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What Gives Single Malt Scotch Whisky It’s Flavour? – Part 1 – The Magic Of Barley

Barley is the silent hero of malt scotch whisky. The secret swashbuckler who quietly waits on the sidelines while oak casks steal the limelight. While the influence of oak unequivocally has a massive impact, to fully understand what gives malt scotch whisky it’s flavour we need to go right back to the beginning. And the beginning is barley.

So polish the plough and sharpen your scythe, it’s time to sow the seeds of knowledge as we delve deep into the furrows of malted barley. Over the next five minutes you will discover not only what role barley plays in whisky flavour but also why barley is used to craft single malt scotch whisky, and Crafty Distillery’s unorthodox approach to barley. Now if you’re ready, let’s get started.


Why Is Single Malt Scotch Whisky Made From Barley?

While scotch whisky on the whole can be made from any type of grain (most often wheat, barley or corn), single malt scotch whisky must be made from malted barley alone. The history of barley cultivation in Britain dates back thousands of years, probably to the late Neolithic if not earlier. You may have come across one of the oldest varieties of barley called Bere Barley before. By selecting the most healthy grains to propagate, over the millennia growers have improved the characteristics of the grain to better meet their needs.

It just so happens that wrapped within the shell of these tiny wee seeds lives the building blocks of flavour for malt scotch whisky. The innocuous looking barley grain is in fact a powerhouse of carbohydrates, proteins and incredibly important enzymes. Plus a bunch of more complex-sounding but nonetheless essential components such as lipids and amino acids. Basically all the things a plant needs to get going in life but also, and rather conveniently, what we need to begin making a spirit that tastes somewhat like malt whisky.


Unleashing The Power Of Barley

It’s the carbohydrates within the barley that are the treasure chest for most scotch distillers. Alcohol is made from these carbohydrates (i.e. sugars) one of the bi-products produced when yeast cells consume the sugars during fermentation. So the more sugar content in the grain, the higher the potential yield of alcohol. However, the sugars within the grains are not readily accessible for the hard working yeast cells.

Firstly, the sugars are stuck together to form long chains of starches, which are too much of a mouthful for the tiny yeast cells. Secondly, these starch chains are imbedded within a matrix of protein which will also make them unobtainable if you are a yeast cell. This is where the cunning enzymes come in.

The role of the enzymes in this micro-soirée is to break down the protein matrix to set the starches free. These enzymes are activated at the malting stage, a process of soaking, sprouting and drying the barley. Later on at the mashing stage these enzymes are activated whose job it will be to break apart the long chain starches into smaller sugar molecules ready for the introduction of yeast. Therefore these little workers called enzymes are both crucial and very much sought-after. If the enzyme content is too low within the barley, not all of the sugars will be made available for the yeast cells, which means that not all of the sugars will be converted in alcohol.

Hence, to get the most alcohol yield from the grain, distillers are very keen to use barley that is both high in carbohydrates and also high in enzymes. There are of course other metrics that are considered when determining the suitability of a particular variety of barely for scotch whisky production, but carbs and enzymes are the two biggies.


What Kind Of Barley Is Used To Make Malt Scotch Whisky?

Barley varieties have been modified greatly from the old varieties such as Bere Barley. Even within the last ten years the predicted spirit yield per tonne of barley has increased massively for distillers. As such, new varieties of barley are being developed all the time and a list of suitable varieties is being regularly updated with better performing ones. But how has this happened and what does it all mean for malt scotch whisky?

There’s an area of scotch whisky that you will not often hear being spoken about, and that is barley breeding. Behind the scenes exists an entire industry of barley breeders, who through developing ever more sophisticated ways of crossing varieties of barley, are constantly evolving the grains and creating new varieties with enhanced characteristics. This is a really important aspect of the whisky industry and while it is not all shiny and copper looking, it keeps the wheels on the bus for the following reasons.

Firstly comes sustainability. Barley varieties are being increasingly challenged by additional heat stress from climate change. It is therefore in everyone’s interest to develop more resilient varieties to maintain a sustainable supply chain for malt whisky production. This involves making sure the crops we use will be resistant to climate changes in the future but also minimising how farming such crops negatively impacts the world.

Farming is of course another key area. While distillers have their own requirements for barley characteristics, farmers do too. Hence a balance must be found whereby the farmers can grow sufficient quantities of barley, sustainability and profitably, but also meeting the very particular needs of the distillers. When it comes to distilling many millions of litres of alcohol each year, just a tiny change in the carbohydrate or enzyme levels in the barley can make a significant impact to output. Now how about the main topic – flavour?


What Flavours Does Barley Add To Whisky?

