Authentic flavour: the resurgence of heritage grains

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Photo credit: Isle of Raasay Distillery

Whisky-makers are increasingly reviving heritage grains as a way of imbuing new – yet ancient – flavours into their spirits. But is it purely flavour compelling these producers to return to the “old ways”? 

The Isle of Raasay lies just off the coast of Skye. Rugged and barren, it’s not renowned for its rich soils. Among its few signs of settlement is a distillery which lays claim to being Scotland’s first legal one; its shady history purportedly spans centuries of illicit activity.  

“It’s a very wet landscape – not good barley land,” says malting consultant Hugh Alexander when we speak over a phone call from No.3 St James’s Street. Few people are better placed to talk through the complex world of heritage grains.  

Hugh has more than 40 years behind him in the brewing and distilling business, with much of his career dedicated to malting barley on a small scale and examining the quality patterns which emerge from the myriad varieties. Today, his work as a consultant sees him partner with smaller distilleries, sharing his extensive technical knowledge of barley.  

One of his most recent projects involved helping the Isle of Raasay Distillery develop a new spirit, made from heritage grains grown on the island’s unforgiving soil.  

“This was in conjunction with the University of the Highlands and Islands,” he tells me. “We worked with four different varieties of barley which were particularly suited to high latitude. Barley is an unusual plant: it likes poor soil and will happily tolerate cold conditions.”  

He explains that barley originated from the cold, arid Tibetan Plateau. It thrives in Iceland and Greenland – which hinted at its potential to be planted on Raasay.  

“The only barley that grew on Raasay is called Bere,” he continues, “which is now a landrace barley that originated around 6,000 years ago.” 

The team decided to test Icelandic and Scandinavian barleys, to see whether they would thrive on Raasay’s austere, high-altitude terrain. “They grew very well, and they malted very easily,” says Hugh brightly. “I malted the grain for them using the equipment I have in my house. They distilled it and they got something like three casks of spirit.” 

Such low yields are unappealing to most distilleries, which is the central issue around using such heritage grains.  

“Very typically for the old heritage varieties, they don’t give you the same spirit yield.” But Hugh explains that there will always be subtle flavour differences from heritage varieties “that the absolute connoisseur of whiskies will be able to distinguish”.  

What do we mean by “heritage”? 

According to Rob Whitehead, Spirits Buyer at Berry Bros. & Rudd, the term “heritage grains” is open to interpretation, with no standardised definition. Yet it’s generally considered to refer to grains that were used in the production of spirits up to the 1960s and have not been subjected to genetic modification on a commercial scale.  

There is also a distinction to be drawn between landrace grains and heritage varieties. The term “landrace” refers to grains which are considered to have evolved “naturally”, whereas heritage grains are the result of historical crossbreeding at the hands of a farmer.  

One of the most popular heritage varieties is Maris Otter, which is a breed of the Proctor and Pioneer heritage grains. Tracing the lineage back reveals that Maris Otter is descended from six European landrace varieties: Hanna, Gull, Plumage, Irish-Archer, Spratt and Chevalier. These ancient barleys are the parents of other popular heritage varieties, such as Plumage-Archer and Spratt-Archer.  

But the key factor that gives these grains their “heritage” status is the fact that they fell out of mainstream use during the second half of the 20th century.  

“In terms of Scotch whisky, there was a very gentle progression of grains up to the 1950s,” explains Jonny McMillan, Assistant Reserve Spirits Manager at Berry Bros. & Rudd. “These grains would broadly have higher protein and less starch. Starch converts to sugar, which converts to alcohol – so, the higher the starch, the more alcohol you get.  

“Since the 1960s, there has generally been a movement to genetically engineer barleys to be higher in starch, and the difference is quite stark. For instance, a modern barley would give you 410 litres of alcohol per tonne of barley, whereas heritage grains yield more like 310 litres.  

“This doesn’t give distillers much incentive to switch to heritage grains, unless they’re striving for flavour. Because, as most brewers will tell you: the higher the protein, the more flavour you get.” 

Dictionaries of flavour 

This quest for flavour is the key theme that emerges from conversations with distillers working with heritage varieties. Were the whiskies of the past genuinely more flavourful than today’s spirits?  

“If you taste stuff from the 1950s and ’60s, it’s phenomenal,” says Jonny. “The breadth of flavour is massive. If you taste 1960s Bowmore, it’s mind-blowing – simple as that.  

