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Throughout 2024, we're going to be looking at the origins of flavors in our whisky, from the very beginning to the end of the production process, Gavin D Smith kicks off the series with a focus on the humble barley grain, and how some distilleries are experimenting with different varieties in pursuit of flavour character.

There is only one cereal grain allowed in the creation of single malt Scotch whisky, and that is ‘malted barley without the addition of any other cereals’ according to the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines barley as ‘a cereal grass (genus Hordeum and especially H. vulgare) having the flowers in dense spikes with long awns and three spikelets at each joint of the rachis: its seed used especially in malt beverages, breakfast foods, and stock feeds.’

When it comes to barley for making malt whisky, the key requirements from most farmers, maltsters and distillers are varieties that will yield a high tonnage in the field and a high number of litres per tonne in the distillery.

With this in mind, breeders are constantly working to create new and improved barley varieties, all of which must be approved by the Malting Barley Committee (MBC) of the Maltsters’ Association of Great Britain before being used commercially. Current favourites are Laureate and LG Diablo, while Optic, Concerto and Propino have been other prolific recent varieties favoured for whisky-making.

Today, most of the barley required by Scottish distillers is cultivated within Scotland, and a major change in agricultural practices relating to barley came with the development of the Golden Promise variety during the 1960s.

Golden Promise was developed with a relatively short, sturdy straw, which made it suitable for cultivation in Scotland, where wet and windy conditions often prevailed, and it was ready for harvest from July onwards, an obvious advantage due to the comparative shortness of Scottish summers. During the 1970s, Golden Promise comprised up to 90 per cent of the total UK malting barley crop, and The Macallan famously used Golden Promise for many years, praising the full-bodied, oily spirit it produced.

ABOVE: Dr Peter Martin, director of the Agronomy Institute at Orkney College UHI, with an example of the bere barley variety


Increasing efficiency is one reason why new barley varieties are developed, with modern varieties yielding well over 400 litres of alcohol at 100% abv per tonne, while Golden Promise would yield around 380 litres. Another reason for the relentless pursuit of new varieties is the need for disease resistance, as existing varieties usually become susceptible to disease within a few years.

The effect of striving to create the optimum malting barleys is that they all tend to be very similar, both in effectiveness and in terms of the flavour they ultimately give to whisky. Many industry insiders suggest that malt quality and the way it is processed have greater influence on spirit character than barley varieties.

Whisky educator and ambassador Vic Cameron spent almost a quarter of a century working for Diageo, and he explained in a feature for “A malt that is very high or low in friability will give different grind ratios, which in turn could lead to changes in mashing, resulting in a potential change in spirit character. Lower or higher-than-normal extract values could alter the gravity of wort, thus effecting a change in fermentation conditions, again with a potential to change character. Poor homogeneity in malt can result in problems in the stills, thus changing the reflux properties and leading to an adjustment in spirit character.”

As for the consumer, when it comes to drinking whisky from a bottle several years after barley cultivation, processing and maturation, nuances of mainstream barley varieties are undetectable.

So much for high volume producers, for whom consistency is of supreme importance, but increasingly, small-scale – and not so small-scale – distillers are exploring the use of alternative barley varieties which yield less per acre when harvested and less per tonne when distilled, but offer greater variations of flavour.

Bruichladdich on Islay has been at the forefront of barley experimentation, and single malt produced using both organic barley and bere barley are now significant components of the distillery’s portfolio.

As Amy Brownlee, global communications brand manager for malts, explains: “The distillery currently works with a number of different barley varietals and genetically diverse grains – including sustainably grown organic barley, the ancient bere barley, homegrown Islay barley and most recently, the first Islay rye.

“With no artificial input, organic barley is the purest expression of its terroir – with the grain bringing an immense clarity of flavour when distilled. Bruichladdich distillery sources bere barley specifically, a six-row landrace that fell out of use in the 20th century due to its low yield. This ancient grain is genetically very different to modern barley varietals. Bere barley grains are also much smaller and denser than conventional strains of barley, producing a rich grist and uniquely robust flavour. It imparts light and zesty notes which are bursting with fruit. It also offers an unctuous texture and has an unparalleled barley-sugar sweetness.”


Both Holyrood in Edinburgh and Dornoch in Sutherland have gone down the ‘heritage’ barley route, with Holyrood conducting a series of trials in conjunction with Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. As Dr Calum Holmes from Heriot-Watt’s International Centre for Brewing and Distilling says: “There’s increasing interest within the malting and distilling industries to explore a role for older barley varieties.

ABOVE: Holyrood has been trialling different varieties of barley at its distillery in Edinburgh

“There’s hope that using these heritage varieties of barley might allow for recovery of favourable aroma characteristics into distillate and some have also displayed potential resilience to stresses that might be expected from a changing climate.”

One of the varieties trialled by Holyrood was Chevallier, with a very pleasing mouth texture being noted, and the Thompson brothers of Dornoch also have experience of working with Chevallier. In a distillery blog, the brothers recorded that: “The new-make spirit produced from the Chevallier malt was much sweeter and richer than our standard spirit, with a full-bodied mouthfeel.”

ABOVE: Philip and Simon Thompson at Dornoch distillery in 2017

The prevailing philosophy is to use varieties with higher levels of protein, which implies a sacrifice of yield, and the Thompsons note that: “A broad explanation of the differences between varieties is that the varying levels of simple sugars, dextrins, wort nitrogen and other minerals will affect the fermentation process, and thus the character of the final spirit produced. This is a highly simplified explanation, and the flavours will vary from batch to batch, however, a common thread that we see here at Dornoch is that spirit produced using the older heritage varieties is a more oily, textural mouthfeel in comparison to that produced from modern, high yielding varieties such as Laureate.”

Whatever the variety of barley to be used for malt whisky distillation, this essential raw material needs to undergo a transformation before it is able to generate alcohol. That process is malting, which produces a range of aromas and flavours that carry right through to whisky in the glass – and which we’ll look at in more detail in the next issue of Unfiltered.

ABOVE: barley in the mashtun at Holyrood distillery


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