Matthew 7:7 Seek & Ye Shall Find

element: Barley / DATE: 16/12/2014

There is a school of thought that says barley makes no difference to the character of a whisky. It has no impact on flavour – and what’s more – there is simply no evidence to prove it does.

Equally, there is no evidence to prove it doesn’t. Yet

This rather disingenuous position, vociferously asserted in direct relation to our own experiences in the subject, is inevitably held by those for whom the economic arguments of greater yields and maximum efficiency are paramount.

The primary requirement of barley cultivars regarded as most suitable for malt whisky distilling, is to maximise the yield of alcohol from a given quantity of malt.

The Scotch Whisky Research Institute, last time they were asked, has never been briefed or funded to explore flavour – only yield and efficiency.

“Process Optimisation” and “Industry Committees” concentrate on efficiency:

“Nowhere in this route to market is there testing of the new spirit character produced with the new variety”, says a spokesman for Diageo

And that’s the crux. If one doesn’t bother to look, one will never find.

For four decades barley varieties have been developed by maltsters and selected by distillers for ever greater yields per acre, improved disease resistance, better litres of alcohol per ton. But not for flavour.



World War II. The selections were made mostly based on the yield per acreage and the carbohydrate yield of the malt, flavour was rarely discussed.

So does one barley variety produce a spirit with different flavours to another variety? The answer is an emphatic yes. It’s merely coincidental, but it’s there all the same – one can ‘nose’ it even in new spirit.

More intriguing still is where the barley is grown. Its interaction with microclimate and soil –  the terroir –  has an even more exciting flavour impact on even the most modern varieties.

Flavour is not a very scientific term. It is subjective, far too imprecise for scientists: it does not compute. But, excusing the double negative, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. One can search for it, extol it, or one can ‘process’ it out.



This diagram illustrates the yields of one field over the course of 170 years.