Whisky study could give rise to barley ‘vineyards’

A project to determine the perfect grain of barley for distilling whisky could pave the way for barley ‘vineyards’, viewed in much the same way as the world’s wine regions.

BarleyCurrently most distilleries agree that one grain of barley used to distil a whisky is much the same as the next with little impact on the quality of the eventual product.

However that could all change if a study led by Peter Hope, owner of Tasmanian whisky distillery Redlands, and the University of Tasmania is successful in determining the the “ideal” grain of barley for whisky production, as reported by The Australian. 

Should they find it, Hope said he believes it could lead to distillers viewing the world’s barley growing regions in much in the same way as a winemaker regards different wine regions, sourcing barley from only the best growers.

Speaking to The Australian, Hope said: “When you talk to barley farmers, they say their biggest problem is to get the moisture content down to 10%, but that’s it as far as quality is concerned — barley is just barley.”

However this project will analyse which compounds in barley contribute to desirable flavours in whisky, many of which come from the grain.

He added: “They drill down to the molecular level so they can define the volatile aspects that create the flavours you want, whereas at the moment it’s just ‘does it taste good or not’, so if we can identify these compounds in the barley we know it will produce a quality whisky.”

A successful outcome could have huge ramifications for export sales of barley, with Scotch producers currently looking for alternative grains after a recent switch to higher-yielding barleys resulted in a reduction in flavour, Hope said.

“They’ve moved from Gairdner barley, which is what we use in Australia now and makes a malty, flavoursome whisky, to Westminster barley, which generates up to 10% more alcohol but doesn’t have the lovely flavours.”

“If we can identify the flavour attributes and show that they’re definitely in the grain, the potential is enormous,” he said.

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