“And that’s the same across all Scotch whiskies from before the 1960s,” he continues. “It’s a different dictionary of flavour. Many of those flavours are lost now, such as a certain tropicality and waxiness. There are just so many differences in texture and flavour.” 

Simon Thompson founded Dornoch Distillery in 2016 with his brother Phil. Here, on the east coast of Sutherland, the brothers work with heritage varieties Maris Otter and Spratt-Archer, amongst others.  

Simon has similar thoughts around flavour: “A lot of variation has been lost, especially when everyone’s working with the same raw materials. When you go further back in time, there was a much greater variation of style between the distilleries. Nowadays, everyone’s moving in the same direction.”  

“When it comes to heritage grains, we’re looking at varieties that were used in the whisky industry at some point in the past – whether it was the predominant strain of its time or used to a lesser extent,” he continues.  

“We’re lucky to have access to older styles of whisky, from the late 1800s to the 1960s. There’s a whole range of flavours which don’t exist in the whisky industry anymore. There are a few things that influence that, and one of the contributing factors is barley variety. So, we’re very happy to go back in time, massively increase our costs and dramatically decrease our yields in order to get greater variation and complexity of flavour.” 

But, in working with a raw ingredient that is so vaguely defined, each distiller has a slightly different idea about the core value of heritage grains. 

For Chris Riesbeck from Westland Distillery in Seattle, the most important quality of a “speciality grain” (as he prefers to call it) is its suitability for the local ecosystem – both literally and figuratively. 

“What we’re looking at, more than anything, is barley with a true sense of place,” he explains, “barley that works well within the confines of the Washington State climate – and barley that is suitable for the farmer, the maltster and the distiller. Most importantly, it’s something that showcases why the Pacific Northwest is such a special place to make single malt whisky.”  

Whether distillers are based in the Highlands, the Hebrides or Washington State, it’s clear that the central qualities of heritage grains are their suitability for local land and their capacity for flavour.  

Simpler times 

But is it purely these qualities that are compelling distillers in increasing numbers to work with heritage grains?  

“There’s this idea of wholesomeness,” suggests Hugh, over our phone call. “We like the idea of going back to an era when agriculture wasn’t so mechanised or industrial. I think we are all in tune with notions of heritage, maybe because it harks back to ‘better times’.” 

“Better times”, presumably, when environmental disaster seemed a distant notion; when pesticide use wasn’t so rife; and when producers worked on a smaller scale, offering more artisanal products that reflected that “sense of place” that Chris alludes to.  

In times of crisis, we turn to the comfort of the past. The old ways of doing things take on new appeal. People are increasingly seeking out products which almost seem to belong to this simpler time. From the Slow Food movement that emerged in Italy in the 1980s, to the resurgence of old technologies during the pandemic, as a society we’re increasingly eschewing the mass-produced in favour of the artisanal.  

“One of the things that has happened – clearly over the last half-century – is that we’ve become more disconnected from the past and from the land,” says Rob Whitehead. 

He reflects on the shift in demographic from rural to urban environments, cutting the tether between community and land; and the internet connecting more people than ever virtually, while reinforcing the sense of distance.  

“Heritage grains taps into those warm, fuzzy feelings where we don’t feel so far removed from the past,” he suggests. “People want to feel like things are real again. Especially with Covid, where we’ve all had to sit in the house and do everything remotely for such a long time. There’s a desire to feel like things actually exist.” 

Hugh hints at a similar sentiment: “The use of heritage grains in the whisky industry very much chimes with today’s world. Malting and brewing will never change.” 

Heritage grains herald the return to a “slower” product – more thoughtful, artisanal and wholesome – in an era of machine-like productivity with a heightened sense of disconnection.  

This quest for authenticity, harking back to a “better time”, is perhaps one of the most important factors driving distillers in increasing numbers to work with heritage grains over commercial varieties – and it’s perfectly in tune with the current zeitgeist.  

Glossary of terms 

Malting  

Malting refers to the process of steeping grains in water and allowing them to bud, a process which converts the starch into sugars. The sugary malt can then be fermented into alcohol.  

Heritage grains  

A tenuous term with differing definitions, yet generally considered to refer to grains which were used in the whisky industry before the 1960s. These grains are generally higher in protein and lower in starch than modern varieties, yielding more flavour but less alcohol. Historically, these grains emerged from the crossbreeding of landrace varieties.  

Landrace grains  

A term referring to ancient varieties of grain which are considered to have evolved “naturally” as a result of adapting to their local environment over time.