Every year, we launch new Barley Exploration vintages, which prompts us to reflect on this still unconventional aspect of our whisky making. In 2001, we entered into the whisky industry as mavericks, noisy rebels who upset the status quo of the staid world of Scotch. But what did we oppose in the industry, and why? What were the circumstances we found ourselves in?
Complete Disconnection with Barley
Times have changed since 2001. The notion of provenance is widely accepted within the ‘craft’ spirit sector today. But hark back a bit and you’ll find that the priorities of modern Scotch whisky production were very different. Instead of celebrating differences in barley type and origin, the grain was simply purchased on the open market. The main requirement was not a question of flavour profile, but of yield of alcohol per tonne. Nobody cared where it came from, who grew it, or even when it was grown. To the Scotch whisky industry, barley was just a commodity, a raw material to be obtained as cheaply as possible – only subject to scientific analysis by men in laboratories who would strive to squeeze the last drop of ‘value’ from one of the world’s most flavour-complex grains.
Our solution to this state of affairs was to build a network of likeminded people who would join us on our obsessive journey. Perhaps the most pivotal decision made on this journey was to work with Bairds of Inverness, a maltster who was as committed to delivering our dreams of provenance and traceability as we were ourselves. They took on the challenge of tracing barley parcel by parcel from farm, to maltings and on to our distillery. They have been a fundamental part in Bruichladdich’s barley journey.
Over-Reliance on Maturation
With such a disconnection to a primary raw ingredient, it is no surprise that the industry became over reliant on cask influence for providing flavour. A common misconception oft quoted in single malt circles is that 70% of all single malt flavour is contributed by the cask, by the wood type, and the previous alcohol held within. Well, only if you let it! The fundamental aim of the big industrialised whisky companies was to produce a ubiquitous, homogenised, standardised product that the consumer would recognise wherever they were in the world. We flipped this round to ensure that the effort that went into growing barley would be tasted even after maturation, using good quality wood that would balance well with the cereal. Cask selection, along with ageing, is undoubtedly an important part in whisky making, but it is far from the only place where flavour is created. Instead of aiming for consistency, we aimed for harmony between barley and cask; celebrating each distillate, each vintage, each growing season, and the vibrancy of youth.