The adventurous distiller

The adventurous distiller

As the American craft movement gathers pace, we look at some of the alternative grains it is using

Production | 01 Jun 2012 | Issue 104

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While the Scotch whisky industry continues to use malted barley, other distillers across the globe are finding themselves less beholden to the traditional grain and are branching out; with some stunning results.

Whisky Magazine asked Corsair distiller Darek Bell, author of Alt Whiskies and all round experimenter in alternative grains, to give us his take on what is out there and what makes a decent spirit; Gavin D. Smith also looks at what is happening with corn and rye. Elsewhere we report from both sides of the barley debate, with Neil Ridley talking to Diageo's grain buyer and Neil Wilson speaking to a barley farmer.

Why alt grains?

Darek Bell

Currently the vast majority of whisky (and beer) is made with four grains: barley, wheat, rye and corn. There are other interesting grains, some old, even ancient, and some new grains that distillers should consider if they want to expand whisky’s horizons. This may be for reasons of taste, practicality, cost, or even for sustainable reasons. When creating a new whisky recipe, or modifying an old one, these grains give more options to the distiller in terms of the final spirit. Some grains have been used in alcoholic beverage production in other cultures, like buckwheat, millet, and job’s tears, but not commercially in western culture.

Let’s look at a couple of potential alt grains in detail:


Oats were the predominant brewing cereal in the middle ages, but have now lost their significance. Oats have a long history in brewing beer, yet are virtually nonexistent in the history of distilling for whisky. Why?Whisky is distilled beer. To a distiller, beer is simply whisky that has not reached its true potential. The better the beer, the better the whisky right? Oats have high protein, lipids, fats, and gums that change the mouthfeel of the whisky and add a pleasant oatmeal like sweetness, though it is much more subtle than the mash. Oats are also extremely economical and readily available. When distilling, we never know what is going to come over, and what is not, in distillation. We were surprised when some of the creamy body came across in the distillate just like an oatmeal stout beer.


Sorghum, often called Milo, is a type of grass that produces both a sap that can be made into a sweet syrup, and a grain. It is the only plant I know of with the potential to make both a rum, from the sap, and a whisky, from the grain. It has been studied as a potentially important crop for fuel ethanol. This grain tends to be cheap, easy to source, and fairly easy to work with. When malted it has a much lower diastatic power than barley, so it needs to get its enzymes from somewhere else.


Millet is a small seeded cereal species grown all over the world for food. It grows well in difficult environments and is extremely resistant to drought, making this an excellent survival food if a main crop failed. In my native Tennessee, there is an oral history of moonshiners using millet when the corn crop was lost. Millet was usually planted by hunters to attract waterfowl, but it also was appreciated for its hardiness and flavour. Many of these old timers believed this was a superior moonshine, smoother than corn. It can be difficult to work with, which may explain why it has never been commercially used in distilled spirits production in North America. Millets are traditionally important grains used in brewing millet beer in some cultures, for instance in many African cultures. Millet is an easiest grains to source and is quite inexpensive, but one of the most frustrating to mill, due to its small size. It could only be found unmalted until recently, the Colorodo Malting Company, a micromalting company, has started making and selling malted millet for local breweries.


Quinoa is a grain from the Andean region of South America grown. It was first cultivated there about 7000 years ago. Historically it was used to make chicha, an undistilled, fermented beverage with a low alcohol content. Quinoa is actually is more closely related to beets and spinach than other cereal grains. Quinoa adds an earthy and nutty flavour to whisky. Quinoa can be bought as either red, black, or white seeds. The red and black have more character, but are harder to source. It can more easily than other alt grains be found malted, as it germinates easily and quickly. Like corn, it requires a cereal mash, or boil step, making for a longer mash day.

Of the alternative grain whiskies we have made at Corsair, this one generates the best feedback in terms of taste.


Spelt is an ancient relative of modern wheat that has been grown since the bronze age. It has a nutty flavour that has seen its revival amongst health food advocates and has dramatically increased in popularity in the past two decades. When malted, it is similar to wheat in terms of ability to convert starches to sugar. It has less gluten than wheat and less viscosity.

It’s taste in whisky is similar to wheat with more of an earthy, toasted bread smell.


Buckwheat has been used in several craft beers and some Japanese shochu, but not in whisky making. This is a shame because it adds a great nutty flavour that is quite distinctive. The taste is somewhat similar to pistachios when roasted. Buckwheat can be malted easily, but has significantly lower enzymes for starch conversion than barley, usually less than a third. Buckwheat is gluten free, and thus important for people who are gluten intolerant.


