How much influence does Barley have on the flavour profile of Single Malt Whisky?


I am about to review two Bruichladdich whiskies that both claim to be distinguished not just for the unique single Barley variety used to produce the whiskies, but the actual farms from which the barley came from, namely:
Bruichladdich Organic Scottish Barley
Islay Barley Rockside Farm 2007


Now, I am all for transparency in the Scottish Whisky Industry like knowing the ages of the whiskies in the bottle, the barrel type(s) used to mature the whisky, the PPM peat levels of the mash and whether the whisky has been chill filtered or colouring added.
However, some people might well look at these expressions and think that the whole idea is as ridiculous as producing two single malt whiskies stating that one has come from this water well and the other from this local stream and claim that it makes a difference. Ignore the marketing people who think that quoting water sources on the label is somehow romantic, almost everyone would agree that water, even tap water, as long as it has been filtered to remove fluoride and chlorine, has no influence whatsoever on the flavour of the whisky. The question is, can the same be said for barley varieties?

At Bruichladdich distillery, they have been experimenting and producing whisky from many different types of barley for some time now and they say that you can definitely tell the difference between each variety:
From the Bruichladdich site: “Can you tell the difference between barley varieties?”
“Straight from the still, at zero age, even in this nascent state before the whisky has had a chance to mature, whiskies distilled from different barley varieties are identifiable one from the other.Some of this variation is immediately obvious, even to the novice.
It is relatively easy to detect that Bere barley is different from organic barley which is in turn different from conventionally grown varieties. The differences between this latter group are much more subtle, but they are discernable with practice. An analogy with grape varieties is not exact, but it is useful.
Botanists would in any case dispute the use of the word 'variety' in describing types of both barley and grape - these are really all more properly described as 'cultivars', although, like most people, we continue to use the more familiar word.
To date, Bruichladdich has distilled spirit from 12 varieties of barley and this number will increase as we continue to explore the possibilities of this fascinating grain. Modern varieties are developed primarily to enhance their resistance to disease and improve yields, as well as taste.  To us at Bruichladdich, these flavour differences are an important extra dimension both for the diversity of our maturing stocks and the complexity of our bottlings.”
For the completely opposite view, see this article published in www.scotchwhisky.com by ex-Diageo representative, Vic Cameron.
I am not sure I trust either side to give an objective opinion on this subject seeing as Bruichladdich have invested a lot of money, time and energy into their Barley variety expressions as part of their “We Believe Terroir Matters” project (originally the concept of the former owner, Mark Reynier, now running a distillery in Ireland with the same ideology) they are hardly likely to come out and say , “oh, it was a good experiment but we have come to the conclusion that it’s all a load of nonsense after all…”.
On the other hand, Diageo is all about consistency of product, same flavour, same colour etc., year after year after year…so the mere word “variety” in their lexicon is listed under “See: Evil, nasty, disgusting, sinful, criminal, foul….”. In a follow up piece, there was an editorial where Adam Hannett, Master Distiller at Bruichladdich is extensively quoted which claims the exact opposite:

So, let’s try and uncover the truth in all this.
How much influence does Barley have on the flavour profile of Single Malt Whisky?
Let me begin by stating the obvious: Barley is the main ingredient and the only grain used in the production of Scotch Single Malt Whisky. Despite the fact that quality of barley used is of the utmost importance to the distiller, along with clean water and quality casks, unlike water and wood used for maturation, little is ever spoken about barley.

Two types of barley: two-row and six-row barley.
Two-Row: Plumper grain, less protein and thinner husk and hence more sugar content which can be fermented.
British Barley is almost exclusively two-Row type.
There are two sowing periods. Barley can be sowed during spring and the winter.
Winter Barley-"Cassia Main"

Most barley used for distilling whisky comes from spring barley.
Scotland up to the 18th century, main cereal crop was barley followed by oats and rye. Whisky was made exclusively from barley and distilled on the barley farm itself or in a place nearby the barley fields. In other words, the whisky produced was almost always a single barley type made from a single field or at least several local fields.
Interestingly, many crop surveys refer to the barley crop as “corn” as the word corn is actually a general term for grain, including grains of salt. (This is the reason Salt Beef in America is referred to as “corned beef” having nothing to do with maize but referring to the grains of salt used to mature the meat).
For instance, Martin Martin in 1702 describes the crops grown on the Isle of Lewis: "The corn grown here is barley, oats and rye... Natives brew several sorts of liquors; as common Uisquebaugh, another called Trestarig, id est Aqua Vitae, three times distilled, which is strong and hot; a third sort is four times distilled Uisquebaugh-baul; id est Uisquebaugh...The Trestarig and Uisquebaugh-baul are made of oats".
The History of Barley
Before WWII, most barley was locally sourced with a certain percentage also coming from across the border in England by train. Almost all distilleries from middle Highlands and further south grew a “Common Two-Row” barley variety. Further north and on some western islands in colder harsher climates, distilleries used a more rugged “six-row” barley called “Bere Barley”.

