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

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Back to the future

13.07.2022 ELEMENT: BARLEY

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.”

Edward Gibbon

HERITAGE: HUNTER

A slightly depressing discovery, within our terroir project, was that though we could undoubtedly prove flavour variation came from terroir – no surprise to many of us, though it needed to be demonstrated – we couldn’t quite attribute flavour variation to barley variety alone.

We wondered why that might be the case. Indeed, for many years we have been questioning these matters.

It was likely that most modern barley varieties – bred for noble aims such as yield and disease resistance, by very clever people – came from similar lineages, and thus shared too much genetic material. Barley being a plant, whisky being agricultural, perhaps as with many other crops that to ensure the world had enough food and drink, flavour may have been forgotten along the way.

So, why not go back in time to find out?

Indeed, the whole point of our Arcadian Barley whiskies is to look back to the old ways in search of greater intensity of flavour. Organic barley. Biodynamic barley. Irish Peated barley. And, finally, Heritage barley.

The heritage barley varieties didn’t exist in recent years. They had vanished from the Irish landscape, their names lingering only on the faded pages of obscure textbooks or uttered on the lips of a farmer with a long memory.

They had curious names like Spratt Archer or Goldthorpe or Old Irish.

What might it be like to taste some of these? It would be to experience flavours in whisky, as our ancestors might have experienced them. It would be like sifting through the sands on an archeological dig, revealing a lost age. How often does one ever get to experience – to ever taste – forgotten flavours?

We began our search. It turned out that there was a unique opportunity to discover – no, to rediscover – an array of historically exotic barleys, and to experience real rarity in whisky.

We were to begin with a variety recommended to us as one of the icons of barley – one that even one or two of our oldest growers recalled with affection. It set the standards for modern malting barley, not just for its malting quality but for its flavour, and it was named after a man who should never have been forgotten.

Its name? Hunter.

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FROM 50 GRAMS TO 50 BARRELS

“I am delighted to hear that you have no objection to our calling our new barley (SAK 17/6) “Hunter” after yourself. I think it is certainly the best malting barley that has come out of Ballinacurra since Spratt Archer 37/3.”

G.P. Jackson, 1959.

Just over sixty years ago, a new barley variety was born. Its parents were the phenomenally-popular, flavoursome and successful Spratt-Archer, and the hardy Scandinavian, Kenia. Their progeny would prove to boast the best characteristics of each; robust in the field and supremely flavoursome in fermentation.

This new variety was Hunter, named for Dr Herbert Hunter in recognition to his enormous contribution to barley breeding at the Cereal Station run by the then Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI) at Ballinacurra, Cork.

It was Hunter himself who had bred Spratt-Archer, a variety that had dominated barley plantings for an unprecedented forty years; surpassed only in flavour and quality by the later raising of Hunter itself.

For a little over 15 years, Hunter was the barley variety for Irish malt, accounting for 75% of Irish malting barley purchases by 1966. A favourite with brewers and distillers for the distinct and intense flavours it imparted.

It wasn’t to last. By the end of the seventies Hunter had been replaced for the usual reasons of yield and pest resistance. The varieties that took its place lacked the distinctive flavour, but made more commercial sense. Eventually, all that was left of Hunter was a 50 gram pack kept by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Bringing these varieties back to life, Jurassic Park style – turning the last few grams saved for storage into enough to sow a farm with – is no small feat. Planted initially in gro-bags in greenhouses, for all the world like tomato plants one would grow at home, they gradually scaled up, micro-harvest by micro-harvest, sped up marginally by the greenhouse conditions.

More than two years after our own project began, Hunter barley was finally available at a scale that we could distil from – Head Brewer Neil remarking on its flavour and quality just as his predecessors of the 1960s once did. Those original 50 grams of seed led eventually to 50 barrels of whisky for us.

For over three years since, single malt whisky from Hunter barley has gently slumbered in a selection of the world’s finest oak, inhaling the marine air of Ballygarran, waiting for Head Distiller Ned to pronounce it ready.

That day is upon us – and boy did that spirit come to life. Hunter barley single malt is reborn. We are delighted to once again share these forgotten and lauded flavours of this remarkable variety with you – a glimpse back in time, a change to experience real rarity in whisky.

We hope that Dr Herbert Hunter would have approved.