How Important is the Barley?
Single malt whisky is made from barley, just like Calvados is made from apples and Cognac from grapes. While my journeys to France have taught me much about the importance of agriculture in distillation, Scotland's distillers have never given much glory to their golden grain. Just how important is the barley to the ultimate flavor of a whisky, you ask? It all depends on how much the distillery allows the barley to speak. Is the quality of the apples important to the flavor of a Calvados? Do different types of apples have different flavors? The answer to both questions is "yes" and the more you visit different Calvados distillers, the more you'll see proof of this affirmation. However, the longer that the brandy spends time in a barrel, the more the Calvados becomes about the wood and less about the fruit. Single malt whisky works the same way, but while I've heard single malt producers call a whisky overly-wooded, it was never because the maturation was compromising the natural flavors of the barley.
When single malt whisky is aged in fresh Sherry barrels the richness of that sweet wine usually coats the inherent flavors of the white barley spirit. When it's aged in used Bourbon casks, however, or even refill Sherry butts, we can taste more of the barley itself. That being said, almost every distillery in Scotland is buying their barley from the exact same commercial maltsters, which means that every one of them is using the same base materials (like winemakers all starting from the same grapes). As a distillery, why focus on how unique or fantastic your barley is when it's really no different from everyone else's? Are there even superior types of barley anyway? Barley that, while more expensive to farm, malt, and mill, would result in a far tastier whisky?
Have you ever actually tasted a piece of malted barley? It's sweet, grainy, and mealy, but I never really think that translates over clearly into a whisky. There are a few whiskies that really taste like malted barley, Glen Garioch being one of them. However, where as eau-de-vie producers spend a lifetime trying to capture the essence of a pear, distilling the essential flavors out of barley is a conversation I've never once heard at a distillery. I've never heard Dr. Bill Lumsden say, "You know, David, we were really just trying to pay homage to that great Scottish barley we had at Glenmorangie last year." Single malt whisky has always been about the wood - the vanilla, the sweet sherry, the oak, and the richness that it provides to mellow the alcohol. The barley provides the creamier mouthfeel and texture. Bourbon is the same way. Who's really talking about that awesome crop of corn that came in last Fall and how you can taste it in Buffalo Trace's newest release? It's more of a canvass for the toasted wood.
Barley-specific whiskies are starting to gain notoriety in Scotland, but there have been local barley releases in the past. For the last few decades, Springbank distillery has been making limited releases of whisky using barley from local farmers. They've always been celebrated for their collectability, however, rather than their superior quality. Kilchoman has been releasing "100% Islay" single malt whiskies made from barley grown right next door to the distillery. The result has been exciting and quite different, but no one ever really told us why they tasted the way they did (and maybe we didn't really even care to know!). It was more of a novelty, about being able to say it's entirely Islay, through and through. Bruichladdich has also dabbled in the regional barley experiment with several micro-releases of localized barley expressions. They've been fun, educational, and even tasty and their organic barley whisky has been stabilized into a full-time item.
What totally blew my mind today, however, is the new "Bere" barley release from Bruichladdich - a 2006 vintage, six year old whisky aged in ex-Bourbon wood that has a creamy, full-bodied graininess unlike any other young single malt I have tasted. I sampled it along side the 2006 Islay Barley "Donlossit Farm" release (made and matured in the exact same way) and it was fascinating. Both were delicious, but the Bere barley was simply better in every way. It had an instant charm, a flavor that all whiskies should have, but making it wasn't easy from what I've heard. According to Bruichladdich, Bere barley is an ancient strain that was brought to Islay by Norse vikings back in the 9th century. It's a denser and thicker grain that flourishes in sandy, island soil, but results in crops less than half the size of what's being grown now in Scotland (hence, why no one is using it $$$$$). However, they also claim that Bere barley was used to make the early whiskies from Scotland's origin. They claim it gave their mill one hell of a beating, as well.
The Bere Barley from Bruichladdich will be coming into stock tomorrow (Friday) and we'll be getting every bottle we can get - about 150 total. It is something I think every whisky fan should consider investing in. It will be $70 and I'm going to limit it to one bottle per person so that we make them available to as many people as possible. Not only is this whisky freaking delicious (I'm serious, this is really good single malt whisky that anyone would enjoy), it's an example of what agriculture brings to our beloved booze. While I've waxed poetic about orchards and vineyards when it comes to brandy making, I've never tasted what quality barley can do to a whisky. The question is, however: is the Bere whisky so tasty because of the Bere barley, or was it simply a great batch by Jim McEwan? I want to know more. If this whisky tastes the way it does because of the grain, then I'm all for paying extra in the future to make it this way.
More Bere barley whisky please. I'll front you some cash to get it started.