A quick question I asked myself, it’s been buggin’ me. Is there such a thing as a bad barley deposit at a distillery, if so how does this affect the whisky?  I asked a renowned expert – “the barley could be poorer, or even just different quality malt. If the mill is not checked, the grind could affect mashing then fermentation and in this way alter character, so yes, this can affect quality”. It seems to me a wee bit of a touchy subject, aye but, I don’t often stay away from touchy subjects, if the truth is out there, I want it. How many times I have been on distillery tours, on my own, with an author, with guests, and barley is hardly mentioned in detail.  I have been involved in a few barley masterclasses, the first shocked me, well no shocked, just made my mouth drop, these masterclasses I must say were set up by MCLEANSCOTLAND when, as a part of the tour, we did a blind tasting and interacted on importance of barley. It is after all, one of three things to make the golden liquid, not counting wood or skills, that’s a whole new subject. Maybe a later blog will discover these goodies.

Let me side step here into a wee barley chat; barley as a whole contributes flavour to a mature whisky, the variety will not have a significant (or indeed any) impact. Ask on a distillery tour, “what is the most important factor?” It will depend who you ask of course, a distiller will give you a different answer than a warehouseman, a buyer, etc etc.

The varieties chosen were done so because of their ability to resist disease and to provide as much yield (litres of alcohol per ton of barley) as possible. This is now being challenged by a number of distillers. Distillers are again looking for varieties such as Golden Promise and Plumage Archer. Golden Promise as a flavour led variety is that it was introduced in the 1960s as a high yielding variety. The creation of a £62m International Barley Hub (IBH) sits within the James Hutton Institute’s Invergowrie site near Dundee, just a half hour fae ma hoose. One of the IBH’s express areas of research is to look at flavour and sustainability. Trials are currently underway across Scotland looking at flavour and sustainability. There is a project on Orkney examining the possibilities of the ancient bere strain, while one west coast distillery is currently trialling a Norwegian variety.

Question begs; should a distillery look at a low yield barley that adds much more flavour? It may result in short run limited bottlings but there are many out there who would pay for that.

Distillers on Islay are asking which variety might best suit the island’s very specific weather conditions: a short growing season, lots of rainfall, soil type, birds and cattle waste on the land/soil. Bruichladdich for example, on Islay is one distillery growing its’ own barley. The distillers have every right to reduce yield in order to maximise flavour. Some varieties have a significant flavour impact at the new make stage. Then there is also the possibility that some varieties might work best with specific yeasts. A whole new ballgame. Is this wee ditty of mine having any affect on you whisky lovers out there?

Sources; 26 November 2018, £62m barley research hub to open in Scotland. The International Barley Hub will make Scotland the global centre for barley research.  Barley: flavour and efficiency are not enemies; “embrace the evolution of barley”, says Dave Broom. Other “experts” in their field and talking myself to distillery people over the years.    PAUL MCLEAN, PERTH 2021