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Barley variety: Does it make a difference to flavour?

Can you really taste a specific barley variety in a dram? Two of our whisky lecturers, Vic Cameron and Dr Gordon Steele, discuss whether the barley variety used in in the production process impacts the flavour of the final product you drink.

[VIC] Let's talk about barley, then, Gordon. You know, some people are saying that different barley varieties, where it's grown, that's going to impact the flavour and affect the whisky. Do you go along with that view, or do you think think different?

[GORDON] I think the way that it's grown could affect the quality of the whisky, otherwise why would we have a barley specification? If it made no difference, we would just buy the cheapest barley that we could get. We don't do that, we buy the most expensive barley we can get! That is the actual question. So, we buy top of the range barley, free from weeds moles etc etc. So, I think the quality of the barley because it also affects how well it malts and that also affects yields. Variety, I don't think has an effect on that, mainly because the varieties are hardly different from each other.

[VIC]  Well, we were talking about the other day with somebody they're not even cousins, they're brothers and sisters. The new varieties are so close.

[GORDON] Yes and and this is - a slight tangent here -  this is a major threat to the industry which the industry is hardly aware of. As the barley varieties get more and more inbred, you know, come from fewer and fewer parents get more and more alike, genetic variability gets less and less. Effectively, they're just selected on how resistant they are to field diseases. That's essentially what they're select selected on. But, with climate change, the climate is now changing and fluctuating more and these varieties are very vulnerable to that. In fact we've seen it this year, where the harvest this year where we had that very dry, hot spring and was shaping up to be a wet harvest, which hasn't happened, and yields are way down because of that. Because the barley varieties aren't robust enough and it was not that different. So, I can see there's a crunch coming whereas we get less and less variety within the barleys...

[VIC] So, losing genetic diversity.

[GORDON] But, we're facing a more diverse world. A more diverse world and the two are eventually going to crash with each other and we're going to meet years where the barley harvest just isn't adequate.

[VIC] But, then, if the climate's changing and it's not that suitable in Scotland, we'll just go elsewhere and buy the barley. Have you got an issue have you got an issue with that? You know, non-Scottish barley?

[GORDON] No, no because we've always bought from Norfolk and and our high DP malts have come from Scandinavia for use in grain distilling, for instance. So, I'm no great purist in the sense that we have to buy Scottish barley but it's desirable to buy Scottish barley; they're cheaper, they support the local communities, local farmers, that's from where our skills come that we need in distilleries, in maltings etc. So, we need to support that but there's there's nothing intrinsically sacred, if you like, about Scottish barleys. They don't give a particular quality and flavour complexity to the whisky. So I don't think variety is that important. If we were to have to choose - barley is a very diverse crop, we forget how diverse it is because we only ever see... you know, it's grown up in Scandinavia all the way through to semi-desert areas, and they're very diverse, of which we use about that much of the genetic variation. What would be out there in terms of flavour that we don't use, I have no idea, and it's an exciting idea.

[VIC] It might be quite interesting.

[GORDON] It would be very interesting

[VIC] But then, a lot of - you're talking about new varieties - it's kind of driven by; yield for the farmer, yield for the distillery. So, not particularly looking for flavour variances there so that's a bit different.

[GORDON] No, we're not, though they are tested during the selection process as to whether they get recommended for distilling. They are distilled and flavour spectrum is looked at. But, that's really looking for; is it giving us just normal... we're not not looking for anything unusual we're just looking for a normal spectrum of flavour and it is responsible, it does give that cereal note, you know that sort of porridgey, cereal note within the whisky which is important, it needs to be it needs to be there. All distilleries need to change variety from time to time because all varieties disappear, they become agronomically unviable. Particularly disease resistance breaks down over time so we need to change that. So, the industry has always changed varieties and we've always done that successfully. Whether that was, say, Golden Promise, you know

[VIC] That was even before my time!

[GORDON] It was even before my time and that's really saying something! You know, that that was thought to be responsible for certain characters and certain whiskies... those characters weren't lost when they were forced to move on.

