Up until the mid-19th Century all whiskies were effectively organic. The development of the artificial manure industry (treating manure with phosphates and sulfuric acid to aid growth and yield) which stemmed from the pioneering work conducted by agricultural scientist John Bennet Lawes paved the way for fetilisers becoming an integral part of the global food chain. Grain is one of the most genetically modified foods – GM strains were first introduced in 1875 by hybridising wheat with rye, but have subsequently become commonly manipulated through biotechnological genetic modifications which raise resistances to pests, diseases and the extensive chemical treatments involved in modern farming techniques. By 2014, 93% of all corn planted in the US was from genetically modified varieties.
It was not until the 1940’s, that the farming industry’s growing reliance of both fertilisers and pesticides produced a revival of traditional production techniques and the early seeds of the organic industry. Traction was initially slow across many parts of the food industry – consumer education was poor and traditional producers (who were by now fully reliant on in-organic techniques) railed against the claims of organic producers that their produce was either more natural, or healthier. The wine industry in particular is one where organic production took nearly 40 years become truly embedded and valued on its own merits. But now, in some countries, and despite a myriad differing organic standards, organic wine growth has started to outpace the in-organic.
It always surprises me that despite whisky enthusiasts continually railing about the use of additives and corrective processes in their whiskies – (E150a, chill-filtration etc) – that very few folks seem to care about the raw ingredients used to create their beloved products. In some ways I understand their nonchalance – distilling is a particularly destructive process. But in others, I fail to see how the initial inputs to the process (grains) are deemed to have less impact the end ones (casks). The industry have spent years reinforcing this view – that it’s the wood which drives most of the flavour and uniqueness of spirit. But, you only have to compare the differences between virgin cask malt, corn and rye to see that they are fundamentally different products.
This said, organic whisky might be viewed a little differently. By working with a dedication to transparency and traceability (the underpinnings of terroir) to ensure that the processes surrounding the production of a product are fully understood and ergo, organic-ness can be guaranteed, there’s no actual guarantee that organic whisky will actually taste any better. In wine production the definition of what is organic varies from country to country – and whilst you might consider that natural wine tastes fresher, or less filtered, with lax global rule integration, there’s little to say that any differences you note are derived from the liquid being organically produced. Whisky has similar issues with its organic credentials – because, to be truly organic one needs to not only look at the grains themselves, but also to the wood used for maturation.
Producing and tracking organic grain production is complex labour intensive stuff (those interested more should read about my visit to Waterford in Ireland). But, whilst your inputs might be organic, this to my mind means little if your casks are not. Wait a minute, wood – not naturally organic? What?!
When using any type of refill cask the precursor liquid penetrates the wood. If that liquid was not organically made itself then technically you’re maturating your organic whisky in contact with in-organic compounds. This rather defeats the point of the exercise. It’s therefore no surprise than many organic whisky expressions are aged in virgin casks – wood that hasn’t been infiltrated with bourbon, sherry or whatever seasoning agent is desired to build additional layers of flavour. That said, some producers are still working with ex-casks – but, they’re heavily stripping back and charring the insides of the cask (often called rejuvenation – and sometimes used to attempt to get extra life out of tired casks) to strip out all of the previous in-organic materials.
Similarly, the processes within the distillery itself need to be organic. If you’re producing a variety of in-organic products within your stills, extensive cleaning during the down-season is required to ensure that when you produce your batch of organic whisky that it’s not exposed to the residuals of any previous production. Limiting and time-consuming – it’s easy to see why most distilleries have not opted to produce 100% organically produced whiskies.
The earliest examples of modern organic whiskies hail from Loch Lomond and Benromach, who produced expressions in 2005 and 2006 which were the first (I can find) to proclaim the organic nature of their ingredients. Today we’re looking at a more recent example – from Deanston distillery.
Deanston 15 year old organic is produced from organic barley (locally sourced from farmers) that has been matured in rejuvenated ex-bourbon casks and finished in virgin oak. As a Certified organic whisky, the distillery is only able to batch produce the expression – rigorous cleaning and scraped and re-charred casks is required to ensure that no part of the production process is ever in contact with non-organic materials. The bottling is delivered like virtually all of owner Distell’s products at 46.3% ABV and can be acquired for £64.95 from the Whisky Exchange.
Nose: Sun-licked fields and buzzing bee hives. Fresh golden barley with a sense of waxiness and bright fresh fruitiness – honeydew melon, tart green apples and lemon peels. There’s a creaminess that’s already apparent – lemon curd pie with a generous dollop of soft meringue alongside ex-bourbon vanilla custard and crisp grassiness. Reduction amplifies the cask with desiccated coconut, barley corns and newly baked white bread.
Taste: Cleanness continues with orchard fruit up first - ripe crunchy apples and Comice pears. These sit on a bedrock of barley - toasted breakfast cereals with a healthy honey drizzle. The mid-palate offers a developing spiciness with gingerbread and vanilla pods livened with pepperiness. In the background, saccharine sugars – icing and confectioner’s sugar are joined by oven-baked buns and an emerging sourness as the fruit constituents and cask fight to find their natural equilibrium.
Finish: Medium in length with plenty of barley water and pepper.
Deanston 15 year old Organic is a particularly fresh expression with defined bright fruits and a pronounced malty underpinning. Whilst it doesn’t offer deep complexity, it does, for the most part, showcase both the character of the spirit and that of the malt. Frankly it would be disappointing if it didn’t. However, the balance, particularly in the back-palate feels a touch awkward – the crispness and vibrancy gives way to a little too much tartness and sourness from the ex-bourbon wood. Nevertheless, the overall offering is solid and would certainly be agreeable for those who like their whiskies particularly garden/field-fresh in character. As nature intended.