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.
I enjoyed the post a lot and I love that your tasting notes avoid what so many others don’t, which is to call out ‘malty’, ‘cereal’ flavours just because the bottle in question makes a point of the grain used. This happens with many reviewers and it seems to me to be auto-suggestion of the most naive kind.
Personally I don’t believe barley variety plays any more than an intellectual part in the flavour of a whisky. Decisions around milling the barley, mashing it, fermenting it and above all distilling it will totally dictate the character of the final whisky, not the variety. A mainstream distiller using Golden Promise is going to make the same-tasting spirit as using Concerto unless they decide to extend fermentation, alter the yeast, or slow down/speed up distillation. Nowhere in the very interesting article by Dr Martin does he contrast the flavour contribution of bere versus modern varieties.
For any barley to be used in whisky making it has to hit certain specifications, criteria that dictate its compatibility further along in the process. Distillers choose barley with nitrogen levels around 1.5%; some daring ones like Springbank might go as dangerously high into their soluble sugars as 1.65% nitrogen. Any further and it might not work with the yeast, or the gravity from the mash tun will be out of spec. Either way you’ve had to change the production methods and this is to suit the troublesome make-up of the barley, not its flavour contribution.
I also believe the wine/grapes, whisky/barley parallel shouldn’t be pushed since wine is not passed through a still to totally alter its chemical and alcoholic character. I have never seen Cognac producers marketing their ugni blanc varieties, which would be a fairer comparison.
I am not an industry apologist and I love bottlings like Benromach Origins, Glenmorangie Tusail, Arran Orkney Barley and Bruichladdich Bere. They are interesting projects, and bring attention to the rich seed cultivation that has taken place over generations. They often taste lovely, too. But am I tasting the barley, or am I tasting the distiller’s process tweaks designed to create a marketable difference in the spirit, made with costly malt that doesn’t produce as much alcohol per tonne, and which wouldn’t emerge otherwise? I want to believe it’s the former – I do! – but I don’t think it is.
Hi James. Thanks for stopping by, and the lengthy comment and barley talk. Great to discuss it.
Personally – relatively fresh from the tasting room – I think one can taste that barley varieties do matter in terms of flavour in new make spirit. Just as much, the soil types that the barley was grown on. The environment and so on. Not to say the things you list do not, also, matter – they all do, very much – but that barley seriously does. Waterford Distillery – where I tasted these different new makes – are going to be working with a US-based university to prove this is an actual fact, and showing the evidence. And, to be honest, five minutes in their sample room will show you this too! The thing is, no one else but Waterford has had the ability to isolate one farm’s barley (keeping everything else equal) to such a traceable extent and demonstrate these differences: to a geek, it’s crazy stuff.
Nitrogen levels all influence it, absolutely – and the protein levels; they have been educating their barley growers on this too, for some of the reasons you point out. (Culturally growing malting barley has been a little different in Ireland than in Scotland or England I believe.)
I think if you can visit the distillery (and it sounds like you’re absolutely the person who would enjoy this intellectually as much as anything else) you most certainly should. As I say, I tasted many different spirits that were all different: varieties, terroirs, and so on. And it was the soil type that astonished me the most. (And the organic barley! Incredibly different. They’re even doing biodynamic barley soon…)
It seems like some time at Waterford would be useful for me, and as a whisky geek I would never turn down such an opportunity! I’d want to sample them blind against controls before making any calls, though, and I’d need to know that absolutely everything else was identical. I’m still not sure this is possible based on the merry hell I’ve witnessed in distilleries when a new batch of malt comes in and the mill has to be dismantled and put back together to accommodate.
I also feel that the relative percentages of nitrogen and proteins to starches are so minute from one variety to another that, after the brutally intensive process of distillation (never mind the wild variations with maturation), any differences will be microscopic – even with all other processes being equal.
What I would love is for distilleries to isolate characters in their wort or wash that they feel comes from, for example, Marris Otter and then adjust cut points and fermentation times to really amplify the Marris Otteriness of the spirit. This would mean they consciously distil differently from one variety to another.
Of course, there is always the possibility that starting off from a fractionally different departure point can lead to a radically different end point. I suppose I just need to have this demonstrated to me – the proof is in the tasting!
Thanks for commenting back.