Are you curious about the origins of Whisky's natural flavour?

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Where do the flavours of whisky come from?
May 17, 2022 | ELEMENT: barley | editorial | 10 minute read

Are we all about the barley?

It’s a question, or a suggestion, that arises from time to time, and it’s one well worth engaging with.

The simple answer is “yes”. After all, unquestionably, irrefutably even, the flavours of a single malt whisky derive from barley. The same way that the flavours of a cognac derive from grapes, those of a calvados from apples or those of a mezcal from agave. It isn’t rocket science, it is simply that barley is the ingredient. The starting point. If the flavours didn’t derive from barley there would be no point drinking single malt as opposed to any of those other spirits – or indeed any blended whisky, bourbon, rye or simply barrel-aged neutral grain spirit (which would be far cheaper and more straightforward to make).

It is because we are fascinated by barley that we choose the south east of Ireland as the place to make our whisky. Barley thrives in this climate better than anywhere else in the world; it makes complete sense to base ourselves as close as possible to the best ingredients from which we can make our produce.

It is also possible, when proper care is taken, for the specific flavours of the place the barley is grown to express themselves in the plant and the spirit. We’re talking about terroir, the three-dimensional interaction of soil, microclimate and site. We know, for example, that barley grown on the limestone-rich Elton Series yields flavours that our Terroir Specialist Angelita describes as earthy, herbal, dried fruit, barnyardy, whilst the brown earth Clonroche Series prominent in Wexford leads to spirit with marked increases in toastiness, maltiness and cloves. Coastal proximity, altitude, sunshine hours and myriad factors besides will also leave their own impressions in the barley and in the spirit we are able to distil from it.

Of course these flavours are only possible to find if the barley from each Single Farm Origin is kept entirely separate from harvest through to fermentation, distillation and maturation. Without this ability their flavours would be wholly homogenised, like a palette of individual paints all mingled together into one. This is why we call our Cathedral of Barley ‘The Terroir Enabler’. Its capacity to store barley from dozens of individual farms in their own separated bay is the sole reason we are able to make terroir-driven whisky.

So yes – of course we’re about the barley. It is what we make our whisky from. But to think that barley is our sole focus would be misleading. The process of making natural whisky, of bringing barley to its most elevated state, demands the same level of care, attention and – yes – expense at every stage of the process as it does during the growing and harvesting season.

After all, you could give the best ingredients to a rotten cook and watch them ruin all of the grower’s hard work with slapdash technique and shoddy equipment in the kitchen. Our purpose at the distillery is to nurture the barley; to coax the fullest and most natural flavours that we can from our ingredient.

Take our technological trinity, for example, the first steps on our barley’s journey after it has been malted to the particular specifications demanded by that variety, farm and vintage. First our Hydromill, whose anaerobic underwater milling provides completely unoxidised grist for the purest possible expression of barley.


Then the Incremental Mash Converter, delivering optimum enzyme activity for precision of flavour in each Single Farm Origin.


Finally the 54 in-line pneumatic presses of the Mash Filter create the clearest, purest, sweetest wort for fermentation. The technological trinity, unique in the whisky world, gives us the ultimate in terroir extraction. But again, it is not what whisky is all about. 


Fermentation, of course, the next stage, is the most crucial point in unlocking the flavours of barley and establishing the characters with which you will be able to distil. It is heavily underdiscussed, as most of the biggest and most powerful distilleries, for reasons of expense and efficiency, ferment for a mere two days, solely after a quick route to alcohol. But it is through long and – crucially – temperature controlled fermentations that yeast can act most happily on the sugars and yield the most flavour. By fermenting for a week, secondary malolactic fermentation can also take place, offering further length and depth to the wash.


Then distillation – the process by which the flavours induced by fermentation are refined and selected. Run hard and hot, and take a wide spirit cut and you would certainly be able to bottle more whisky, but the quality of flavour and body would suffer immeasurably. Running the stills at a low pressure and a sluggish 400 litres per hour offers unctuousness in the spirit’s body/weight, whilst a penurious middle cut (we forgo a potential 60,000 litres of additional spirit annually) ensures that the collected spirit offers purity, definition and individuality in each Single Farm Origin.


Maturation; goodness knows you hear enough suggestions that it is ‘all about the wood’, or that ’80 per cent of a whisky’s flavour comes from the wood’. Demonstrably untrue, of course, or what would be the point of drinking malt whisky as opposed to anything else that had been in a barrel? Would neutral alcohol, aged in oak, taste the same as a single malt? Certainly not (indeed we have a cask of it in our cellars to prove it). It tastes purely of sweet vanillin, lignin and tannin, with no body, weight, complexity or depth. As though the lights are on but no one is at home.

But certainly the importance of a high quality cask profile is impossible to overstate. This is the first place that distilleries usually look to cut costs – low-quality, industrially made casks and barrels reused long after any potential flavour has been leached cost a fraction the price of premium oak. But since 100% of a barley’s flavour is ameliorated by its time in cask, cutting this corner is fatal to a whisky’s potential quality. Which is why oak is our single greatest expense – accounting for over a third of our entire production cost.


Whisky is a complex drink – indeed, thanks to its ingredient, barley, it is the most complex spirit drink in the world. But its flavours and characteristics cannot be ascribed to one single element of its production, as though by focussing singularly on that element to the detriment of all others one could produce a drink of particular and special character.

It would be very convenient, and a great deal easier, if whisky was all about wood, or all about distillation, or fermentation. But barley-forward, terroir-driven, natural whisky is not as simple as that. It requires focus, control and obsessive attention to detail at every stage of its growth and creation. That is why the resultant whisky stands a chance of being profound.

Great ingredients can be ruined by poor process just as ignoring the quality of ingredient can’t be negated by good work in the distillery. Whisky’s most natural flavours derive from the barley and from the care shown in production. It’s all about everything.

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