Islay. The name conjures salt water-spray off the North Atlantic, peat bogs rich with all that decays, limestone, spring water, geese and thrushes. And whisky. Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg on the southeast shore of the island. Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila to the northeast. Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Port Charlotte around Loch Indaal in the middle of Islay with Kilchoman to the west. Each distillery, each region has a particular taste based on the fresh-water supply, the mixture of rocks and soil, and the proximity to the sea. Also, whether the whisky is aged in Bourbon or Sherry oak says something about the taste. However, the key remains terroir. What does Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking have to say about terroir?
In recent times, much has been said about the importance in winemaking of terroir: the influence on a wine of the particular place in which the grapes were grown. The French word includes the entire physical environment of the vineyard: the soil, its structure and mineral content; the water held in the soil; the vineyard’s elevation, slope, and orientation; and the microclimate, the regime of temperature, sunlight, humidity, and rainfall. (726-27)
Well all right, much may be said about single malt scotch whisky with those terms, especially Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2007. First, Andrew Jefford in Peat Smoke and Spirit: A Portrait of Islay and its Whiskies paints a wonderful greeting to Bruichladdich.
Bruichladdich (pronounced Bruch-laddy, with a susurrant ‘ch’ as in ‘loch’) is a loner. By dint of geography, first of all. The three southerly Kildaton distilleries are evident siblings, while Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain watch more distantly but no less solicitously over each other on the east coast. Grandfather Bowmore has the island’s largest community gathered around it, but Bruichladdich . . . Bruichladdich lies way out west; Bruichladdich is the distillery of the Rhinns, once a separate island to Islay and still prone to no little independence of spirit; Bruichladdich watches over the gates to the Atlantic.
Bruichladdich means ‘slope of the shore.’ There are no steep hills or high lochs hereabouts; and the water shore for mashing is a reservoir built less than a mile back from and about 55 feet above the distillery in 1881. Donald McGregor, worked at the distillery at the end of the Harvey era [orginial owners] in 1936; he remembers unloading a cargo of barley from a sailing ship, the Asta, and winching it up to the barley loft using his horse. He also remembers growing barley for the distillery, in a hillside field poignantly called Canada. (173-74)
The homepage for Bruichladdich informs me that right now it’s 61 degrees, winds are southwesterly at 8 mph, the humidity is 76 percent and the visibility good. They proudly state “We believe terroir matters.” A statement given teeth with the Islay Barley 2007 Whisky.
Harvested in 2006 and distilled in 2007, the grain for this iconic whisky was grown for Bruichladdich in the Minister’s Field at Rockside Farm by Mark and Rohaise French. A painfully slow distillation to gently coax the delicate oils and flavour compounds from the barley, coupled with casks carefully selected to preserve those flavours, has resulted in a whisky of exceptional complexity. We believe terroir matters. Distinctive, authentic and unique, this is land and dram united.
Here’s a video from Bruichladdich.
So what does my tasting reveal? I’m sitting in a blue armchair in the library with a nosing glass and dark brown bookshelves towering over me. A perfect venue for a murder in Clue. A small amount of whisky in the glass held up to a nearby turn-of-the-century floor lamp and I see straw, grass yellow and thin, buttercup, a medium roux if you will (which I will patiently watch over, more about that a little later). Or closer to home, a banana yellow that slides to a vanilla-mustard with the addition of water–the range of yellow in our tile in the foyer. I lift the glass to my nose and breathe in sage and savory, slight vanilla, lime, white pepper. Time for a taste: toffee, caramel, spice, paprika, syrup, cream, ginger. Swirl and swish, then swallow. The finish lingers with candy, hot cinnamon. It does have a burn on the nose, but it is young–aged about six years. A drop or two of water, more citrus appears, still a fullness in the mouth, along with an increase of creaminess and a strong presence of spice and earth. I’m experiencing the soil of Islay from Rockside Farm and around the Bruichladdich distillery in the dram. This focus on terroir has its roots in a concern for soil. One name continually appears concerning soil fertility whether I am reading Barber, Berry, Pollan or Salatin: Sir Albert Howard, the renowned botanist and organic farming guru.
Soil fertility is the condition which results from the operation of Nature’s round, from the orderly revolution of the wheel of life, from the adoption and faithful execution of the first principle of agriculture–there must always be a perfect balance between the processes of growth and the processes of decay. The consequences of this condition are a living soil, abundant crops of good quality, and live stock which possess the bloom of health. The key to a fertile soil and a prosperous agriculture is humus. (38)
The effect of humus on the crop is nothing sort of profound. The farmers and peasants who live in close touch with Nature can tell by a glance at the crop whether or not the soil is rich in humus. The habit of the plant then develops something approaching personality; the foliage assumes a characteristic set; the leaves acquire the glow of health; the flowers develop depth of color; the minute morphological characters of the whole of the plant organs become clearer and sharper. Root development is profuse: the active roots exhibit not only turgidity but bloom. (35)
Howard’s writing of soil fertility and humus speaks an ethic, a way of interacting with the land best defined by the great conservationist Aldo Leopold in his essay “The Land Ethic.”
The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.
This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state.
In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such. (172-73)
What is the practical farming approach of Leopold’s ethic? Farmer, agricultural researcher and educator Eliot Coleman provides that in The New Organic Grower.
Growing an Acre of Corn [The Sustainable Approach]
Soil fertility is understood as a biological process. Once established, fertility can be maintained and improved by crop rotations that include legumes plus the addition of mineral raw materials.
Only the actual quantity of nutrients that leave the farm in stock or crops sold need to be purchased as inputs to maintain fertility. Nitrogen is not a purchased input because it is supplied by symbiotic and non-symbiotic processes.
Inputs are purchased in the least processed and least expensive form. Nutrient solubility and availability is considered to be a natural function of the biological processes in a properly managed soil.
Any feed brought onto the farm is calculated on the plus side of the input ledger. On average, 75 percent of the nutrient value of feed consumed by animals is returned in the manure as a nutrient input to the farm. (110)
All of this settles in my mind, and I drink my dram of Bruichladdich Islay Barley, and tend to my other direct engagement with land and sea today–Catfish Étouffée. I drove to Airline Seafood Market on Richmond and procured two pounds of Louisiana Catfish. My Seafood Watch app informed me that this is a “Best Choice.”
Raised in closed, inland ponds using recirculated fresh water and fed a mostly vegetarian diet of soybeans, corn and rice, U.S. farmed catfish is considered to be one of the most sustainable fish species available.
Take a look.
I stoke my smoker, place the catfish inside, and after a couple of hours I pull the beauties out. Louisiana Catfish absorbing hickory smoke, a stock inside bubbling with kombu and bonito, a roux slowly darkening and a dram of Bruichladdich Islay Barley. How dark do you want your roux? As orange-kissed as the catfish in my smoker?
With the roux ready, I add diced sweet yellow onion, parsley stalks, slices of fennel and eventually fresh corn cut off the cob. The onion arrives from Fruitful Hill Farm in Bastrop; parsley from My Father’s Farm, Seguin; fennel and sweet corn from Gundermann Acres in Wharton–thank you Greenling.
Eventually. I bring the smoke catfish in, place it in the pan with my vetables and stock, let it simmer together for several minutes, then plate.
Gabriela raises a glass.
The boy looks over, raises a glass, and it’s time to eat!