The Green Spot

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Not knowing much about Irish whiskies, I took the opportunity to do a bit of exploring during our trip to Ireland last week. The first dram recommended to me by the friendly bartender at the Porterhouse Temple Bar in Dublin turned out to be my favourite.

For all its mild aroma of soft grain and vanilla, Green Spot Single Pot Still was strong – it had a note of mint and oak, and managed to remain smooth and warm. An excellent introduction to the world of Irish whiskey. green-spot-single-pot-still-whiskey

Irish whiskey is unique in that it is almost always triple-distilled, as opposed to the usual double-distillation process of most single malt Scotch whiskies and bourbons. Another distinctive trait is the Irish use of unmalted barley in addition to the malted barley used in single malt Scotch. Unmalted barley contains less sugar, thus adding less sweetness to the final product.

The ‘Single Pot Still‘ style of whiskey, which originates from a single distillery, is defined by these two elements of triple distillation and the barley mix. Whiskey makers began cutting malted barley with green barley in response to high taxes placed on malt during the 18th century, and the practice held over into the 20th century, even as Irish whiskey’s popularity was overshadowed by blended Scotch whiskies.

Because spirits like single malt Scotch, Irish whiskey and American bourbon are so closely with their place of origin,  I’m always interested in where distillers source their grains and just how ‘local’ the overall production really is.

Cistercian Dunbrody Abbey (1182) beyond Barley Field, County Wexford, Ireland Photo: Artflakes

Cistercian Dunbrody Abbey (1182) beyond Barley Field, County Wexford, Ireland
Photo: Artflakes

In the case of Irish whiskey, at least according to Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, 90% of the malting barley used in the country is locally produced through a local division of Boortmalt, a large European malting company that is a subsidiary of French agricultural cooperative Axereal.

These days, the tasting experience of a local product that feels entirely bound to a specific place – in my case, the delicious Green Spot I had on a warm spring evening, to the sounds of excellent live local music in a Dublin pub – is often the result of a larger network of industry that extends far beyond national borders.

Green Spot is produced for Mitchell & Son of Dublin, by Irish Distillers at the Midleton DistilleryCorkIreland. As far as I can tell, almost all Irish whiskey is produced in three main distilleries: Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley‘s. However, there are plans to open (or re-open) up to sixteen new distilleries in Ireland over the next few years – Irish whiskey is on the rise.

There’s a nice little video on how Green Spot got made here. My favorite quote? Green Spot “isn’t just a whiskey that you throw around and drink at midday…” Indeed.

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Fields near Lough Corrib, Ireland
Photo: PK Read

 

Barley Doors

barley-field-3-lowresWhen one door closes, another door opens, in a quote attributed to Alexander Graham Bell that’s meant to reflect an optimistic perspective on the ebb and flow of opportunity.

In the case of the spring barley intended for Scottish whisky production, a genetic door closing on one pernicious blight unexpectedly led to a door opening on another.

Ramularia effects on leaves Source: Aarhus Institute for Agroecology

Ramularia effects on leaves
Source: Aarhus Institute for Agroecology

For thirty years, the promotion of a specific gene in barley – the mlo gene – has shielded barley crops against what used to be one of the main pests for the crop, powdery mildew fungus, (Blumeria graminis f. sp. hordei). Unfortunately, in recent years it has become apparent that the very same barley gene that works as cell protection also renders barley more vulnerable to a previously minor pest, Ramularia (Ramularia urticae).

Ramularia under the mircroscope

Ramularia under the microscope

Ramularia, a leaf spot blight that damages leaves and makes the plant unable to absorb sunlight, has been responsible for ruining up to ten percent of recent crops.

And so, researchers are heading back to examine older varieties of barley to look for genetic strains that will help increase resistance to Ramularia. After all, barley grown for the whisky industry accounts for over £ 4 billion of the Scottish economy. Shortfalls in local production mean barley is imported for malting.

Image: Loch Lomond Distillery

Image: Loch Lomond Distillery

The study that identified the problem with Ramularia was also interesting because it states that it was the very introduction and success of the mlo gene around the world, combined with changes in the climate, that could have contributed to the sudden strength of the new threat.

