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Rediscovering whisky’s heritage grains

Long-lost whisky grain varieties are being resurrected by distillers, bringing exciting flavours into the bottle.

Ask a whisky distiller to tell you where the flavour in whisky comes from, and they’ll likely talk about oak barrels for a while, maybe give you some detail about their stills. Fermentation may come into it. But precious few will talk about the grain, whisky’s humble raw material, too often taken for granted.

That’s because, for the past few decades at least, efficiency has trumped flavour when it comes to whisky grain varieties. Change is afoot, though, as distillers have begun to rediscover long-lost varieties of grain, finding that they not only taste better, but are more sustainable, too.

Rediscovered flavours

For Irish distillery Waterford, the appeal of heritage barley varieties is purely about flavour. ‘We’re natural flavour seekers, so what could be more natural than the flavours created in one’s own landscape,’ says founder Mark Reynier. He realised that barley varieties since the early 1970s were not only genetically similar, but narrow in flavour profile, too. ‘Fifty years of flavour evolution had been wasted.’

Waterford gained access to the Irish Department of Agriculture’s seed bank, where it obtained the seeds of five heritage barley varieties, a 50g sachet of each. The distillery has since released one whisky made from one of these varieties: Hunter. ‘It’s like a real glimpse into a golden age,’ says Reynier. ‘What I find exciting is discovering the long-lost flavours from varieties that grew and evolved from our own Irish terroirs, microclimates and farms.’

It’s certainly not the path of least resistance. ‘The older varieties don’t work well with modern farming methods and fertilisers. We find the old ways, organic and biodynamic farming methods, work much better with these old varieties,’ says Reynier, who also points out that it takes four or five years to grow that 50g sachet of seeds into 50 barrels’ worth. ‘You have to really want to do it.’

In the few years of East London Liquor Co’s existence, the team has experimented with a number of barley varieties, but heritage variety Maris Otter has always stood out. It’s become the primary barley variety used. ‘The benefit is entirely about flavour,’ says founder Alex Wolpert.

‘Maris Otter was big in the 1950s and ’60s, but people realised they could grow grain that was taller with higher yields, so it was discontinued,’ he adds. ‘It’s about the texture and flavour that it gives, with a bready, buttery profile, which is a great base to then add some cask influence – it gives the whisky something pretty special.’

In Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, Holyrood Distillery makes use of a number of heritage barley varieties. ‘They provide us with new flavours that we just don’t get from today’s distilling malts,’ says assistant distillery manager Calum Rae. ‘Each variety has unique characteristics that can drastically change the texture and flavour of our spirit – they give us a really strong, flavourful foundation.’

While its single malt whisky matures, Holyrood has bottled various spirits that give an insight into what its eventual whisky will be like, but also showcase the characteristics of these barley varieties. Its Charmed Circle range consists of two single-varietal spirits, unaged with only water and neutral spirit added. ‘Chevalier and Golden Promise are legendary malts. When you taste both Charmed Circle expressions side by side, they are markedly different, both in flavour and texture,’ says Rae.

Calum Rae, Holyrood Distillery

Rye & corn

In the US, meanwhile, producers are working to revive heritage varieties of rye. Among them is Laura Fields, founder of the Delaware Valley Fields Foundation, who has helped to revive heritage rye variety Rosen. ‘I wasn’t sure what kinds of flavours Rosen would create in a finished whiskey,’ she says. ‘After four years of propagating and replanting the seeds, we were thrilled to see that it was worth all our efforts. We were struck by how much sweeter and more nuanced it was.’

Corn, bourbon’s core component, has a rich array of heritage varieties to explore and resurrect, too. Alan Bishop, head distiller at Spirits of French Lick, has been working with heirloom corn varieties for nearly two decades in Indiana, eventually breeding two strains of his own. ‘The benefits from a flavour standpoint are immense,’ he says. ‘Like most vegetables, we have bred the flavour and character out of most modern corns. Corn could and potentially should be given the same treatment as apples or grapes are in distillation.’

In Kentucky, New Riff Distilling makes use of various heirloom grains, across corn, rye, wheat and barley, for a range of limited-edition whiskies. ‘They deliver different, often superior, aromas and flavours to modern grains. As grains are modernised or developed over the years, they often leave behind elements of flavour that were treasured in the past,’ says co-founder and global brand ambassador Jay Erisman. ‘We’re thrilled to work in this vein, restoring and preserving these flavours in whisky for generations to come.’

Credit: Shaiith Nowak Jacek / Getty Images

Sustainable spirits

Heritage varieties might make better whisky, but John Letts, head of farming and archeo-botanist at The Oxford Artisan Distillery, believes that these grains are beneficial in other ways, too. ‘They bring complexity of flavour to the spirit, and can be grown without agri-chemicals, so in a much more sustainable and carbon-negative way than modern grains,’ he says.

Letts grows populations of heritage grains that are genetically diverse, which provide both ‘resilience and flavour’, he explains, adding that these are better able to deal with poor weather, and can adapt to climate change.

Rae at Holyrood acknowledges these further benefits, too. ‘Environmentally speaking, these varieties are totally natural products. They haven’t been genetically engineered for higher yields – they are as they have always been,’ he says.

‘They are adapted to grow in certain conditions and regions, which means they often require less water, fertilisers and pesticides to ensure a good harvest,’ Rae explains, ‘and some varieties have shown a strong resistance to diseases that affect more modern strains.’

‘They make a great story, but they make even better whiskey,’ adds Fields. ‘And as these grains find success, so does the local grain supply chain, the local farmer, and the soil itself.’ And as Erisman puts it: ‘We are promoting biodiversity and preserving flavours for future generations.’

Five great heritage grain spirits to try

East London Liquor Co Single Malt Whisky


To see what Maris Otter can do, look no further than ELLC’s single malt, made with Norfolk barley and aged in new American oak, ex-bourbon and French oak casks. Light apricot and clementine, sweet puffed oats and a touch of spice. Alcohol 47%

Holyrood Distillery New Make Maris Otter


While we wait for Holyrood’s single malt, the Edinburgh distillery is offering glimpses into the future with its New Make series. A solo performance here from just one of the heritage varieties used, with about a year and a half in a former oloroso hogshead; there’s r—esin alongside raspberry fruit, caramel latte and bitter toffee. Alc 50%

Jeptha Creed Straight Four Grain Bourbon


Heirloom corn variety Bloody Butcher, with its violent red colour and history dating back to the 1800s, is the star of the show here, supported by malted rye, wheat and barley. Not your run-of-the-mill bourbon, this Kentucky-made spirit features notes of waxy sandalwood and herbaceous sage alongside some Malteser-like richness and a spicy, mouthwatering finish. Alc 49%

Oxford Rye Whisky 2018 Harvest


Like previous Oxford Artisan rye releases, this latest is produced from sustainably farmed populations of heritage grain, mainly maslin – rye and wheat grown together – with some malted barley, too. Aged in both American oak casks and former wine barrels, there’s a nutty, shortbread character to this, alongside vanilla, woody spice and a candied sweetness. Alc 50%

Waterford Heritage Hunter


Pioneering Irish distillery Waterford shines a light on the barley used to make its whiskies in a variety of interesting ways, including single-farm bottlings, biodynamic whiskies and more. For this Heritage release, part of its Arcadian Farm Origin range, it has brought the Hunter barley variety back from near-extinction to create a whisky with brisk pine needle and clove leading to juicy, mouthwatering orange, raisin and milk chocolate. Alc 50%

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