Triticale is a new grain variety created by crossing certain species of wheat and rye to create a grain with the hardiness of rye and the yields of wheat. Malted triticale is similar to malted rye and has been identified as a grain with great promise for the brewing and distilling industry. Unmalted triticale has high diastatic power and a very low gelatinisation temperature. Triticale can mash without prior boiling. In terms of taste, it does have the spicy character of rye but is less pronounced. This is a fascinating grain with a lot of potential.

Blue Corn

Blue corn is prized in making corn chips due to its superior taste. Bourbon made with blue corn instead of the standard flint corn has a richer, nuttier flavour profile. The spirit just has more character. Blue corn can be more difficult to brew as it is higher in oil and protein. It is always strange mashing it as the mash turns bright purple, sort of an eggplant colour. A Bourbon is by definition 51 per cent or more corn. When experimenting with this whisky style, this is typically a huge limitation in creating new recipes. Blue corn Bourbon makes for a different taste profile while still being true to Bourbon.

One grain I have not been able to get my hands on, but has a lot of potential for distillers is tritordeum. This very new grain is a cross between wheat and barley and has one extremely exciting characteristic. It has a higher diastatic power, meaning the enzymes to convert starch, than barley. In fact it has the highest diastatic power of any cereal grain currently being considered for beer production. Why is this important? Well, let’s say you wanted to make Bourbon with as much corn as possible to push the corn taste, but did not want to use artificial enzymes. You could use a lot less tritordeum than barley to convert the corn starches allowing you to push the amount of corn in the whisky’s mash bill.

It can be difficult to source many of these grains, which explains why distillers have not embraced them. Finding them in malted format is even harder. Several micro malting companies have introduced malted versions of these grains. Rebel Malting in Nevada offers malted millet, emmer wheat, and buckwheat. Valley Malt has a smoked triticale, and the Colorado Malting Company makes malted millet, teff, quinoa, and buckwheat.


Alt grains work best in concert, rather than alone in my experience. Corsair recently had the honour of winning the top award at the American Distilling Institute’s competition with “Grainiac,” a nine grain Bourbon. This Bourbon pulled together many previous experiments with grains resulting in a very complicated Bourbon using corn, rye, wheat, barley, buckwheat, triticale, spelt, oats, and quinoa. This is where I think alt grains work best, in complementing each other. Just as master blenders add small amounts of different whiskies to add different notes of flavour, by using grains in small amounts the sum was greater than the parts. It benefited from the mouthfeel of the buckwheat and oats, and the nutty and earthy character of the quinoa, spelt, and triticale.

Alternative types of barley, wheat, and rye

Beyond exotic grains like quinoa and buckwheat, there are versions of the standard malts most distillers never use. If you look at the types of malted barley most brewers use when making a new beer, they have over 70 different types of malt at their disposal. Most distillers however, just use plain 2-row barley. This is a shame as there are some great malts which can really add a lot to a whisky. Chocolate malt adds a rich coffee like cocoa flavour. Caramel 120 add some great roasted caramel flavour with hints of burnt sugar and raisins. Caramel 60 adds toffee flavours which pair nicely with the char of the barrel. Unmalted, roasted barley adds toasted, biscuit, and sourdough flavours to the whisky. Honey malt adds a sweet honey like smell. Chocolate wheat and chocolate rye also add strong toffee like and chocolate flavours. Distillers have typically not used these as they have a lower yield, but it does not take much of some of these malts to add extra flavour.

In writing the book, Alt Whiskeys, I was amazed at how little it took to make an alternative whisky, as whisky is very traditional, rigid and historically does not always have an open mind to new things. Certain types of whisky have their own strict rules, like Bourbon being 51 per cent or more corn. If whisky is going to keep attracting new drinkers and lure fans from other beverages, like beer and wine, using alternative grains or malts not typically used is a way to expand the horizons of whisky. New whiskies with new flavours and character will only be good for whisky making as a whole, and lead to new and innovative styles of whisky.

Grains of truth

Neil Ridley

As insignificant as it may seem, how many of us actually think about what goes into making our favourite drams, as they effortlessly slip down our throats, filling us with satisfaction and flavour?

Thought so. While we’re all used to seeing the heaps of high praise when it comes to the importance of wood maturation, (see last month’s issue for the full sermon) the ‘holy trinity’ of whisky production, i.e. the core building blocks of water, yeast and of course, malted barley seldom get any where near the column inches or attention. Consider them the unloved, (but essential) supporting actors to the overpaid, egotistical lead, which is maturation.