“It has struck us that plant breeding relying on the successful use of a single major resistance gene can increase susceptibility to another disease,” said R&D breeder Peter Werner from KWS UK.

Through the use of genetic mapping, the research has already pointed the way towards resolving the Ramularia issue. And now, I suppose, it is just a matter of waiting to see which door closes next, and which door opens.

 

 

Barley Landscapes

Barley field, Palouse, Washington (USA)
Credit: Victor Szalvay

As someone who enjoys single malt whisky, when I think of the malted barley that is at its heart, I have some sort of fuzzy romantic image of it like the one above. Spacious skies, swaying waves of grain, and so on.

But of course, as the world’s fourth most important grain (in terms of cropland and quantity), barley is big business. One of the original cornerstones of human agriculture, barley has been under cultivation for an estimated 10,000 years. These days, it’s used mainly for the production of beer and whisky, but it also, as animal feed and as winter bedding, it underpins the meat and dairy industries.

With the growth of the global whisky market – and the increase in whisky production outside Scotland – the demand for barley for malting purposes has only gone up over the past couple of decades.

Oats, once the main grain crop in Scotland, have long since been displaced by barley cultivation. Still, Scotland has all but reached its limits in arable land available for the barley that would keep the entire production chain within the country, from field to bottle.

Large malting groups negotiate the global barley trade, and as climate change alters temperature zones, seed companies look to develop and promote barley

Landscape of the barley gene space Source: IBSC / Nature

Landscape of the barley gene space
Source: IBSC / Nature

cultivars that can take the heat and still yield up an acceptable amount of alcohol.

And now, the barley genome has been partially sequenced.

A paper published in Nature late last year gave an overview of barley’s innermost workings that provides a roadmap for further development.

The research was produced by the International Barley Sequencing Consortium (IBSC), a collaborative group founded in 2006 with the immediate objective of completing the genomic sequencing of its subject, and the long-term aim of improving global crop security.

Not quite the rustling romance of a barley field under the sun, but the landscape of the barley gene space reveals its own intricate mystery.

And here’s a tune that doesn’t have much to do with barley, but is a good whisky song anyway.

More:

International Barley Sequencing Consortium (IBSC) website with numerous publicly accessible data resources

Nature paper A physical, genetic and functional sequence assembly of the barley genome by The International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium

Chain of Sunshine Supply

Image: Loch Lomond Distillery

Image: Loch Lomond Distillery

It was George Bernard Shaw who called whisky ‘liquid sunshine’. Given the outdoorsy characteristics of two of the three key single malt raw materials, namely barley and water (the third being yeast), sunshine does actually figure in quite heavily. Both at the beginning, and as Shaw said, at the end.

A quarter of all barley produced in the UK comes from Scotland. There are winter and spring crops of barley, but only the low-nitrogen barley of the spring crop is used for whisky. Of the 1.5 million tonnes of barley produced in Scotland in 2011, over half went into the distilling process. Barley varieties are the subject of research and optimization: In 1965, a new kind of barley called Golden Promise replaced older, less tasty varieties. Since then, the advantages of Golden Promise have been augmented by new types that offer higher yields, like Optic and Chariot. As in most products, the fewer the ingredients, the more important the quality of each ingredient will be.

The production chain for Scotch whisky, from field and stream to bottle, is almost uniquely Scottish, and local efforts aim to keep that chain unbroken from beginning to end. When the demand for malting barley is low, Scottish farmers look to other crops (including other distilling crops, like wheat). When the demand is high, more barley is planted. The summer rains of 2012 prompted a rare year of importation when the local barley crop had a lower-than-expected yield. The imports came mostly from the northern UK, with a smidgen from Denmark.

I wonder if, when this whisky comes to market in eleven years, anyone will comment on the slightly different taste due to the unusual south-of-the-border and Danish barley content? Note it for discussion in your tasting calendars for 2024, please.

And here, in anticipation of the 2024 Scotch tasting and in honor of Mr. Shaw’s description of whisky, a slightly different version of You Are My Sunshine: