Whisky Wind-down, 20: Barley is a Vegetable

Today’s dram: Bruichladdich, Islay Barley

Today’s less rambling preamble to the tasting notes: I’m still on the Bruichladdich tasting pack I mentioned yesterday. Here’s another example of unpeated whisky from the distillery, but this one’s a bit … different.

As I said, there was a 20-something page booklet accompanying this trio of whiskies, most of which focused on the philosophy of the distillery. Along in there was something of a screed explicating the Bruichladdich credo: “We believe terroir matters.”

Terroir, if you’re not familiar, is a French term whose literal translation is “earth,” but whose meaning is wrapped up in the belief that the land upon which a crop is grown has a unique and inextricable effect upon the final product. If you’ve heard the term, it was likely in relation to wine-making, where long-accepted wisdom is that the land has a huge effect on the grapes grown upon it, which is an important — or the important — factor upon the wine produced from them.

The concept goes beyond wine, though. Within the ranks of the producers of virtually any crop — coffee, various vegetables, cannabis(!) — you’ll find a contingent that claims terroir matters.

Whether this is science, marketing, or merely a delusion beneath which people who paid too much for their land operate, depends who you ask.

If you ask the folks at Bruichladdich, they’ll tell you it matters that they buy all the barley used for their whisky directly from farmers on Islay.

For this one, which is a bit of a peculiar bottling not part of the regular range, they used barley from a trio of Islay farms grown in 2008, distilled in 2009, and bottled in 2016.*

Today’s tasting notes: Here’s another unpeated whisky you’d swear hit the earth when the distiller wasn’t looking. Damn, that’s big in the glass. Bold earth with a raucous burn — those are the flavors that greet you, and it’s intimidating to take that second sip. But do. Once your mouth has acclimated a bit, there are subtle flavors to key in on here. The literature accompanying this one touts its honey, citrus, and salt notes, over spice notes from the bourbon barrels in which it was aged and the young barely from which it was made.

I can get the honey. It’s subtle but there, on the third or subsequent sip, once your mouth stops throbbing. Spice, yes. From bourbon or barley, I wouldn’t dare say. There’s a tinge of salt, but I wouldn’t expect less from a whisky aged in a warehouse on the shores of Islay.

What else? Oh, aroma. I can’t note anything extraordinary here, except that it threatens to burn your nasal passages, if you take a heavy whiff. Salt? The high proof? Can’t say. Breathe gently and enjoy, instead.

Today’s thoughts: Eat your vegetables, they told me. They’re good for you, they told me.


Potatoes are vegetables. So, too, is barley.**

Yet if I have a dinner of fries and whisky, I can just feel the scowls forming on the foreheads of (at least) my parents, my siblings, my physician, some coworkers, and (even though she loves me enough to let it go) The Empress of Whisky.

Today’s obligatory disclaimer: I also eat peas, and sometimes corn. Peppers, on occasion.

Today’s toast: To barley and potatoes. You are the best vegetables.


* — Seven years is on the young side for Scotch whisky, with 10 being the traditional starting point and three the legal minimum. I’ve gone on record as not minding the rise of No Age Statement whiskies, but I know it drives some people up a wall. Me? I just want good whisky. How long it takes is neither here nor there.*** In this way, I’m rapidly becoming a fan of the distillers at Bruichladdich, whose focus is terroir, good barrel selection, appropriate blending (where needed), and damned fine whisky. Are they a touch pretentious in their methods and marketing? Perhaps. But as with any artist, I’ll judge on the results, thank you.

** — Scientifically speaking, I mean. All technicalities count. Someday I may even convince my physician. After all, she’s a scientist. This should be easy!

*** — Welllllll, you can do it wrong, of course. For example, the not-to-be-named operation I encountered where the head distiller, no shit, touted the fact that “whisky only has to touch new oak to be considered bourbon; it does not need to age” as a selling point … yeah. His “bourbon” was terrible.

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