But is this because we don’t fully understand the complex chemical processes that go into malting and fermenting, or more the case that it isn’t perhaps as glamorous a subject to anyone other than the most extreme Trainspotter types?

Well, to some, including Carol J. Inch, barley operations manager for Diageo’s Burghead and Roseisle Maltings in Elgin, the malting process is not just essential, but is also a lost art. Carol and her team of five provide a vital service to the consistent production of quality malted barley, but also, as I found out during our chat, a pivotal role in the development of the future strains of grain too.

"You have to remember that we’re looking for barley that is low in nitrogen, that it is disease resistant and particularly, a type of barley that farmers want to grow and get a good crop yield from"

“In layman’s terms, what we try to do here is produce malt that, when delivered to the distilleries, will produce as high an alcohol yield as possible,” explains Carol. “There is a three-part process involved: steeping, malting and kilning. Steeping the barley will turn it into what we call ‘green malt’, where the cell walls are broken down or ‘modified’ to make the insoluble starch accessible- so that the distilleries can access this starch, turning it into sugar and then into alcohol.”

As with malting (which, to all intents and purposes, tricks the barley into germinating) and kilning (which effectively ends the growth process, by the introduction of hot air or peat smoke) steeping sounds and looks a simple process, but one, which clearly requires a huge amount of skill. I’m keen to find out whether Carol thinks that technology is now playing a more important role in the overall malting process? “It’s still a traditional process, but there is a lot of technology advancement in the types of vessels used,” she points out, “especially from the perspective of size of vessel, cleaning and computer control.”

In terms of quality control, what are the key indicators that you look for to ensure you get the best out of your barley? “You have to remember that we’re looking for barley that is low in nitrogen, that it is disease resistant and particularly, a type of barley that farmers want to grow and get a good crop yield from,” she continues. “We work quite closely with the growers and merchants who supply barley with regard to different barley varieties. We’re looking for barley that will give us the most spirit.”

So does Carol think that location plays a big part in the growth of barley and what about the oft-used, but barely understood ‘T’ word – i.e. is there a certain ‘terroir’ involved? “We source all our barley coming into Roseisle maltings from the North East of Scotland, which is very local and the large part of the industry is based around the east coast of Scotland. But regardless of where it is grown, it is weather dependent, she points out. “You can have a good year in the north east or in the south of Scotland. What we produce in Scotland, we sell in Scotland.”

In terms of new varieties and strains of barley, would you look more to science or more to the actual farming community for their development?

“It’ not so much farmers who develop new strains, but they have to like the new types of barley suggested,” suggests Carol. “There are national list trials, which happen, that Diageo takes part in. We have a laboratory, which has a micro maltings and we take part in the scheme of testing new varieties. It takes several years for a new variety to develop until it becomes commercial.”

So would Diageo trial barley strains to see if they’ll deliver what they look like promising in terms of yield then? “Well, it’s nearly a twelve year process to get a new variety of barley approved and the industry works together with the merchants and seed growers. Ultimately, there is a list of approved barley strains by the IBD (the Institute of Brewing and Distilling).”

Because of the time it takes to get a new strain approved, one would assume that there aren’t many new ones, which make the final grade. But Carol suggests otherwise. “Actually, there’s more than you’d think,” she points out. “Lots get tested, but there are probably only two or three that go forward to make the final testing and trial process. They may or may not make it, as the maltsters and distillers may not like them, But you could start with as many as 30.” She continues that “it isn’t just about alcohol yield, but also disease resistance, strength of the crop in the field and crop yield for the farmer to consider, then you go through micro malting trials, as well as brewing and distilling trials before final approval is reached.” Interestingly, Carol also explains that potential new strains of seed are exported to Australia and New Zealand to trial them, as the clearly warmer climate allows two crops a year, which effectively halves the development time from 12 years to six.

With plenty of talk surrounding climate change, does Carol and her team feel that this major global issue has had an effect on the growth patterns and yield of the barley they work with? “Well, we haven’t experienced anything to that effect, our yields are increasing year on year. Whether that’s down to the trial process, rather than climate is unknown, but we’ve not experienced any decline in yield.”

In the space of just the briefest of conversations, Carol has demystified some of the more mysterious elements of this undoubtedly overlooked area in the production of whisky. I ask her one last (but important) question, about whether she feels that malting is indeed, a lost art?

“I’m quite passionate about the process, so might not be the best person to ask,” she laughs “but when people visiting the maltings they are extremely surprised at how detailed the process is, I think it’s certainly a lost art.”

