It’s been a rather dry summer in Scotland, with some distilleries even reporting water shortages. Without water, there is no whisky, so it’s not surprising to hear that a few distilleries had to suspend production this year. On the face of it, this isn’t good news, but it’s important to remember that none of what is distilled today will be bottled for a few years - possibly decades - as whisky needs to be matured. Even if a little less whisky was made a certain year, it is sometimes possible to use older whiskies from earlier years in a blend or malt if necessary. Besides, not all distilleries operate at full capacity. They may be able to increase production in the autumn if required. In other words, no need to worry about shops and bars running out of whisky just yet.
The dry weather can also be positive. This year’s barley harvest started earlier than usual in the Highlands and I was fortunate enough to join a local farmer in August as he and his team set to work in his first spring barley field of the season. Peter Mackenzie works on Cullisse Farm in Ross-shire which has been run by his family since 1924.
I approached Peter recently about following this year’s harvest and he couldn’t have been more helpful, allowing our team not only to quiz him on all his whisky knowledge but also to jump in the tractor and combine harvester. I immediately felt like a kid again. I must have been 12 the last time I was in my grandad's Massey Ferguson 135. Today’s machines are much more comfortable with climate control, automatic gears, and even GPS tracking. Nonetheless, Peter’s team were quick to point out the long hours. Barley needs to be dry when harvesting (below 15%) so any dry spell results in long hours of harvesting. Culisse Farm has a cereal dryer which can further reduce the moisture content if needed before storage (below 12%). Malting barley does need to be stored as it always enters a dormant period after harvest. It will not be able to germinate for a few weeks, which is essential to start the malting process. Peter explained that this year’s harvest will be stored until next year when it will be sold to distillers and maltsters. Fortunately, under the right conditions, barley can be stored a long time so distillation can take place all year round.
The barley in the particular field we were in will find its way to Glenmorangie Distillery next year. It contained Laureate barley. Other nearby fields were seeded with the newer Sassy variety. There is debate in the industry about whether barley varieties have an impact on whisky taste. Most distillers argue the impact is not noticeable and I think all would agree the impact is a lot smaller than other factors such as the size and shape of stills, maturation, and whether peat is used during the malting process. Barley varieties are patiently developed by plant breeders in the hope of finding new varieties which will offer better yields, stronger straw, and resistance to disease. It can take up to 15 years to develop a new variety and estimates suggest only about 1 in a million new varieties that are grown and assessed eventually become commercially viable.
I remember being told when I joined the industry over 20 years ago that roughly half of all barley used for Scotch whisky production came from Scotland. Nowadays, like in many other industries, there is an increasing push to source local ingredients. Around 90% of barley requirements are now sourced in Scotland.
Peter reckons he will get about 3 tonnes of barley per acre on average. One tonne of barley produces a little over 400 litres of alcohol at 100% abv. It’s less easy to translate into bottles as finished products contain varying levels of water and whisky evaporates during maturation – the older the whisky, the more evaporation and the more barley is needed to produce a bottle.
Of course, barley usually takes the spotlight during harvest season but let’s not forget approximately as much wheat and maize are also needed for grain whisky production (a key component in most blended whiskies). So the next time you are stuck behind a combine harvester on a Highland country road, you may wish to take comfort in the thought that it’s probably on its way to collect cereals to make our favourite spirit.