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Barley Magnified
March 15, 2023 | ELEMENT: barley, life, water | article | 10 minute read

Distillation as amplifier, not destructor

It has been said by some that the process of distillation is destructive when it comes to the particular idiosyncrasies of ingredient and terroir. That the more delicate notes — the distinctiveness — that distinguish one farm or agricultural method from another wouldn’t survive the alleged broil and fury of the still. We feel that this suggestion can be refuted by anyone who has studied the distillation process — or even stepped inside a distillery. That rather than the alleged destructor, distillation is in fact the ultimate magnifying glass on the particular flavours of an individual plant.

WHY SHOULD THIS BE?

To answer that, we ought first to look at the purpose of distillation. This is, of course, the last of many processes in the creation of a spirit’s flavour before it is filled into cask. Before we reach the copper of the stillhouse our palette of flavours has been created by our choice of ingredient — barley — and the three-dimensional impact of soil, site and micro-climate (terroir) upon that ingredient, augmented by the particular vagaries of an individual vintage.

After storage and malting — another process sometimes alleged to be destructive of flavour… yet surely no more so than the careful roasting of single origin coffee beans, which are well known to communicate strong terroir characteristics — our barley makes its way to the distillery. There its flavours are unlocked and preserved by our ‘Technological Trinity’ of the HhydroMmill for anaerobic milling, incremental mash converter for optimal enzyme activity, and mash filter for the clearest worts and total terroir extraction — all this in the name of preservation of the purest flavours of our barley, whilst preparing the wort such that the yeasts can work most effectively upon it.

After storage and malting — another process sometimes alleged to be destructive of flavour… yet surely no more so than the careful roasting of single origin coffee beans, which are well known to communicate strong terroir characteristics — our barley makes its way to the distillery. There its flavours are unlocked and preserved by our ‘Technological Trinity’ of the HydroMill for anaerobic milling, incremental mash converter for optimal enzyme activity, and mash filter for the clearest worts and total terroir extraction — all this in the name of preservation of the purest flavours of our barley, whilst preparing the wort such that the yeasts can work most effectively upon it.

Fermentation then. Now this is where the true breadth of our barley’s flavour potential is revealed. In our case, week-long fermentations, temperature controlled for optimum yeast health and activity, three times the industry norm to allow a full secondary malolactic fermentation to take place, unravelling barley’s full dizzying complexity; augmenting flavours already present in the barley — the more complex the ingredient, the more flavourful the fermented wash. Far from rocket science.

In short, the creation of flavour potential in our spirit all happens before distillation. The ambition is twofold: to eke the most natural flavour from our ingredient and its terroir, and to protect the purity of those flavours as they pass through storage, malting, brewing and fermentation.

Good distillation, therefore, should be the key that ‘locks in’ all this flavour and purity; that preserves it indefinitely as our expression of barley and land. The click of a camera, if you like, on the technicolour picture before us. Whilst also zooming in for the highest, purest definition of those flavours, and ‘fixing’ an unctuous, mouthcoating texture in the spirit.

Critical to this ‘zooming in’ is our middle cut. The point at which we collect our spirit ‘heart’, between the earlier feints — which may contain unpleasant-smelling compounds such as ethyl acetate, acetone and acetaldehyde, and the later fusel oils; undesirable impurities which would indeed mask some of the flavours we are looking to collect and preserve.

The ‘middle cut’ is where the very essence of our barley and its terroir is contained. The real high-definition picture of our ingredient and place. We are therefore especially miserly when it comes to our middle cut, taking a mere c.10% — a floating margin, depending on farm and barley type — eschewing at least 60,000 possible extra litres of whisky every year. Thus distillation should be the ultimate reverence for and capturing of the essence of an ingredient. In our case: barley’s flavour, unlocked by malting, liberated by fermentation … fixed by distillation.

A BARLEY EAU DE VIE

Eau de Vie producers understand this implicitly. After all, they too are looking to capture very specific and well-understood flavours. The taste of such things as apples, pears, raspberries, plums is, after all, perhaps more widely appreciated than the base flavour of barley. And since Eau de Vie distillers are generally not committing their spirit to cask, they have nowhere to hide when it comes to the purity and clarity of their spirit itself.

