behind.”

Jones also notes that while there are many farmers who “wouldn’t want cameras in their faces or people walking through their fields”, others “would be quite happy, given the chance, to show the public what they are doing”.

Curious visitors would see the exceptionally hard work of arable farming, which is particularly evident at Coull, the most exposed farm on Islay. “We are as far west as you can go on Islay – the next stop is America,” muses Jones. “So we are pretty exposed and the weather has a massive part to play in how well or how badly we can grow barley.”

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