Much More than Malting Barley

IN

We recently commissioned independent whisky writer Dave Broom to explore some of the current trends which excite us in the single malt world. He’s a well-known voice in the spirits press, author of 14 books, and a leading light in the World Whisky Forum; see more on his website The Whisky Manual.

In the second essay of this three-part series, he looks at “other” cereals being explored by progressive distillers, and the implications for malting and farming.

DB: In 2017, I was approached by five distillers, independently of each other. ‘Can you keep a secret?,’ they all asked. I promised I could. ‘Well… we’re making a Scottish rye whisky, but don’t tell anyone, as we’ll be the first, OK?’ Sworn to secrecy as I was, I couldn’t tell any of them that they were actually part of a group which they knew nothing about. In alphabetical order they were Arbikie, Brewdog (aka Lone Wolf), Bruichladdich, Diageo (which produced rye at its Leven pilot plant in 2015 and subsequently at Teaninich), and Inchdairnie.

The Time is Rye

I did feel somewhat guilty when, one by one, these distillers discovered that their world exclusive was anything but. Cheer up, I told them, surely it’s better to be part of a movement. After all, making a rye whisky (which under current regulations must be called a grain whisky) made sense. There has been a boom in the style internationally, with distinct regional styles emerging. Rye’s punchy spiciness widens the flavour palette of Scotch.

So far, only the Arbikie has been released. Distilled on an Angus farm which has been owned and run by the Stirling family for four generations, it is part of a portfolio which includes gin and vodka – including ‘climate positive’ Nàdar made from peas. Its malt whisky is still to appear.

Arbikie’s approach is, director John Stirling says, a modern interpretation of a time when most of Scotland’s distilleries were farm-based, utilising the cereals which grew – and which were capable of growing – in each location. Barley certainly, but also oats, and rye. This idea of discovering his farm’s potential was also behind Andrew Jones’ decision to plant rye for Bruichladdich at Coull farm on Islay in 2017.  To farmer Andrew, it was a feasibility test of a rotational crop that occupies a field for almost a full year and has the ability to regenerate the soil, enabled by Bruichladdich’s agreement to buy whatever he could harvest.

At the same point, Ian Palmer, MD of Fife distiller Inchdairnie, was also at work with rye, running experiments in malting, mashing regimes, yeast selection and micro-distilling with a  number of specialist firms. His rye was sourced by Muntons, micro-malted in Stowmarket, Suffolk. The mashing regime was worked out by Belgian specialist Meura, while Mauri was commissioned to source a suitable yeast. The initial distillation was run by technical and research service provider, Campden BRI.

The aim, Palmer said at the time, was to show that the flavours produced in distilling are as interesting as flavours of maturation. Rye was an obvious candidate, though its production would be anything but straightforward.

Andrew Jones and his 2017 field of rye, Islay

Rye – The Devil in the Detail

Let’s not kid ourselves here – rye is a bugger to work with. The grain doesn’t have an outer hull and is good at retaining water. It is also high in starches called beta glucans. All of this means that it can turn into something like wallpaper paste in the mashtun, making draining almost impossible. It can also foam like crazy when fermenting, and if the wash is too thick burn in the stills.

Why bother, you ask? Because of the flavour – and also because distillers just love a challenge, although memories of the painful wait for the rye wort to filter through the solid mass in the Bruichladdich mash tun still gives Allan Logan and Adam Hannett nightmares.

Each distiller has found a slightly different way to get around rye’s more challenging qualities – varying the percentage of rye in the mashbill, using barley husks as a filter bed, making a thinner wort, resting the wort at a high temperature, filling washbacks low, or, like Inchdairnie and Teaninich, avoiding the hassle by installing a mash filter.

Rye has been distilled in column (Arbikie), pots (Bruichladdich, Leven, Teaninich), and hybrid stills (Lone Wolf). At Inchdairnie, it was given a second distillation in its ‘Lomond Hills’ still, which has fixed reflux plates in its neck.

