More on the Islay Barley Debate: Bruichladdich’s Mark Reynier Rants

The Islay Blog has a long quote from Bruichladdich’s Mark Reynier on the necessity of Islay barley in the making of Islay Scotch whisky, and what he calls the “lies” of the industry in allowing Islay labeling for products that include little of the real Islay in the final product. Oddly I can’t find Reynier’s original post on the Laddie Blog. Some highlights:

I believe that 12 distilleries were about the maximum that this island could ever have supported back in the 1820s – with lower yielding varieties, poor quality soils, less effective fertilisers, and of course smaller sized distilleries. In effect, distilling capacity was limited by availability of barley…

More reliable and cheaper barley sources were located, resulting in the abandonment of barley growing on the island. We have spent the last 6 years encouraging farmers to grow barley again and now are up to 50% of our current requirement. Our requirement is increasing, so more farmers are still needed, but 50% is about right – all eggs in one basket and all that (have you looked out of the window recenty?). In 2007, our maltsters reckoned that the best barley they saw all year was the stuff grown here. Certainly there is a distinctive character (sandy soils?)…

And what of the Islay “appellation”. Of course it should be whisky distilled – and matured here. That’s what everyone else in Europe understands by Appellation…

I was once told by a famous ‘brand ambassador’ that his PR people had told him it was more important to talk about using barley malted on Islay, than to admit where the barley came from…

Whisky industry propaganda is truly shocking – and effective. The deception, manipulation of half-truths and outright lies is awesome. It is no wonder about the ignorance of the consumer, he’s been wrapped up in romantic images, iconic props and spoon fed implausible nonsense for so long by eager marketing departments. This Stalin-esq control of The Truth is shameful, and something that we will continue to expose; unfortunately, it goes right up to the top. If the SWA can’t help themselves, what chance the rest of the industry.

The industry desperately needs some truth, some honesty as the consumer is becoming more educated the old lies and deceipts cannot continue. Economics can be a perfectly valid reason – just be honest with the consumer. The Islay appellation is essentially meaningless.

Certainly, the trend in food production and organic farming methods has put locale front and center in a bid for greater transparency and consumer knowledge. Books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma are very persuasive in tracing the pernicious effects of industrialized food production and the concealment of mass production methods from the consumer, who is increasingly ignorant of and cut off from the source of the foods consumed. These principles apply no less to Scotch than tomatoes. Local food and proper labeling are a clear defense against abuse, and the first step toward accountability. This all comes at a cost though – authentic food commands a huge premium over commodotized production, so creating a market for local food labels is not just an ethical or moral cause, it is a profitable cause as well. Untangling the two is a tough problem. In the end, quality may out,  but this is not guaranteed. The benefits to local farmers aside, Isaly barley may create merely a snobbish distinction, and not a real one in the final product. But in the end, consumers should be the ones to make that call, not marketing boards. And that would seem to require more precise labeling rules.

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~ by whisky1 on September 18, 2008.

2 Responses to “More on the Islay Barley Debate: Bruichladdich’s Mark Reynier Rants”

  1. I don’t understand your point. Yes, trends in foodie circles are toward organic, or at least locally produced foods (where possible; seasons do get in the way!). Clearly, Scotch Whisky can only be produced in Scotland, so it’s non-local unless you live there. Buying local is still possible in the supply chain — Bruichladdich can get barley locally (but not as much as they need). Even if there is no “snob factor” involved, it might be cheaper (or beneficial to the community) for them to source it locally and/or organically.

    Mark pretty clearly stated that there isn’t enough Barley production on Islay in order to keep all the stills running. So what he said was: ‘And what of the Islay “appellation”. Of course it should be whisky distilled – and matured here. That’s what everyone else in Europe understands by Appellation…’

    So it boils down (hah!) to distilling and aging. Makes sense to me. Get as much Barley as you can (within economic constraints) locally, malt and mash locally, distill locally, age on Islay, and bottle on Islay. That sounds to me like a real Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

  2. I totally agree with you on the appellation question – Islay should mean made on Islay. I was simply questioning whether the use of Islay barely would create a discernibly better product, or just a better marketing opportunity. That’s a subjective call. I thought Mark was making a bigger point that Islays should include some Islay barley. That’s a fine principle, and consumers would benefit from labeling rules that indicate the barley source. At the same time, they will probably be asked to pay more for it.

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