[VIC] Yeah, that's true. But I think it was important you spoke about quality of the barley having an impact. I kind of think as well the malt that you make out of the barley and the quality of that malt, the friability, whether it's high or low,  homogeneity and all that kind of thing... I think that's important when you put it into a distillery because it can affect the process and that's going to have an impact on your character. So, in that sense, the barley can impact it.

[GORDON] Yes.

[VIC] In terms of quality and how it affects the process.

[GORDON] Exactly, I agree, say if you take say feed barley or poor quality barley in terms of, through those parameters you were talking talking about, that would force you to change the recipe within the distillery just to get it processed, just to get it through

[VIC] Just to get it through the mashtun, aye.

[GORDON] Otherwise you just get stuck or the fermentation... certainly you would get more fats and oils going through into fermentation, which might be desirable, in fact, some people quite like a sulphury wash coming out of that... depends on what you want. But you would be forced into into making these changes which might not be desirable from that particular distillery's point of view. So, keeping the quality is very important, and that's where I think the flavour changes.

[VIC] I know, as an ex-distillery manager, I would want to mill exactly the same, mash exactly the same, ferment exactly the same, to get that character that you're looking for and that's really helped by having good quality malt, good quality barley. And when that changes, that can impact your process, can impact your flavour. But I never actually saw when you got good quality Optic coming in and then going on a good quality Chariot, then got a good quality Concerto... I didn't see that change the character.

[GORDON] No, no.

[VIC] You know, it was a poorer equivalent, different quality.

[GORDON] Remember there was a variety called Oxbridge which was a perfectly good variety but did need a change in processing. It didn't process the same. It made the same yields, it had a good flavour profile but basically the industry couldn't handle it because - particularly during steeping and mashing - you needed slightly different temperatures and a slightly different steeping regime. Given the way the distilleries are operating, they just couldn't, it meant that it would be longer in the mashtun, effectively.

[VIC] It was quite prone to skinning as well.

[GORDON] Things like that. [VIC] And it wasn't good for malting and it wasn't...

[GORDON] I would disagree with you there, it was good for malting but needed to be malted in a slightly different way! To stop the skinning, to stop the...

[VIC] That's right but a lot of what you're looking for in production management, you want to be consistent,

[GORDON] Exactly

[VIC] so, in that sense, Oxbridge not great to malt but yeah, you're right, you just did it differently. But it was skinnings potential and I remember Oxbridge in the industrial trials: huge yields in the distillery, if you managed to process it right. But, the distillers didn't like it.

[GORDON] Didn't like it and that was the end of it.

[VIC] Death knell.

[GORDON] (laughs) which emphasises just what we're saying, it's the processability. You know, having that top quality barley which allows malt, which allows consistency of processing is the important thing.

[VIC] But it's interesting you talk about barley varieties because they're always improving and we're looking to improve them. Do you think some of the breeding we're doing is causing problems? Because I see bigger, bolder barleys with a bit of skinning is quite often now. And we've rarely bred out all the dormancy and we're starting to get pre-germination. So, in our drive to improve the barleys, I think sometimes we are giving ourselves problems.

[GORDON] We're not giving ourselves seasonal issues, that's driven by the weather. What we have is a long-term problem, we're getting further and further down a blind alley, if you like, and eventually we'll reach the end of that blind alley and we'll get too niche. Distilling varieties will get too niche. And get too just particular and, like any um, like the dodo, going down that that route; it could only, it lost flight,  it could only live on that island! Where is it now?! We need to start building some more robustness, more variety within to our barleys.

[VIC] How do we do that, then when the industry is pushing for yield?

[GORDON] Well, first is recognising the issue. Next is getting it taken on by the breeders and the government laboratories that are responsible for new varieties. The industry pays a huge amount of tax to government, so there's plenty of money available for that sort of support. It's recognising the problem that's the first issue that we have to do. Barley, as you know, is a bit of a poor cousin of rice and wheat when it comes to development.

[VIC] Absolutely. Well, in terms of just the tonnage it's grown.

[GORDON] Yes. But then you look in terms of Scotland, in terms of UK...

[VIC] It's very important for us.