Getting the bill right

Gavin D. Smith

Much of the vocabulary of whisky-making is common to all English-speaking countries, but some terms are specific to individual nations. So it is that North American distillers talk about ‘mashbills,’ while their Scottish counterparts do not.

This is principally because American distillers generally use a variety of different grains in various combinations, whether producing Bourbon, rye, corn whiskey or any of the more innovative genres which tend to be favoured by the craft distilling movement.

The mashbill is simply a whiskey’s grain recipe, and the law makes certain decisions for the distiller before he begins to consider proportions and types of grain. For example, the legal definition of Bourbon stipulates that it must contain a minimum of 51 per cent corn, and the definition of rye insists on at least 51 per cent of that particular cereal.

“Rye grain is very rich in spicy flavours, and Four Roses distillery uses more rye grain in its two mashbills than any other Bourbon distillery. Therefore, Four Roses Bourbons have more spicy flavours, such as nutmeg and cinnamon, than other straight Kentucky Bourbons. The yeast is important in the Bourbon industry since each culture generates its own unique flavours”

In addition to the principal grain, an amount of malted barley is usually included in the mashbill, to promote conversion of starch in the component grains into fermentable sugars, and it is the choice of what are known as secondary or ‘flavour’ grains and the proportions used that help to make significant differences between competing brands of Bourbon or rye. With Bourbon, the most favoured secondary grain is rye, though wheat is also used in some instances as an alternative, while for rye whiskey, the secondary grain is usually corn.

Four Roses distillery at Lawrenceburg in Kentucky works with two different mashbills, in combination with five varieties of yeast, and Master Distiller Jim Rutledge outlines the proportions of grains in the mashbills. “Our ‘E’ mashbill comprises 75 per cent corn, 20 per cent rye and five per cent malted barley, while our ‘B’ mashbill is made up of 60 per cent corn, 35 per cent rye and five per cent malted barley,” he says. “It’s worth noting that rye gives a lower spirit yield than corn.”

Rutledge explains: “Rye grain is very rich in spicy flavours, and Four Roses distillery uses more rye grain in its two mashbills than any other Bourbon distillery. Therefore, Four Roses Bourbons have more spicy flavours, such as nutmeg and cinnamon, than other straight Kentucky Bourbons. The yeast is important in the Bourbon industry since each culture generates its own unique flavours.”

A number of well-known Bourbons, including Maker’s Mark, employ wheat as their secondary grain, rather than rye, and Rutledge says: “Wheat has far less flavour than spicy rye grain, and therefore Bourbon mashbills that contain wheat as the small flavouring grain will taste sweeter than Bourbons using rye grain. The full-bodied, spicy rye grain will mask (or shield) some of the sweet flavours generated in Bourbon as it matures in new oak barrels.”

When it comes to the malted barley component of the mashbill, Four Roses uses a relatively small amount, compared to some rival Bourbons, such as Woodford Reserve, distilled at Versailles in Kentucky. According to Woodford Reserve’s Master Distiller Chris Morris: “Woodford Reserve has a high percentage of malt, which gives it a subtle ‘malt’ note on the palate. Also, it aids in the development of fruit and floral notes.

“Woodford Reserve’s corn component, necessary for its ‘Bourbon’ credentials, is so relatively low that it is undetectable on the nose and palate. The more rye a mash bill has, the more malt is needed to convert the grain starch into fermentable sugar. Otherwise, additional enzymes are required. Therefore, Woodford Reserve uses a level of malt that provides flavour and negates the need of using added enzymes, giving it a ‘natural’ recipe.”

Woodford Reserve is one of the brands to have experimented with ‘four grain’ Bourbon, which embraces corn, rye, wheat and malted barley, and Woodford Reserve Four Grain Bourbon was the first release in the distillery’s Master’s Collection.

Chris Morris says: “We found that wheat added a nutty character to the Four Grain product. We had to adjust the corn, rye and malt ratios to account for the addition of the wheat. Therefore, we reduced the spice character (less rye) and added the soft, nutty character of the wheat.
“The complete substitution of wheat for rye would largely eliminate a range of spice character that contributes to the final complexity of the product.”

Meanwhile, a number of craft distillers have chosen to play ‘fast and loose’ with traditional mashbills, and several, such as Tuthilltown Spirits in New York, now produce single malt whiskey, using a mashbill of 100 per cent malted barley (Hudson Single Malt Whiskey), while Hudson’s popular Baby Bourbon is made with ‘100 per cent New York corn.’

