Bere barley has been a part of our annual mash bill since 2006, first grown for Bruichladdich in 2005, on Islay. For nearly 16 years, we have remained committed to working with this notoriously difficult, ancient, six row barley. Anyone who has sampled the resulting whisky, whether they become ardent fans or not, will tell you that it offers something different to the flavour spectrum. But that flavour is exceedingly hard won, in more than one respect. One has to ask; is it worth it?
It’s been a long journey. Bere barley grows well on the northern isles, like Orkney, because it grows quickly in poor, sandy soils and ripens early in long hours of summer daylight – 18.5 hours a day on a latitude it shares with parts of Scandinavia and Alaska. Islay is a nearly four degrees south of this and other conditions differ; more on that later.
In the malting process, our partners Bairds go to great lengths changing their malt screening process to accommodate its small grain size. In the mashing, we have been forced to reduce the batch tonnage when the bere comes through because of the way it holds water. Out in the market, in the end, we rely on whisky fans that have an appetite for a niche whisky made from an almost unknown barley varietal. So why do Bruichladdich continue to furrow brows over this awkward grain?
Allan Logan, now Production Director, remembers how it began, as it so often does in Laddieland, with serendipity.
An excited Carl Reavey, friend of and future communications man for the distillery, returned from Orkney full of vim and vigour over this exciting and delicious grain, already used up north in bannocks, beer and even whisky. He sparked the interest of his friend Mark Reynier (then the driving force at Bruichladdich distillery). The prospect of Bruichladdich bere appeared in tandem with the new venture of growing malting barley on Islay.
The distillery was in discussion Islay farmers, and Chloe Randall, then manager of an estate on Islay with three working farms, took up the conversation with the Agronomy Institute in Orkney. Serendipity was involved, as it often seems to be at Bruichladdich, as these discussions were taking place at a time when the Institute was trying to identify new commercial uses for the heritage grain. So the first bere seed was sent down to Dunlossit Estate. Dr Peter Martin from the Agronomy Institute, Orkney, came to visit Islay in 2006 and met with Mark and the Bruichladdich team, and that’s a relationship we maintain to the present day. Some of Peter’s articles on bere are published here >.