[GORDON] It's absolutely vital.

[VIC] But that recognition, that must surely be industry driven.

[GORDON] Yes.

[VIC] Because I've been part of the process of influencing breeders and being on the Barley Committee and things like that and this is really driven by the industry. Because I've always found the breeders very receptive; "What do you want us to breed out?" "What do you want us to breed in?" "You want to get rid of GN, we'll do that." You know...

[GORDON] So it comes down to the industry recognising that that it's a long-term issue. And we're good at long-term issues because, you know, our distilleries are here for the next hundred years so we should be able to recognise that. So, it's getting that issue.

[VIC] So, do you think the testing system needs to be changed in some kind of way then?

[GORDON] Yes, in the long term, yes it does. It does. At the moment where our testing system is designed for yield and and disease resistance. Essentially that's what it is. But there should be some long-term view taken as to - and this probably needs marketing pull from the companies, say well we will buy it. You know, build a better mousetrap we will buy it - and that will always be better yield. I mean  no one's going to compromise on that no one should be compromising on that. We should take care of this this longer term problem by looking at our genetic strain. In a simple way we did it with GN. We just said, the companies just said: we are not going to buy a GN producing variety because it's a single gene that's responsible, we've worked out how to get rid of that, it can be bred out quite simply, over to you guys...

[VIC] and the breeders very quickly

[GORDON] very quickly did it.

[VIC] got us the Concertos and the Laureates and non-GN's. So, they can do it but but we need to drive it as an industry?

[GORDON] We need to drive it as to say: this is what we're going to do, we're only going to buy if it maintains this or you keep to this breeding program, or whatever the system is that has to be worked out. The structures are there, I mean the disciplines we have to approve varieties and the committees and structures etc are all there, it just needs to be taken on as another longer term objective for those groups.

[VIC] I remember when I started as a young man in the laboratory, we'd do the electrophoresis analysis from the different varieties and there were very clear differences in the genetic makeup, you could see that. I wonder if we did electrophoresis now - not that we'd do it - whether it'd just be exactly the same.

[GORDON] The James Hutton institute over in Invergowrie, they do a lot of that work  and they're pushing down that route but they need financial support for that.  We're not going to get that directly from companies because it's very difficult for companies to invest in barley varieties because they won't see what would be the return on their their investment. But, as I say, there's a big tax take and so it's over government for to solve these market failures.

[VIC] But then at the end of the day you have to persuade the Diageos, the Pernod Ricards that they want to buy this.

[GORDON] Yeah and they will do it because it's a it's a long-term issue. We are in for the long term. We have to secure our supply of barley. And it's a matter of going along and saying well do you want to have years - and we've seen very very close to it, increasingly often, where years have got a bit wobbly - where are we going to have enough? Are we are we going to have enough of that particular quality. Are we going to be able to process this?

[VIC] Well, there's been years when I myself have done a little bit of travelling to source that quality barley that we need to get for the industry. So there have been difficult years. And you think that they're going to come come along more often?

[GORDON] Yeah, I think they are coming along more often. As I say, this year it's been one one of those years which we've just got away by the skin of our teeth. We'll see... it's not in the distillery yet!

[VIC] Well, I would say that's one of the wonderful things but sometimes you can have what looks like a cracking harvest year, you make the malt, it's looking really good, you put it in the distillery and it doesn't perform. And, you have some rubbish looking barley, you scrape it through the maltings and put it in a distillery: 420!

[GORDON] Yes.

[VIC] So, it's quite an interesting organism isn't it?!

[GORDON] It is, it is. And, that's one of the things I love is you can have all the science in the world but then sometimes it just comes and bites you doesn't it?!

[VIC] Absolutely and sometimes, as an industry, you just have to say you know at the end of October/start of November, well, it's gonna be a it's gonna be a hard year.

[GORDON] Yeah and you're throwing back on the skills of the maltsters, on the skills of the distiller, how good are they...

[VIC] and we always get it through, we always get the whisky made, get the new make spirit made ready to mature. So, fascinating subject!

[GORDON] Fascinating, great!

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