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Home » Food & Agriculture » Why the best whisky producers go with the grain — and different farming methods

Neil Conway

Head Brewer, Waterford Whisky

In whisky production, soil and microclimate impact the barley, which impacts the flavour of the spirit, explains Neil Conway, Head Brewer, Waterford Whisky.

Why is soil health important for whisky production? 

Barley is the source of the whisky’s flavour; and barley is influenced by where and how it’s grown — not just soil but microclimate, too. We’ve demonstrated this in our peer-reviewed academic paper, funded by the Irish Government.  

Ever since our establishment in 2015, our approach has been ‘terroir’-focused — how the natural environment impacts the flavour of the barley which ultimately impacts the flavour of the whisky.  

Can flavours be affected by different farming techniques? 

Yes. For example, the flavour of the spirit that comes from barley grown in the Elton soil group has clove (earthy and spicy notes), whereas the flavour from Seafield soil is more of fresh fruit, dried fruit and floral. Different farming techniques can further enhance flavours. We use barley from organic and biodynamic farmers, which — again — completely changes the flavour profile of a single malt new mix spirit, often giving the spirit greater intensity of flavour. We’re demonstrating that what goes into the barrel matters. For us, whisky is agricultural produce — not a manufactured product.  

Barley is the source of the whisky’s flavour; and barley is influenced by where and how it’s grown.

What’s the difference between conventional and organic farming? 

For last year’s harvest, 50% of the barley we use comes from conventional growers that use artificial treatments; but for our distilling requirements, these must be minimal. We started using organically grown barley — which no one else was producing in Ireland, and now we’re the world’s largest producer — to see how this would impact the flavour of our whiskies. Organic is a natural farming method which shuns the use of chemicals, so it’s more sustainable.  

What is biodynamic farming? 

Biodynamics originated in 1924 and is used today in the world’s greatest vineyards. The principles are that, whereas organics is about a list of things not to put on the land, biodynamics goes further in treating the farm as a holistic system, creating special preparations to help enrich soil nutrients and microbial activity. It also works with nature in perceivably unusual ways — including following the lunar calendar to benefit the plants.  

How else can flavour be changed? 

By using old heritage varieties of barley that have fallen out of use. We went to the Department of Agriculture in Ireland and grew barley from three discontinued varieties and have since produced a heritage single malt from the Hunter variety of barley, which was introduced in 1959 but vanished in the 1970s. It’s about giving customers the choice of flavour. 

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