Fife Revival

Inchdairnie is quietly establishing itself as a centre of innovation. The spirit for its own releases is made in four styles, using different yeasts and distillation techniques to reflect the characters of each season. There’s another range for third-party sales, while each year an experimental spirit is made. Rye (now a permanent member of the range) was first, then came oats and, last year, a wheat:barley spirit, and a sourmash were produced.

Oat whisky might may seem a tad outré, but the 17th century traveller Martin Martin speaks  of whisky in Lewis (including the famed trestarig and usquebaugh-baul) being made from the  cereal. Oats (and rye) were used in the Caledonian and North British grain distilleries’ mashbill in the 1930s, and possibly later.

Equally, Inchdairnie’s sour-mash might seem a break with tradition, but a version of sour- mashing was used in Scotland in the 18th century, before it was common practise in America. (A version is still used in one Scottish grain distillery.)  Not for the first time, the idea that Scotch has been made in the same way since time immemorial is shown to be untrue. You could make the case that there was greater innovation and a wider range of flavour in the 18th and 19th centuries than there is now.

These new explorations of different cereals and mashbills reflect a new, deeper examination about Scotch, with a growing number of distillers questioning the current orthodoxy. It’s Scotch, but not as we know it.

The mash filters at Inchdairnie, with Stillman John Cherrie

Barley Varieties

Neither is this restricted to different cereals, barley varieties are also being examined. Foremost among these is Bere, which Bruichladdich pioneered in 2004 in partnership with UHI Agronomy Institute in Orkney. Bere plays an important role in whisky’s evolution. A long with small oat (and Shetland cabbage) it is the oldest agricultural plant growing in Scotland and was the sole type of barley used by Highland and Island distillers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

As the industry grew in size, so distillers looked for higher yields – more alcohol per ton of barley – and from the end of the 19th century new varieties began appearing: Plumage Archer, Centurion, Golden Promise, Chariot, Oxbridge, Concerto, Sassy, each one promising easier handling and higher yields. Bere struggled in this new world. By the 1980s, less than 10ha was being grown in Scotland, the bulk of which was on Orkney. Food tradition and a vestigial flavour link to the past had kept it alive. Just.

It was only with the opening of the Agronomy Institute in 2002 that Bere’s revival started, with the building up of seed and then the Bruichladdich partnership. Now the UHI grows 100 tons a year and plantings are increasing, not just on Orkney, but the Western Isles and in the Scottish Borders.

What’s the significance of heritage varieties?

Bere is a landrace – a genetically diverse variety of species which are the result of natural processes rather than breeding. Examining where they grow and prosper gives firstly an understanding of soil and climatic conditions and secondly opens up the intriguing possibility of new barley crosses.  New hybrids would help widen malting barley’s too narrow genetic base, and achieve the holy grail of low inputs, high yields, and flavour.

Inchdairnie is looking at another landrace, Goldthorpe, as well as heritage varieties Bevans-Archer, and Golden Pheasant. Other distillers are looking at varieties such as Centurion, Plumage Archer, Maris Otter, and Nordic varieties Salome, Braga, and Iskra, partly because  of flavour, but also to find varieties which suit specific soil and climate conditions. Scotland’s west coast is very different to its east.

The heritage approach is part of Arbikie’s plan. John Stirling is using old farm records to see what varieties prospered in the past in Angus environment – an advantage of the farm being in the same family for generations.

Alison and Daniel Milne are growing bere, and heritage varieties Scotch Annat, and Scotch Common on their farm in Auchtermuchty out of their belief in flavour-led crops. They are partnering with the cereal research body, the James Hutton Institute. The first batches have just been distilled by Simon and Phil Thompson at their Dornoch distillery [pictured at top of page].

The Thompson brothers are hardly strangers to working with older varieties – their own whisky is made from floor-malted Plumage-Archer and Maris Otter – the reasoning being, Phil tells me, that since there are only a handful of ingredients to play with in whisky, it makes sense to look at barley and yeast for their ability to create different flavour.

They are also willing to take the hit on the lower yields on Bere, Annat, and Common because of the quality of the spirit, its greater textural quality and extended finish. Although the whisky might be slightly more expensive, it will sell, they feel, because of its quality and fascinating backstory.

