It sometimes seems as if many whisky distilleries do not really care about barley. Barley is merely a casual input, something that is considered in terms of yield and efficiencies rather than quality and – dare I speak of it – flavour. Can you imagine the wine industry having such casual disregard for grapes – to say that their prime ingredient doesn’t matter? That they can make whatever wine – they just need some general soft fruit, roughly grape-shaped things, bought on some international grape exchange?
Barley is the key ingredient of whisky. Never mind banging on about casks or stills; barley is the starting point. This is the grain that gives whisky its complexity. Even many commentators in the industry, some who often speak on the behalf of bigger brands, will tell you that barley varieties and quality do not matter. That the different types of this key ingredient of whisky, which comes in many forms and is grown in many different microclimates, has no impact on quality or flavour.
Those people are utterly wrong, of course. Because it does have an impact on flavour.
I think the important thing to keep in mind is not that any one barley variety or soil type is necessarily better than another – merely to realise that barley varieties and the conditions in which they’re grown do very much show a difference in the spirit when distilled. And when you do realise that, you can consider using that information to create great complexities in a single malt. It’s also as if the industry thinks that drinkers don’t care about such things. But if no one cares about barley, why, then, does Springbank’s Local Barley – which is bottled in the many thousands, based on single farm distillation, and this year also utilised the bere barley grain – sell out pretty much within an hour of going on sale?
Indeed, not all distilleries possess a casual mindset towards this prime ingredient. Springbank, as I mentioned, have been looking at this for many years, and Arran too have distilled Bere barley. Bruichladdich, under the influence of Mark Reynier, revived this interest and are still torch-bearers today. Of course, Reynier is now taking barley philosophy into fascinating places at Waterford Distillery. At Waterford they go a step further and scrutinise soil types, geology, microclimates, as well as different varieties, for the influence on the distillate.
Very recently I’ve been to the distillery and tasted two specific samples: same barley variety, grown in two different soil types – one was grown on a loamy, lighter soil, and the other was denser, more clay-like soil. And guess what? The resulting spirits were very different in aromas and texture. You can literally taste that. You can even see the difference. Compare that to some distilling companies that buy their barley on international markets, taking any old grain from anywhere across the world, treating it as all the same, and propagandising that it all tastes the same. (To be fair, given their homogenised, dull, efficiency-seeking production methods, it’s no wonder their new make spirit flatlines too.)
But we come back to Bruichladdich today – one of the pioneering distilleries in this field – to talk about Bere barley.
Bere is an ancient variety, which tends to be used today around Orkney and the Western Isles. It was the grain more likely to have been utilised by distillers in the very early days of distillation. Bere has a lower yield than modern varieties – and generates a lower alcohol yield in distilling – which of course puts the fear of god in distillers who constantly look to make cost savings everywhere. Bere has much longer straw (and height), develops more rapidly than modern varieties (useful during the shorter hours of daylight up north), and has 6-rows of grains in each head. There is a fascinating post on Bruichladdich’s website written by Dr Peter Martin that goes into some detail on how bere barley differs from some of the modern varieties used in distillation today – well worth your time to read.
So let’s look at the Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2008, which was the distilleries third such release. It used barley from Weyland & Watersfield, Richmond Villa, Quoberstane and Northfield farms, Orkney. Bottled at 50% ABV, it costs around £60 or thereabouts.
Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2008 Review
Colour: yellow gold.
On the nose: jasmine and old roses, vanilla, floral honey – exceptionally sweet and fresh. Citrus elements come into play. Tangerines, settling to a strong barley note. Malty. Blackcurrant leaves.
In the mouth: the texture here is divine, so dense and velvety. Wonderful balance between the sweet notes – salted caramel, milk chocolate, vanilla, lemon juice, vanilla – and the cereal, slight huskiness. Digestive biscuits. Apples in golden syrup. Sandalwood. Just enough woodiness and black pepper at the end for warmth. But it is the integration of these flavours, the balance, and that texture, which make it a really tasty, mouth-watering whisky.
It isn’t so much the nose where this comes alive, but in the mouth, with a wonderful floral sweetness, freshness and texture. Notably more tropical to other Laddies. It’s a wonderfully tasty dram and, at £60 about the right price too. If you like lighter style whiskies then there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found here. This is not to say I prefer this to the standard Bruichladdich whiskies, but it is notably sweeter and more floral, and has something a little more charming about it. Like an old garden, where a rose or two has gone wild.
But it isn’t astonishing: that’s not the point of all this barley talk. Merely to acknowledge that this occupies somewhere slightly different on the flavour and intellectual map, which makes for pleasing drinking experiences.