High West Distillery in Utah distils some expressions of rye whiskey with much higher percentages of rye than is common in ‘mainstream’ distilling. Its OMG Pure Rye comprises 80 per cent rye and 20 per cent malted rye, while the distiller also blends rye whiskey made with 95 per cent rye and five per cent malted barley with ryes that contain lower percentages of rye grain in the mash bill.

It is not just craft distillers who are being experimental, either. The old-established Kentucky distillery of Buffalo Trace released a Rice Bourbon Whiskey and an Oat Bourbon Whiskey during 2011, and with new craft distilleries seemingly opening every month, the ‘envelope’ of mashbills looks certain to be pushed even further in future.

Growing for the industry

Neil Wilson

On a dreich April day I returned to Daftmill to see what a barley farmer actually does when supplying distilling barley to the Scotch whisky industry. I hopped into Francis Cuthbert’s Landrover and we headed out to tour some of his 350 acres of newly seeded Spring barley. Francis has this split roughly equally with disease-resistant, high quality malting barley strains of Concerto, Belgravia and Minstrel. “You can only sow what you can sell so it’s the end-user who determines what you will harvest,” Francis says. In Daftmill’s case the Belgravia which is a high DP (diastatic power) grain will go for grain distilling as the high diastase content is crucial in enabling the conversion of starch to sugar in the wheat/maize mash. The Concerto and Minstrel are destined for malt distilling, some of the former going directly to production of Daftmill single malt, and all of the latter exclusively to Macallan.

These latter two varieties are of the high-starch, low-nitrogen type that malt whisky distillers need to produce the required yield of 420 litres of alcohol per tonne of malted barley. Nitrogen content in these types is around 1.4 per cent, while in the high DP strains it is 1.8-2.2 per cent. Currently Francis is in the final year of a three-year contract with Simpsons of Berwick at a set rate of£150 per tonne.

"After harvesting in late August and early September the barley’s moisture content is checked"

The spot rate on the day I visited was £180 but a quick glance back at the autumn surplus of 2010 revealed a rate of £90, so there is some security in this arrangement.

But what are the costs? First there is the seed which he ordered in December and January at £495 per tonne. On a rough working of 115 acres for each variety, he needed 75-100kg per acre so his seed costs alone came to around £40 per acre. Sowing the seed amounted to £21 per acre and after that the crop has to be maintained by spraying. Fertiliser costs have risen steeply in the last few years and is now around £300 per tonne. Francis’s recipe is a 20 per cent nitrogen, 10 per cent phosphate and 14 per cent potash mix. That adds another £60 per acre. Add to that the cost of the actual spraying at £50 per acre, and the minimum cost per acre is £171 or around £60,000 prior to harvest.

If you happen to own your own harvester as Francis does, you can ‘save’ the £30 per acre charge for contracting this out, but bear in mind a new one will set you back around£280,000. Francis did the canny thing and picked his up second-hand for around£40,000 but has to maintain it and they are expensive animals that depreciate while sitting and doing nothing for 11 months of the year so it still works out at around £30 per acre. Our cost per acre is now £201 or £70,350 in total.

After harvesting in late August and early September the barley’s moisture content is checked. Ideally Francis wants to deliver grain to the merchants with a moisture content of 15 per cent so if it is higher he has to reduce this in the grain drier. If grain at 20 per cent is harvested it will require £2 per tonne for every reduction of one per cent of moisture so to get the content down to 15 per cent costs another £10 per tonne. Should barley delivered to the merchant be found to be higher that 15 per cent, a sliding scale of excess charges is applied so if the barley arrives at 16 per cent, a 1.2 per cent moisture deduction is made. If it creeps above 19.1 per cent, the charge is 6.3 per cent with another charge of £3.50 drying charge applied per tonne. It pays to get the sums right before despatching it all down to Berwick.

The merchant will then pass the barley over 2.5mm screens to get rid of small particles and a magnetic field draws off any metal objects. This is where farmer’s mobile phones sometimes reappear! The dried barley is stored in vast silos, most commonly found nearest to where barley is grown, as in Francis’s words, ‘It is cheaper to haul malt than barley as it is lighter.’ There are large silos in ports as seaborne transportation to maltsters is more economic than road haulage. The maltsters dry the barley down to 12 per cent moisture content while malting it to each distiller’s precise specifications.

So where does all this leave Francis? His 350 acres will yield him 2.2 tonnes of barley per acre, or 770 tonnes which he will sell for£115,500. His variable costs have amounted to around £71,000 including an estimated£650 for drying some damp harvest, his gross profit is around £44,500.

That’s before we have discussed his fixed costs per acre...
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