Locavores and Disruptive Technologies

A recent exchange with woman whisky writer Rachel MacNeill last week about whiskies produced in Austria was based on a misunderstanding. I thought she had been to a tasting of Austrian-produced whiskies, when actually she had been holding a whisky tasting in Austria.

The moment between miscommunication and clarification, though, got me thinking that whisky is the latest Chardonnay, i.e. that popular alcohol known mainly from France that gained enough cachet to become a popular marketing target for development all over the world.

The global demand for whisky has expanded over the past few years, so it’s natural that other people besides the traditionally known producers would want to get involved, driven by passion or business, or both.

Per Capita World Whisky Demand (2009) Source: Master Of Malt

Per Capita World Whisky Demand (2009)
Source: Master Of Malt

In this age of globalization when we often can’t follow the long comet tail of a product’s origins, there’s a cachet to buying locally. New small-batch whisky producers have been springing up around the world over the last few years, many placing a heavy emphasis on their local roots.

Whisky has an image of slow production. It’s bottled time, something to be savored. Mind you, I’m talking about aged sipping whisky here, not the rough stuff meant for doing shots, or destined for mixed drinks.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to me – although this says more about my naivete than whisky production – that there are new whisky producers who have aimed to speed the production process along a faster than the usual multi-year start-up time required of a whisky distillery.

Some small batch distilleries use the straightforward method of using smaller oak casks to increase the surface area of whisky against the oak surface.

One distillery uses a sort of pressure cooker combined with oak wood cuttings to process unaged whiskey bought elsewhere (getting back to the quick Chardonnay trend again), another company has developed a technique of oxidation and ultrasonic waves to process product.

TerrePure by Terressentia Image: Gizmodo

TerrePure by Terressentia
Image: Gizmodo

A couple of quotes from a New York Times article:

“In a matter of weeks, if not less, we have product coming out that rivals 10- to 12-year-olds.”

“Twelve to 18 hours will completely clean 250 gallons of whiskey in a way that is far better than barrel aging.”

So, what is whisky? If it’s simply a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash at less than 190 proof, with the defining characteristic of being stored in wooden containers for some length of time, than whisky is as versatile in its manifestations as beer.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I like trying local stuff, and when I travel, I always try to get a taste of something I can’t get anywhere else. So I would definitely try local whiskies even if they’ve been rushed with what has been called ‘disruptive technologies’. And I am big fan of buying local and supporting small businesses.

But in the end, time rushes by so quickly all on its own without rushing an ageing process. Comparing these fast-forward methods with traditional ageing might persuade newcomers, but I don’t anticipate many long-term whisky fans will be swayed beyond the appeal of trying something novel.

Origin doesn’t matter as much to me if the whisky is good. But in the long run, I’ll probably be sticking with the whiskies that have captured a bit of time in a bottle.

Mortlach 70 Year Old Image: Decanter.com

Mortlach 70 Year Old
Image: Decanter.com

*On a side note, I found this, the Austrian Whisky Association, a group of fourteen distilleries making whisky in Austria. I’m not sure whether they export at all.

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.


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