In 1909 there was a move by Scottish farmers to modify the definition of Scotch to include a clause that the barley had to be exclusively sourced in Scotland, after all, isn’t it the main ingredient to Scotch? The attempt did not succeed and today barley grown for the Scotch whisky industry is sourced all over the world, from all over the UK, Europe, America and even further to find the best quality barley.
Research to produce the “best” barley for malting

Only the top graded barley is used for whisky production. Barley quality is measured in terms of its ability to germinate and produce sufficient quantities of starch which is then malted whereby the starch turns into sugar which can then be fermented, then distilled and converted into alcohol. Barley with higher levels of protein contain the least amount of starch. High protein barley is good for animal feed but not for producing whisky. So, scientifically, the higher the starch yield of barley the greater the potential to produce the most sugar which can be turned into the most alcohol per kg of barley.
Up until now, almost all professional specialist maltsters would have told you that starch/sugar/alcohol yield is the only criteria to use for selecting the barley to use for whisky. Malt scientists insisted that the barley variety used or where it was grown has absolutely no influence on the character and flavour of the whisky and anyone who disagrees is talking silly romantic nonsense. Mentioning the barley variety or location of the barley field on the label is simply marketing hyperbole like stating the water source, they say.
Since WWII much research has been made into producing a barley which is resistant to disease, low in protein and high in starch which will yield the most alcohol per volume of grain.
Many different variety mutations, produced through genetics experiments, have been produced, from Archer back in the turn of the 20th century, to Proctor (1950s), Halcyon and the still popular "Golden Promise" (1990s) to Flagon and the latest wonder barlies - Chariot and Optic, each one “improving” on the last in terms of barley yields of alcohol it can produce but no one, at least until very recently, has asked whether these laboratory-manufactured super-varieties have had a negative influence on flavour.
A Change of thought
Barley field in Scotland
Recently however, there has been a fascinating trend, especially amongst the smaller independent distilleries, back to older, more traditional varieties as well as distilling whisky from barley which has been locally sourced. These distillery master blenders claim that fresh locally sourced barley has a considerable impact on the final flavour character of the whisky although, so far there has been little scientific research that compares flavour characters in different barley varieties to back this up.
There are “new age” malt experts who claim to be able to recognise the different barley varieties from blind tasting. Other more traditional experts are very sceptical of this, pointing to the fact that the barley has to be soaked, malted dry, crushed into grist and flour, boiled and mashed for days, fermented with yeast and then distilled twice....and after all that, how could any initial unique barley flavours survive this process all the way to the bottle?
My own opinion and theories.
In my mind, there is absolutely no doubt that barley flavours make up an important part in the flavour profile of a single malt whisky. There is porridge type in Kilchoman, creamy biscuit in Glencadam, sugar puffs sweetness in Benromach, fresh field barley in Bruichladdich and barley and lemon travel sweets in Tomintoul. All of these shows very different but nevertheless definite barley grain based flavour notes.

These different barley flavours might have something to do with barley freshness, that is the amount of time it takes to get the barley from the field and produce green malt then malted barley which is then mashed. Barley which is stored and shipped over long distances before being used might well have lost some of its natural fresh oils and “barleyess”. Moreover, the distilleries that take the trouble to use fresh locally sourced barley or single variety barley will also tend to take more time and thought in producing an overall better product?

Another possibility for the different barley type flavours and mouth feel coming out in the whisky could be due to differences in  mashing methods which include variations in ratios of barley flour to barley course grist. The Jury is still out on this one.

Sources Used:
1. WhiskyScience blog
2. “Malt Whisky – The Complete Guide” by Charles Maclean.
3. An excellent review of "Bruichladdich 2008 Bere Barley Review" on the Youtube channel "The Spirit Safe" by Rob.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFLZ2HRDFLw

 

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