Are distilleries sacrificing quality and taste in favour of blander – but more profitable – barley?
‘Judas!’ The cry came out during Bob Dylan’s 1966 concert at Manchester from an irate member of the audience resenting the fact that Dylan had moved away from his folky voice-of-a-generation shtick, and was now plugged in with The Hawks chanting new, cryptic, Beat poetry at volume. It was the end, as some like the heckler saw it, of a tradition.
A similar division is happening in Scotch, where the new defenders of the old ways are fighting the good fight against those who they see as betrayers of heritage – a dispute which is under way in many areas.
Take barley. On one hand, we have ongoing research into new varieties which will be disease-resistant, easily-malted and bred to maximise yield (litres of alcohol per ton of barley used). The underlying drive is for efficiency. Yield, we are told, dominates the initial part of the whisky-making process. Character takes over from fermentation onwards.
A new era: Times are changing for barley, but debate continues over flavour and efficiency
A few stick to the notion that barley might also deliver flavour – there’s an ongoing debate about Golden Promise, for example. As a result, the ‘old was better’ camp believes all new varieties are bad (efficiency being the enemy of quality) and that the old ones were automatically better. The reality is more nuanced.
This was brought into focus when I was devouring Dan Barber’s book The Third Plate (which is compulsory reading for anyone interested in sustainability, food and agriculture). In it, an artisan baker says:
‘While people understand the change in seasons when it comes to the availability of fruits and vegetables… they see bread more as a staple. People view bread as stability itself.’
The consumer demands consistency, the millers provide the flour which will deliver it, and in turn demand that farmers grow the type of wheat they need to maintain that consistency. This continues even if each part of the chain knows intuitively that the wheat being grown maximises yield at the expense of flavour.
‘… we don’t dictate the rules,’ the baker continues, ‘we obey them.’
He then compares this to the standard consumer approach to wine.
‘If grapes are soaked with rain one year, the wine tastes different, but people don’t reject it for being different… we don’t give that kind of slack to bread.’
Wine is not only allowed to be inconsistent, it revels in it.
Where is whisky in this paradigm? Maybe we could draw a parallel between standard blends and standard loaves, while single cask malts could be more wine-like.
The actual question is: does the future of whisky lie in bread or wine, or can it play in both? Should distillers be looking at flavour-driven barley varieties as well as efficient ones?
This is something which is already happening in beer. Until recently, the brewing industry operated a very similar model to that seen in bread. Consumer demand drove brewers to ask maltsters (and, by extension, farmers) to grow consistent, flavour-light barley.
Now, however, there is demand on the consumers’ part for new flavours. This could mean the brewer asking the maltster for new varieties, who will pass on the question to farmers, who in turn will ask plant breeders for barleys which will deliver a wider spectrum of flavours. This in turn may lead to new, smaller-scale, localised, specialist maltings.
Obey the rules: Bread is seen as ‘stability’, but should whisky be the same?
Nothing will shift, however, unless consumers, writers, bartenders and retailers show that demand exists. Nothing will go into the ground unless all parts of the chain can benefit from it.
The old ways camp’s eyes light up. Might this mean old varieties being revived? Will we see ‘heirloom’ whisky? Perhaps, but again there is a middle way. Research is needed.
Will the flavour delivered in beer distil over? Rather than just replanting old varieties, might there not be more sense in cross-breeding old and new varieties for flavour and conceivably higher yield without compromising quality?
Flavour-led barley will also necessitate a shift in mindset on the part of distillers who see yield as being paramount. Smaller-scale distillers may find this as a way to differentiate themselves, while one batch of low-yielding flavoured barley a year in a large distillery may be all that is needed to give scale and greater momentum. In other words, the two sides of the debate have a part to play if this is to succeed.
This isn’t just theoretical. In Scotland, we have seen (and will see) different roasts of barley being used. The global rise of single malt has also resulted in distillers looking into their own local varieties – witness what’s happening in Japan.
Barber’s chapter on seed includes a long section on Steve Jones and his work in breeding new cereal varieties (including barley) at his Bread Lab research station in Skagit Valley, Washington State.
A new chapter for barley is starting. To grow whisky, you have to start in the soil.
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