Flavour and efficiency are not enemies; embrace the evolution of barley, says Dave Broom.
We had been sitting in the terminal, frantically trying to find alternative ways to get to Seattle as the ferry had docked with mechanical problems. It wasn’t looking good.
The options seemed to be: wait until tomorrow and hope; catch a different ferry to Vancouver, then bus it to Seattle; or hire a car in Vancouver; or get the train. I was beginning to feel like I was stuck in a John Candy movie.
Then the announcement came. ‘It’s ok, folks, we’ve had divers down and they found a log stuck in the engine. This has been removed and we are good to go.’
Cue 300 people cheering. It was only once we were under way that we began thinking: ‘Log? Engine? Is this really safe?’ Not the ideal start to the trip, but we were, finally, on the move.
The idea of things being unable to sail along smoothly seemed to echo what we had just left behind in Victoria, with the heavy-handed application of an absurd clause in the law. In fact, ways in which whisky’s potential flow was being stalled had become a theme during the past couple of weeks of my stravaiging in northern climes.
The week before, in Norway, I’d discovered how distilleries were unable to sell their whisky in situ, but only at the state-controlled stores which, in remote locations, could be many hours away.
Whisky makers are constantly working within a world of restrictions. In some cases, it can be positive. Understanding constraints and then enhancing what you have is a fundamental element of creativity, but there are also restrictions which have been imposed by mindset. That's what was now coming into focus a couple of days later when I sat with five glasses of new make in front of me.
Mind-blowing: Five new make samples, four barley varieties, one distillery
The first had a rich, malty, roasted nuttiness with a clean, lightly floral taste; glass two smelled of tomato soup/fruity Italian tomato sugo, with added fat, dark fruits; the third was desert-dry, like corncobs, hay and beansprouts, with a taste of toasted sunflower seeds; the fourth light, sweet and malty; and the final glass floral and lifted, with a zingy, citric, apple flavour.
Nothing that unusual in that, perhaps. Malt whisky is, after all, about singularity. Five distilleries, five different new makes is what you should expect. Single malt Scotch has been built upon distillers’ ability to manipulate the simple ingredients of barley, water and yeast into different shapes.
It’s done by malting (if smoke is being added), mashing, fermentation, reflux, condensing and cut points (we’ll leave yeast out of this for the moment). Tiny tweaks which result in maximum impact.
All of these, however, were from the same distillery, Seattle’s Westland. What’s more, the first two were distilled the same way, the remaining three another way.
Their stark differences in flavour hadn’t started at the distillery, or in the maltings, but in the field. Four of the five were made from different barley varieties (numbers one and four were the same variety, the standard US malting variety Copeland, distilled two different ways).
Of the others, that tomato soup one was the ancient variety Purple Obsidian; the parched desert one was Talisman; the zingy, lifted one was NZ (it was originally named Richard, and then Fritz, which I think were better). All were grown locally.
Here you had one distillery creating a wider range of flavours, not through process, but varietal. Now imagine what other elements could be layered on top of that through roasts, smoke, yeast, distillation – and then oak.
My mind was blown. This was the concept of place, writ deep. Westland’s master distiller Matt Hofmann beamed. ‘You see? Amazing, isn’t it? Now imagine if this philosophy can be extended, and how these varieties could pick up different identities in different microclimates.’
I’ve touched on creating flavour in the field before but, bar tasting bere barley distillate, it has been theoretical. Now, here the potential of a radically expanded palette of whisky flavours had been revealed.
Holistic approach: A flavour-led philosophy can benefit all, says Matt Hofmann
For it to work, however, a series of relationships has to be established. ‘All of these, bar Copland, were rejected by the system, but we knew we had to go for it,’ explained Hofmann. ‘If this idea of new varietals is to build momentum, though, you need partners to make it happen.’
Thankfully there are like-minded individuals working in Washington State’s Skagit Valley. It is where cereal geneticist Stephen Jones established his Bread Lab, which trials thousands of potential new crops, all grown for flavour.
The work done with barley is, in turn, giving local farmers the incentive to plant more profitable malting barley strains, rather than the feed barley which they traditionally planted as part of the rotation system to ensure healthy soil for their main crop – be that tulips or potatoes.
There was an issue, however. Even if you could persuade the farmer to grow the varietal, it still had to be malted – and the systems used by the large maltings were set up to process varieties which germinate within a set time period. None of these varieties fitted those parameters – restrictions emerge once again.
What, though, if you designed a maltings which was at the service of the varietal instead? Enter Skagit Valley Malting and the creation of a flexible process which can be tailored to the specific quirks of each varietal.
Just as whisky production is an interlinked chain, here is a similar level of interdependence from soil to distillery. The restrictions, the ‘we can’t because’ mentality, has been broken and creativity can flow. As Hofmann said: ‘If we think solely how flavour can be expanded and improved and made more compelling through the entire process, then we all benefit.’
Philosophically, creatively, this makes sense. Can it happen in Scotch? Of course it can. The restrictions there aren’t down to legislation, but to mindset and a compartmentalised approach to agriculture and food production which works against true, deep, interdependence.
But we could easily see micro-malting, and different varieties being used, and a new stream of whisky start to flow. The log just needs to be pulled out of the engine.
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Are distilleries sacrificing quality and taste in favour of blander – but more profitable – barley?
Ask the professor 09 April 2018
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From the editors 11 May 2016
An undefined term and a path toward too much choice will complicate an already complex industry.