What’s more, the Eau de Vie distiller is often working with an eye-wateringly low rate of extraction when it comes to their ratio of starting ingredients to final spirit yield. It’s not unheard of for the best distillers to begin with 25-45 kilograms of fruit and only extract a litre of spirit from them. We experience a significant drop-off in yield ourselves when biodynamic or heritage grain goes through the distillery. If there wasn’t a sufficient pay-off in terms of flavour, it simply wouldn’t be worth doing.

LOW AND SLOW

The nub of the case for distillation as ‘destructive’ of flavour is that it inevitably involves the application of heat to the liquid ingredient to separate alcohol from water.

Once again, a useful analogy comes from the world of coffee. Were the barista to simply tip freshly boiled water over the ground beans, they would certainly be scalded, and the resultant cup of coffee would be shorn of many nuances of its terroir, replaced with a scorched, over-toasted flavour and aroma. Yet by careful application of the appropriate temperatures of water, incrementally and at the right times, those flavours are not only preserved, but are enhanced and magnified — such that the discerning drinker can often tell not only the country from which the beans came, but the likely altitude, sometimes to within 100 metres, at which they grew.

The same applies to distillation. Sure, if yield and efficiency were out watchwords we could run the stills hot and hard, taking perhaps a quarter of the time. But like a chef reducing a fine sauce, we prefer a far gentler simmer, distilling a mere 300-400 litres per hour, compared to an industry norm of around 1500. This has the dual effect of also promoting more interaction with the copper of the still; the gently-heated vapours have more of a struggle to make it over the lyne arm, falling back into the liquid of the pot still, stripped of impurities by the copper; rectified over and over again until finally floating over the lyne arm and condensing as spirit trickling into our spirit safe.

Of course, just as a chef in a rush could make a thinner, poorer sauce more quickly by hurrying it along and overheating, so a distiller could capture more spirit in far less time by filling the pot to capacity and whacking the heat up. But that won’t wash in our kitchen.

COMMON SENSES

When it comes to distillation, one size certainly doesn’t fit all. From farm to farm, variety to variety and agricultural method to agricultural method, each distillation is entirely individual — even varying depending on the time of year the spirit runs through.

Cutting-edge technology and mechanisation certainly gives us greater control over the act of distillation itself; temperature, pace and pressure control, for instance. But when it comes to the incredibly precise points at which to cut from foreshots to hearts and again from hearts to feints, there is no subject for the human nose.

Even without tasting — tasting, at certain points of the distillation, would be actively dangerous — it is obvious to any nose when there are still impurities in the spirit, and when the clean, clear flavours we’re looking to capture are coming through. Hence that ‘floating margin’ for our middle cut; the decision actually coming down to the nose and palate of the distillation team. Were we to work with specifically ‘fixed’ points operation would certainly be easier — less time required watching and tasting — but certain levels of impurities would inevitably find their way into the collected spirit.

THE POINT OF SINGLE MALT

There’s a famous quote from Michaelangelo in which he describes the act of sculpture as cutting away anything that isn’t the subject. That’s not a bad way to view distillation.

We are specifically interested in capturing the essence of barley, and in the place that it grew. Coaxing those flavours through brewing and fermentation from the raw substrate, grown with as much care as the farmer can muster. Then, via distillation, bringing those flavours to their clearest, most defined and heightened state, ‘cutting away’ all impurities as we go, so that the natural flavours and aromas of the barley are all that are left.

It’s common within whisky circles to hear terms like ‘distillery or distillate character’. Whilst we don’t deny the importance or impact of process, like distillers of the best Eau de Vie, we are primarily interested in ingredient character, and in preserving it as purely and as reverently as we can via the tools available to us at the distillery — ‘the Facilitator’.

When you taste a Waterford Whisky, we want to put you in the barley field. We want the spirit to evoke the very essence of salt-lashed Bannow Island or lush, fertile Ballymorgan. We want to give you the purest possible impression of the incremental flavour increases we see in Organic or Biodynamic agriculture, and the specificity and idiosyncrasy we find in Heritage varieties such as Hunter or Goldthorpe or Old Irish. Above all we want to remind you that — like all great drinks — single malt whisky ultimately is, or should be viewed as, agricultural produce, not industrial product.

Barley is what distinguishes single malt from any other spirit. It is what makes single malt the most flavour-complex spirit in the world. Imagine what a shame it would be if distillation truly did eradicate all that complexity and character. Thankfully, when one takes care in one’s process, we find that quite the opposite is true.

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