Barley, water and yeast are the only ingredient in Scotch (colourings aside) but few people whisky drinkers seem to know or care much about it. Barley – a key ingredient in the process of whisky making has never been given the importance it deserves.
The Scottish whisky industry presently consumes an incredible 800,000 tonnes of malting barley a year for whisky distillation and a further 100,000 tonnes for the production of beer, the combined figure is expected to grow by around 20% over the next five years as new distilleries are established, mothballed distilleries spring back to life and existing ones are expanded.
This level of demand means that distilleries are turning to English farmers for barley as they have at least currently exhausted the supply capacity of Scottish Farmers. The HGCA Recommended List 2015 notes that approximately one third of all UK barley production is now used for malting, brewing and distilling. The most popular barley varietals for whisky making are an interplay of considerations based on market demand and of course the drive for profit, farmers want high yields with low pesticide costs whereas distillers are looking for barley with a high starch ratio, meaning more sugar to make alcohol, and a low enough nitrogen ratio to ensure best possible yeast performance.
Other considerations such as where the barley comes from is seemingly more flexible, while Scotch must be made, aged (for at least three years) and bottled in Scotland there is no requirement that the barley be grown in Scotland. While the bulk of barley is currently grown in Scotland, a growing proportion comes from English farmers. That said a number of distilleries such as Bruichladdich take great interest in the origin, soil, climate and terrain of their barley noting that factors such as altitude make a measurable difference to growing rates and yield.
Does Barley Grain Impact Whisky Flavour? In a word yes! Of course the taste of the grain in whisky is not as pronounced as the grape flavour in wine, regardless the flavour profile of whisky does change based on the type of grain and its properties. While the number of distilleries giving emphasis to their barley is comparatively low, on some level you can see that this is already understood by their use of small batch distillation for barley and continuous distillation for other grains. Were the alcohol essentially pure and tasteless distillers would use the continuous still, it can be run constantly, has no need to be changed and generally distills to a higher ABV. It also produces milder less flavoursome spirits. Similarly triple, or quadruple, distillation creates much lighter spirits than standard double distillation.