The extent to which different varieties of barley impact flavour, with very few exceptions, is very subtle. Our own master distiller, Craig Rankin, has noted significant variations in aromas from different barley varieties during the mashing process, but this does not seem to translate across to the distilled spirit with the same intensity. But… and here’s a big but… these small nuances all add up when the goal is to push the limits of what is possible.

The important take-away here is that the barley variety itself is much less influential to flavour than other aspects of production like yeast and wood for instance. Barley’s biggest contribution is to provide the actual building blocks of flavour. If we picture whisky flavour in terms of building a house, barley grains provide the bricks with which to build the house whilst other factors such as yeast, fermentation time and distillation, will determine how the house actually looks and feels. The architects if you like.

The main concern for many malt whisky distillers who produce huge quantities of spirit each year is how much alcohol the barley will yield rather than very subtle differences in flavour. However, whisky flavour is a very complex subject that goes far beyond aroma and taste, although these are the common yardsticks for measuring quality. What happens then when we begin to look deeper into flavour?


Barley For Billy – Our Ethos At Crafty Distillery

When Crafty Distillery’s founder, Graham Taylor, and master distiller, Craig Rankin, set sail on this voyage into craft spirits, there was a consistent ethos of challenging convention to see if many small improvements could add up to significantly bigger improvements in the finished product. When it came to barley selection, the same ethos applied.

As Craig began to analyse and test the different varieties of barley, his goal was to find something unique that had a lot to do with VR1 Receptors. What the firkin are VR1 Receptors, you may ask? VR1 is the name given to the Vanilloid Receptors, or as they are sometimes called, the Capsaicin Receptors. These are the gatekeepers of pain within the mouth that tell the brain when something is hot in temperature, or hot in spice, like when we eat chillies.

For our Billy & Co Single Malt Whisky, Craig was interested in how he could create an exceptionally smooth spirit by suppressing these Capsaicin Receptors using amino acids and lipids. Lipids are a broad group of organic compounds that include fats and waxes which, if you recall from earlier, are present within grains of barley. So the question arose for Craig: are all barleys equal and would finding a variety with a high lipid content produce a smoother spirit? However, there were also other key considerations for Craig.

With a spirit-first approach at Crafty Distillery we value the quality of the spirit above ALL else. Maturation in the best quality oak casks will add the icing on the cake but it is the spirit that should be able to stand proud rather than relying on oak casks to hide unpleasant aromas and tastes. So Craig was also looking for a barley variety that would carry nuances, however subtle they may be, over to the new make spirit to raise the bar of quality and taste as high as possible.


Finding The Perfect Barley for Billy & Co Whisky

For the reasons that we’ve discussed, searching for the right variety of barley based on lipid content is an unorthodox approach in the world of scotch whisky. Alcohol yield and also consistency are the standard priorities. One of the advantages of being a spirit-first craft distillery is that we are in a position to be able to prioritise the quality and flavour of the spirit.

We also wanted to respect the provenance of malt scotch whisky. This means only using Scottish barley because that’s how we can encapsulate a spirit that respects the traditions of scotch, all the way down to each grain. It allows us to have greater control through knowing exactly where the barley has come from, plus with the shorter distance the barley must travel, it also enables us to be more sustainable on that front too.

As we discussed earlier, sustainability also plays a big role for us when selecting individual barley varieties. Due to climate change and how diseases that impact barley adapt over time, finding the right variety is a moving goal post. So along with having a high lipid content for a smoother spirit, adding subtle yet important gains with smoothness and boldness of flavours that we could bring forward into the spirit, and being Scottish, we also need a barley that will be a sustainable crop long into the future.


What Gives Scotch Whisky Its Flavour?

By definition scotch malt whisky must have ‘an aroma and taste derived from the raw materials used in its production’. With the permitted raw materials being simply barley, yeast and water it’s easy to understand the importance of barley in this three-way party. For us at Crafty, bringing the character of the raw materials through to the spirit is central to our philosophy.

Beginning with just simple grains of barley, by the time they have been broken down into their component parts, interacted with yeast cells, been distilled into a spirit and matured in a natural oak cask, plotting the impact of each and every variable along that journey is an impossible task and mind-boggling to contemplate. We know from experience that all these small points of difference add up though. Understanding exactly how they all add up remains to some extent a mystery. But this is part of the charm of malt scotch whisky and the reason why it still maintains a degree of magic to this day.

Comments (1)

  • Jennifer on Sep 04, 2023

    Once again thanks so much for this information. I wonder also if pollution and pesticides are having an impact ? With a lot of the ingredients being wild that is as good as it can get and do you source other ingredients organically? Thanks again and great to hear about the team also.

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