There is also the fact that the brothers are noted aficionados of old-style whiskies – those dating from the ‘60s back – which they consider to be some of the best ever made. Though they accept consistency was an issue, for them the peaks and the concentration of flavour achieved makes the search worthwhile. If they were to revive the style, it was inevitable that older varieties and different yeasts would have to be used.

There is a sound commercial reasoning behind this. There were 70 distilleries at work in the 1990s. Now there are 140, and the new arrivals need an authentic reason to show why they are different. One way is through grains.

As Simon Thompson pointed out, if every distiller is using the same varieties and same yeast, there are fewer levers to pull in terms of flavour. In his words, exploring the cutting room floor is a wise strategy. It isn’t that there is anything inherently wrong with Concerto barley or distillers’ yeast. ‘They do an excellent job,’ he says. ‘The trouble is everyone is doing the same excellent job.’

While this might not be a model a large distiller could countenance – they and the big brewers need the current supply system to function – it doesn’t negate the fact that it is a valid approach for those smaller producers who want to explore flavour and the possibilities of Scotch. This not a binary decision, it’s simply allowing choice to exist.

Phil Thompson lifts the spent draff, Dornoch

Cue Systemic Change

Distillers and farmers who wish to explore this area are currently stymied by the commodity system which controls barley production. In order for this exploration of cereals and flavour to expand, the supply chain needs to be recalibrated.

Inchdairnie’s Ian Palmer, points out that the current system worked perfectly when all that the industry required was large quantities of the same barley variety. All of it was mixed together, allowing the distillers to be safe in the knowledge that there would be no (or low) variations in how it processed or yielded. Barley was, in his words, homogenised.

Each year, farmers are issued with an approved list of varieties to choose from and though it’s not compulsory to adhere to it, the commoditised system works against any such deviation. This year, for example, out of ten recommended spring barley varieties,  only three have been given full approval for distilling – Laureate, Diablo, and Sassy. Two others, Tungsten and Firefoxx [sic] are being trialed. If the system isn’t set up to be able to process non-approved barley varieties, then there’s no incentive to plant them. Result? Everyone plants the same three varieties.

This model isn’t compatible with the aims of distillers who want to look at provenance, sourcing, and other varieties, some of which will provide different flavours and textures. Palmer is not alone in arguing that parallel supply routes need to be created for those who want to work in these areas.

When you start to examine the system, you see how it’s geared to work for the distiller and how efficiencies have commoditised the market. Any commoditised market is disconnected from the producer of the raw material.

2022-2023 recommended growing list

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farming

What then of the farmer? The distiller needs to be able to sell the whisky, but the farmer needs  a guarantee that growing lower yielding varieties is profitable. Phil Thompson believes that there is a desire on the part of farmers to work outwith the system, but it is a risk to do so. Perhaps, he argues, that rather than looking at how much a ton of barley is worth, distillers should be looking at how much an acre is worth.

This is something which Alison Milne is more than aware of. As she says, the question of flavour isn’t part of the equation when barley is considered. Farmers, she argues, focus on high-yielding varieties, which require more inputs, because of the nature of the system. If the price of barley in real terms hasn’t risen, then the only way a farmer can make money, or break even, is by upping yields thereby restricting the choice of variety and increasing inputs. It would be impossible to survive otherwise. A vicious circle.

For Stirling, the relationship between farmer and distiller is fractured. He describes it as ‘the unashamed pursuit of profit through yield maximisation and cost reduction on the part of the distiller which the farmer has borne the brunt of’. Farmers, he says, are moving to survival mode instead of natural land husbandry.

What was unusual in the days when Bruichladdich first started to name farms and locations on labels is now becoming more common, but for it to become mainstream needs the support of larger producers. This may be on the horizon with Whyte & Mackay’s ‘Grow Scotland’ initiative which aims to establish a network between farmers, maltings, and its distilleries, with the aim of locally sourcing for each of them.

