Holyrood and Heriot-Watt eye old barley varieties for whisky

SCIENTISTS and distillers are investigating which aromas and flavours are produced in whisky by old varieties of barley.

Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University will study at least eight varieties over the next six years.

Chevallier, a variety popular during the 19th century, is among the strains being tested.

The variety fell out of use in favour of imports following the reintroduction of a malt tax, and was overtaken during the 20th century by more productive strains.

Other varieties being studied include Hana, which was used to make the first blond pilsner lager in 1842, and Golden Promise, which became popular during the 1960s.

Calum Holmes, an assistant professor at Heriot-Watt, said: “New varieties of malting barley are developed regularly to improve processability and agronomic traits, and its not uncommon to find some predominate the industry for a period of time.

“However, there’s increasing interest within the malting and distilling industries to explore a role for older barley varieties.

“There’s hope that using these heritage varieties of barley might allow for recovery of favourable aroma characteristics into distillate and some have also displayed potential resilience to stresses that might be expected from in a changing climate.”

Marc Watson, head of spirit operations at Holyrood Distillery, added: “We’re a young distillery and that means we have the freedom to experiment and be playful.

“We decided to try making some mashes and distillations with Chevallier.

“It was fascinating – the first thing we noticed was an oilier mouth texture, it had a great mouth feel.

“We think there are clear sensory differences with using heritage barleys, but we wanted to back it up with science.

“Luckily we have the world-famous Heriot-Watt right here in Edinburgh, and this is the second time we’re working with them.

“Understanding what each heritage barley brings to the flavour, mouth feel and aroma of whisky means we can design incredible drams.

“It’s using innovation to bring back characteristics that have been lost by switching to newer varieties of barley, flavours and aromas that haven’t been present in whisky for decades if not longer.”

Read more news and reviews on Scottish Field’s food and drink pages, in association with Cask & Still magazine.

Plus, don’t miss Blair Bowman’s whisky column in the January issue of Scottish Field magazine.