It is all the more surprising, then, that malt whisky producers haven’t done more with malted barley than the regulations permit – for while malt whisky can only be produced using malted barley, there is nothing in the regulations to prevent producers from using barley that’s been malted to varying specifications. Distillers are constantly exploring the boundaries of the form by experimenting with wood, and, more recently, yeast has also become an area of interest. But barley has barely been touched. Until now.
Malting is a controlled germination of grains; the process makes accessible the starches within the grains and develops the enzymes necessary to convert those starches into fermentable sugars. Kilning aims to arrest germination at the point when enough enzymes have been developed, rendering grains stable for storage prior to mashing by effectively pausing the starch-to-sugar conversion process. Crucially, kilning also adds different levels of colour and flavour depending on the treatment of the grain.
Heat, however, denatures and can eventually kill the enzymes responsible for converting starch into fermentable sugars, lowering what is known as a malt’s ‘diastatic power’. For this reason, the vast majority of Scotch whisky is produced using a workhorse base malt known as ‘pot still,’ kilned at a relatively low heat to preserve the integrity of its enzymes, its diastatic power, and thus its potential alcoholic yield.
Herein lies the primary reason why producers, particularly big ones, have traditionally been averse to venturing into the world of ‘speciality’ malts – those which have undergone further kilning or roasting to develop different colours and flavours, and are commonly used by brewers of beer alongside base malts. These specially prepared malts have evocative names such as ruby, brown and black, and none have any diastatic power at all.
For some, though, flavour can trump yield. Colin Johnstone, Scottish sales manager at Crisp Malt, reckons craft whisky distillers have discovered something of a secret sauce in speciality malts. While a few big producers are admittedly already showing off their potential – most notably Glenmorangie with its internationally lauded Signet expression, which includes a proportion of ‘chocolate’ malt – the sense of purpose with which craft distillers on both sides of the Atlantic are approaching speciality malts and modern brewing practices in general has the potential to do for traditional whisky what craft brewing has done for big beer.
“As distillers, we’re simply trying to work out the best ways to make whisky,” says Mike Bain, owner and co-founder of the new Burn o’ Bennie Distillery in Aberdeenshire. “Looking at the process of making whisky, it starts with brewing beer, and that’s changed dramatically thanks to the craft beer revolution.”
Drawing on this, Burn o’ Bennie spent two years developing the recipe for what will be its first single malt, comprising pale, crystal and chocolate malts. In fact, the distillery’s steam-jacketed mash tun and fermenters are engineered for modern brewing.
“Rather than focusing on getting the maximum yield we can get out of pale malt, we’re focusing on getting maximum yield out of the malt we’ve decided to mash in,” explains Bain. “It’s all about amplifying flavour at the very beginning of the distillation process – in the mash tun – and then trying to carry as much of that across [as possible] in the rest of the process.”
Johnstone, who looks after Crisp Malt’s UK craft distillers, including Burn o’ Bennie, similarly credits craft beer with inspiring the use of specialty malts in the production of whisky and the pursuit of flavour. “You’ve got people coming into the whisky industry from the craft brewing side, who are experienced in using different malts to impact their end products,” he says. “For them, it’s really a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you try using different malt types in your whisky?”
Edinburgh’s Holyrood Distillery is also exploring the intersection between craft beer and whisky, and harbours a vast amount of brewing experience in its operational team. The distillery’s recent Brewer’s Series, comprising singular expressions demonstrating the effects of brewer’s yeasts and speciality malts on the flavour of new-make spirit, was a runaway success.
“Brewing is part of our DNA,” says managing director Nick Ravenhall. “It’s become a foundation stone for us as distillers. From beer, and the incredible creativity in the craft beer space at the moment, we’re getting inspiration and energy and are starting to play authentically with that in production.”
What Holyrood and Burn o’ Bennie are doing, though, is much more than play. Together with other craft distillers, maltsters and institutions like Heriot-Watt University, they’re charting entirely new territory – indeed, new flavours – in whisky.