Fettercairn is now working directly with over 180 farmers in East Aberdeenshire, alongside Bairds (Maltsters) and Scotgrain (Seed suppliers). In the North of Scotland, over 60 farmers have joined the scheme. It is  ambitious – can Whyte and Mackay’s Invergordon really run on locally-grown wheat? But it is heartening to see that a change in thinking is underway, and also that it is driven by sustainability. As the firm’s Kieran Healey-Ryder points out, in the future, if carbon targets are to be met, all cereals will have to be grown locally.

Alison Milne

Malting

The final element in this recalibration is the middle part of the chain – malting. Those efficiencies in barley supply drove the building of larger maltings, in turn making it difficult for them to process smaller batches and to break out of a fixed process cycle.

As the NFU’s commercial operations director for number of years, Alison Milne had first-hand experience of this dilemma: brewers and distillers wanting to build a closer relationship with farmers, accentuate provenance, utilise different varieties and species, but not being able to under the system. Even if they were growing ‘unusual’ varieties, where could they be malted?  In 2017, therefore, she and Daniel started Crafty Maltsters.

With a 4-ton drum which combines germinating and kilning, they are malting their own barley as well as some for customers – including organic from Falkland Estate, and Salome for Raasay distillery. They are now at full capacity – but the calls keep coming in. There’s demand, but a lack of capacity.

Ian Palmer is a Crafty Maltsters fan, but with Inchdairnie’s capacity at 2million litres of alcohol per annum it would be impossible for Crafty to supply, reinforcing his argument of the need for a new supply chain for those distillers who want to break free of the homogenised system. Part of this would require more local, and small-scale maltings – or distilleries building their own.

No-one is blaming the maltsters in this. They too are changing. Simpson’s has been awarded B Corp status, Muntons has set up a new supply chain for Inchdairnie to be able to secure barley from its six Fife farmers.

Bruichladdich’s perspective is interesting here. The original decision to use Baird’s in Inverness rather than the local Port Ellen maltings ultimately came down to the Inverness maltings’ flexibility, allowing the distiller to try its experiments with peating levels on Octomore, and smaller- scale batches.

While Baird’s and Crisp continue to find workarounds, it isn’t easy. Some English maltings can supply small batches of specialist varieties, but that further increases a Scotch distillery’s carbon footprint, further demonstrating that the current system is incompatible with the desire on the part of distillers and farmers for greater flexibility.

The need for flavour, the need for it to be profitable for farmers, allied to the need for a wider genetic  base for barley, and the developing of regional-suited varieties, plus the very real need to reduce inputs, all push against the commodity system. Something has to give.

The Future

Are we at the start of a new world for Scotch, with more varieties, more flavours, made by a new parallel chain once again linking farmer, maltings, and distiller? Alison Milne and John Stirling both think so, and not just for the potential commercial benefits, but because of a greater imperative – sustainability and soil health – the same thing which underpinned Andrew Jones’ decision to plant rye.

For a few pennies more a bottle, Stirling claims, the farmer could make a living return from more environmentally-conscious malting barley production. But it requires compromise and willingness to change.

Crafty Maltsters shows that small-scale maltings can work, and Milne is excited about the possibilities. There are many examples already of distillers breaking from the norm, not just the ones here, but Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, Holyrood, Daftmill, Raasay, Nc’nean and Ardnamurchan. Glenmorangie’s new experimental Lighthouse distillery is also addressing these questions directly.

What might, on the face of it, seem to be a purely commercial incentive has shown the need for an examination of the links between agriculture and distilling. There is an ecology at work within whisky, one which has been fragmented. It goes beyond growing for flavour, compelling though that element is. The growing of the crops, be it landraces, oats, or rye, has to benefit the farmer and the land as well as the distiller, maltsters and consumer.

I think back to the distillers not knowing that they were all making rye. There has been a disconnect at that level as well. Bruichladdich pioneered many of these developments, but it is no longer alone. For the industry to evolve, those links need to be reforged – and though it will take time and effort, they can be.

 

Many of the themes explored in Dave’s articles are interrogated in more detail in his new book ‘A Sense of Place’. It is now available for pre-order from Blackwell’s and Waterstones in the UK.

The Stirling's farm at Arbikie

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