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50 Grams to 50 Barrels

23.09.2022 ELEMENT: BARLEY

THE QUEST TO RESURRECT HUNTER

How can one bring back the flavours of the past, to be tasted again in the present?

One of the unusual discoveries — and surprises — of our terroir project, was that the particular two modern varieties used had not seemed to make any meaningful difference to the flavour of the distilled spirit. The spirits certainly spoke eloquently of the different places where they had grown, the terroir, but not of the different  varieties from which they had been made.

Why could that be? 

Asking himself that question, Oregon-based terroir project leader, Dr Dustin Herb, contacted a barley researcher, a colleague, Dr Bill Thomas, from the James Hutton institute in Scotland to unearth more about these two official varieties?’ 

‘He did a deep dive to figure out what all the parents were,’ Dustin says. ‘And he found out that these two varieties are actually within one generation removed from each other: – They share the same genetics. There’s very little difference between them. Sharing one wing, they’re not actual sisters, — but there’s little difference genetically.’

For understandable economic reasons — disease resistance, yield, climate — modern barley varieties have been selected and bred since the early seventies for ever greater efficacy. But none of them bred with flavour as a consideration.

When one peruses old books on the subject, it is easy to see why. The concerns of the dominant malt customer in Ireland for the last century have been consistency, yield, and malting efficiency. And the varieties around at the turn of the 20th century — the likes of Goldthorpe, Standwell, Old Irish — performed poorly in most, if not all, of those respects. What they tasted like was deemed irrelevant; would be deemed irrelevant by anyone not curious enough… and, yes, perhaps obsessive, maybe even mad enough… to go to the time and expense of finding out.

That’s where we came in.

Why not trace back through those old varieties, rediscover those long-lost flavours — perhaps even track down the granddaddy of them all, the original, ancient Irish landrace? We wanted to reacquaint ourselves with the flavours our forefathers experienced – and perhaps we might learn something in the process.

But hunting down heritage barley varieties is harder than one might think. Unlike, say, grapes or apples, very little barley grows wild — at least not here in Ireland. The annual planting of varieties is dictated by an industry-led research committee that informs the maltsters, who in turn pass the permitted seed down to the farmers. We couldn’t simply bowl up to one of our farms and ask if they had a few fields of anything heritage. These barleys, written about in those old books, had quite simply vanished from the Irish landscape.

Minch Malt Senior Agronomist Tom Bryan knew that concealed deep within the Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, there was a seed bank, a repository record of barleys kept for posterity. If the lost barleys of the past were to be found anywhere, it would be there.

‘Seed bank’, as we discovered, was something of a grandiose term. ‘Big grey freezer’ would be nearer the mark. But concealed inside was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of 50 gram sachets, looking for all the world like dehydrated astronaut food. And on each one was the name of a variety of barley. Names lost to Irish agriculture and to the palates of Irish whisky drinkers; Goldthorpe, Old Irish, Spratt-Archer, Hunter. 

This ordinary-looking freezer was like the little village in Asterix the Gaul; the last bastion still holding out against the invasion of genetically similar, identically-flavoured varieties.

FROM 50 GRAMS TO 50 BARRELS

We knew we were looking (literally) at the seeds of the next stage of our quest. But 50 grams — a pack of butter — takes some upscaling to become a quantity we could distil from. Not just at a tiny, curious, micro scale, but at a truly commercial level that would bring these barleys back to the interested public palate.

We decided to start with a variety that some of our most long-in-the-tooth farmers still just about remembered, and spoke of with fondness for its character and flavour: Hunter. First sown in 1959, all but extinct by the late 1970s. 

The return of Hunter began in the humblest of possible ways: grow-bags in a greenhouse. You may have done exactly the same thing with tomato plants. Keeping half back in case of disaster, 25 grams were sown, yielding a harvest of a mighty two kilos. Now the second 25 grams could be sown and the bulking up process repeated over another greenhouse growing season.

After a few more Greenhouse cycles, 25 grams became two kilos became 100 kilos. Together, that gave 200 kilos, finally enough to sow externally at the 10 acre Minch Malt site at Athy, where Hunter was grown in open air for the first time in decades, yielding one metric tonne of seed in 2017.  Finally, we could reap what we had sown.

That one tonne was enough to sow on Minch Malt’s testing fields for experimental new barley varieties (in this case not so ‘new’) at Donoughmore. When harvest came, 44 tonnes of Hunter was brought into our Cathedral of Barley. Finally enough for us to malt and then distil.

The growing hurdles might have been vaulted, but the challenges were far from over. There is a reason heritage varieties vanished from the landscape: they are far, far harder to work with, both for the maltster as for the distillers, than performance-enhancing purpose-bred, barleys of modern times.

‘It’s completely different from the conventionals,’ says Head Brewer Neil. ‘It’s harder for the maltster to work with. The proteins are higher and the grains are much harder. They would have to introduce additional steepings to get moisture in. It’s a longer process. There are germination problems with the grain size, and kilning issues as well.’

‘At milling and mashing, the size of the grain — for all the heritage varieties — is a lot smaller. When you’re comparing the specifications, the friability of the heritage varieties is a lot lower which means they’re a lot harder to mill — they’re like stones! Then with the higher proteins there’s less starch available — your soluble extract is going to be lower, the potential extract is going to be lower.’

Precious cargo transported for malting at our dedicated Boby plant at Minch Malt, finally Hunter made its way to the distillery. The first barley of this variety fermented and put through stills in decades. 

‘For me as the head brewer, the person responsible for looking after it, there were two feelings,’ says Neil. ‘One was very anxious, because obviously it was a very expensive project and it took three years to get the grain to the distillery. And because we’re not at the micro level, we’re at the commercial level, it’s very high-risk.’

‘But on the other side there’s not many brewers who could say they work with varieties like this. So on my side it’s a privilege to be involved in a project like this. There’s a lot of pride in the project.’

More troublesome the barley might have been, but all was worthwhile when we tasted the spirit running off the still. More unctuous, more concentrated in its flavour than modern varieties — a concentration that has opened up enormously during its time in oak, revealing astonishing complexity — it was, like our experiments with biodynamic barley, simply more in every respect.

Filled, as with all of our whiskies, into a cask profile of super-premium French and American oak, we had enough spirit in that year to place fifty barrels of Hunter single malt into our warehouses at coastal Ballygarran. 

Flavours of the past born anew

It has been a long, impatient wait to bring Hunter to the world. But what’s a wait of a few years’ maturation for something that’s been lost for four decades?

There is so much to be found when one looks to the ways of the past, and our distillations of Hunter — along with, later, Goldthorpe, Old Irish and Spratt-Archer – are revealing the tip of a mighty iceberg of flavour. These are real rarities; varieties that, as Neil says, are a privilege to work with and to bring to curious drinkers. A privilege that at one point might well have been thought lost forever. And who knows: with careful development, perhaps we might even breed something new ourselves…

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