“I think we’re all engaged in a fairly big experiment,” says Johnstone. “We can produce a different malt type and have it used in brewing and know three or four weeks later what sort of beer it’s going to produce. And yes, we can taste the flavour impacts of specialty malts in new-make spirit – they all have different impacts at different proportions and different cut points. But what happens after that? How are those flavours going to mature out? We’re in a stage of experimentation, and there’s a fraternity building up a solid body
Interestingly, while brewers are well versed in specialty malts, their use of them has always been primarily geared towards colour. For this reason, most specialty malts are named after the colours they produce rather than flavours. The aforementioned ruby, brown, black – even caramel and chocolate – malts are all named after their respective colours, not flavours.
For the same reason, Johnstone believes there’s the potential for a new world of distillers’ malts named after the flavours they produce (colour, of course, not being a factor in new-make spirit). “Everybody’s really striving for the same answer to the same question here,” he says. “What malts will give us what specific flavour characteristics, and how will those then manifest in mature spirit?”
There’s a tremendous sense of ebb and flow between American and British craft traditions. Drawing on centuries of British beer production, American craft brewers once reminded us just how good our own beer could be. Now, building on another imported tradition, craft distillers in America are demonstrating just what whisky can be – and not only bourbon or rye.
Jason Parker is one such distiller. A long-time advocate for craft brewing, malting and distilling, he started working in the craft beer industry in 1989 and holds degrees in both chemistry and microbiology – experience and knowledge which now, as the co-founder and president of the Copperworks Distilling Co. in Seattle, is being applied to whiskey production.
As a brewer by trade, Parker regards fermentation as the single most important producer of flavour in beer. Whereas most traditional distillers produce washes using techniques that wouldn’t necessarily qualify as high-quality brewing (using hot, fast fermentations, and not boiling or conditioning the wash), Copperworks is notable for its production of what it would consider to be a mature, high-quality, unhopped beer containing high amounts of residual unfermented sugars – the sugars which carry both flavour and texture through distillation. As for whether good beer would make good whisky, Parker had to try it to find out. “Here’s the most interesting thing,” says Parker. “The answer is almost always yes, if you use a good yeast and have a good fermentation.”
Despite Copperworks’ fastidious approach to preparing its beer wash, Parker admits that what comes next is still the Wild West. “Malt flavours do not necessarily equate to exact distillate flavours,” he says. “It’s a hybrid between balancing those that do make it through the still with the wood programme, which really influences flavour. It’s not just about the malt, then, but also the fermentation conditions, the yeast strains, the distillation, the shape of the stills, the heating method, the cuts, the barrel entry proof, the wood, the warehouse conditions – all of these lead to flavour development.”
It’s a big-data problem, no doubt, but not one that Parker believes will be solved by computers. “It’s going to be solved by people experimenting, coming up with products that taste great based on prior experience with brewing. And it has to come from a brewing background, because that’s where flavours are coaxed out of the grains with fermentation using the right yeasts and conditions. Whatever the case, though, the one thing you almost always have to be willing to give up, right at the very beginning, is yield.”
Tradition – or at least whisky marketers’ tradition – may dictate that upwards of two thirds of whisky’s flavour comes from wood. With the rise of craft distilling and brewing around the world, though, there’s every reason to believe that the status quo is about to change – and in more ways than one.
Burn o’ Bennie is striving for balance in its spirit between distillery character and wood, adding flavour at the beginning so there’s less onus on the cask. Acting on its belief, meanwhile, that whisky fans have moved on in knowledge and passion more than the whisky industry has been prepared to acknowledge so far, Holyrood is encouraging its own fans to join its exploration of what whisky is and can be. And Johnstone at Crisp Malt believes that partnerships with craft distillers are a win-win opportunity for them all to own a share of the market.
On the one hand, it’s difficult to believe that craft distillers will shift the paradigm. But on the other, it’s difficult to ignore a sense of history repeating itself in a second coming for craft, born in the US. For his part, Parker believes the use of modern brewing practices in distilling is going to usher in a movement focused on the localisation of flavours and, by extension, consumption, too.
“Two breweries could be in the same town, but they could source and produce things differently,” he says. “And so, people will come to know them by the flavours they’re producing. Well, we’re just on the cusp of starting that with distillation…and my guess is that we’re going to have more diversity of whisky than we’ve ever, ever had before. It’s going to be remarkable.”