With over 340 varieties of barley listed on the Scottish Barley database (1) and probably over 100,000 varieties worldwide you’d think there would be plenty of variation in the different types that distillers would use. Well what distillers (or accountants) are really looking for when considering barley is which variety will give the maximum yield. And as new strains are invented that can give better yields then these are usually adopted. Throughout distilling history the type of barley will have changed – from Golden Promise in the 60s and 70s through to Prisma and Chariot in the early 90s with Optic being the leader more recently, although new strains such as Oxbridge and Publican are being used.
Although factors such as distillation and cask ageing are generally acknowledged to influence the flavours of the final product the most, some distillers still look at barley varietals as creating nuances in the flavour profile. Famously distillers like Macallan and Glengoyne have, until recently, kept with the older varieties like Golden Promise as they believe it makes a difference to their whisky.
Perhaps one variety that caught peoples attentions last year was Bere barley. Pronounced “bear”, this variety is considered to be one of Britain’s oldest cereal in continuous commercial cultivation, having been most probably introduced by the Vikings in the 9th Century (2). It is significantly different to most barley used in modern whisky production in that is a six row barley.
Barley can be categorised into one of two groups; two or six row – (i.e. the arrangement of the grains down the ear – either in rows of 2 or rows of 6). Two row barley has a lower protein content than six row and this means a more fermentable sugar content. For this reason two row is favoured by ale and whisky producers.
Whisky would have been made using Bere up to the early 1800s, although there is evidence to suggest that Highland Park were still using it up until 1926. Although Bere had been grown on Orkney (malted at Highland Park) and then distilled at Edradour in 1986, aged and then marketed in 1997 (2) it has only been recently that both Arran and Bruichladdich have made whisky from it.
Arran’s Bere barley was distilled in 2004 and released in 2012 with only 5800 bottles available. The barley gives the whisky aromas of honey and sweet fruits, with ripe apples and oak on the palate that give way to a full bodied spiciness.
Euan Mitchell, managing director of Isle of Arran Distillers, said: “Due largely to lack of availability and difficulties with its cultivation, there are only a few distilleries which use Bere, but it can produce fantastic results and is part of Scotland’s heritage. We’ve worked with Orkney College to help raise the profile of this forgotten crop and offer our customers a taste of pure history with this limited edition malt.” (3)
Bruichladdich also bottled a Bere barley distilled in 2006. Bottled at 50% abv and limited to 7,200 bottles, the whisky is described as “disarming” with a palate that is “succulent” by Master Distiller Jim McEwan.
“In collaboration with the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Agronomy Institute at Orkney College, which provided the bere seed and agronomy advice about the crop, Dunlossit Estate on Islay, always great supporters of the innovative Bruichladdich, rose to the challenge and planted bere at Kynagarry Farm, in fields known as Achaba and Achfad in 2005. These fields had not been cultivated for a century or more, and so were chemical free.”(4)
“Bringing the ancient grain to harvest proved to be a struggle. Wild red deer helped themselves to a lot of the crop…. the grain played havoc with the Victorian milling and mashing machinery at the distillery. The grist was much denser, richer even, than that produced from modern barley.”(4)
Springbank have also used Bere as well, first commissioning a Kintyre farmer to grow 4ha in 2005 and then again in 2012. The barley will be malted in 2013, distilled in May 2013 and then matured for 15 years to be used in 2028 to celebrate Springbank’s 200th year anniversary.
“This year, 2012, we have some 20 acres of Bere barley being grown for us on a farm at Machrihanish, which, in the early part of the 19th century used to be owned and farmed by a member of the Mitchell family, the founders of the Springbank distillery.” (5)
It’s unlikely that Bere will be regularly used to distil. According to Jim McEuan, “it’s a nightmare to work with”, low yields both off the field (50% less that farmers usually expect) and off the stills and it blocks all the machinery. Although it does produce a very distinctive and very fruity spirit with a texture like glycerine and aromas of wild mint, rhubarb, Lemsip and pear drops (2).
(5) Malt Whisky Yearbook 2013 p34 Ian Wisniewski “In search of new flavours”