Production

Promise, you're a miracle

Only a couple of distilleries use Golden Promise, but they swear by it. Ian Wisniewski explains why
By Ian Wisniewski
Barley varieties come and go on a regular basis, as new varieties offering increased yields for farmers and distillers, as well as greater disease resistance, are continually released. Developing new varieties can take up to 10 years, but this may only result in three to five years success, before the next generation takes over.In such a competitive and volatile market it’s remarkable that Golden Promise has enjoyed a career lasting almost 40 years. And beyond longevity, Golden Promise had such a profound influence on farming, as well as the malting and malt whisky industries, that barley history can be divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’ Golden Promise. Historically, ‘indigenous’ local varieties were cultivated in Scotland, depending on their ability to cope with particular soil types and micro-climates. In northern Scotland for example, a wild variety called Bere made the most of local conditions.A growing understanding of genetics enabled new, named barley varieties to be developed from the beginning of the 20th century. The first list of barley varieties recommended for brewers and distillers was compiled in 1930 by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (a role now undertaken by The Institute of Brewing).Developing new varieties entails a significant investment, in terms of time and resources. But this became more commercially viable in 1964, when The Plant Varieties and Seeds Act enabled plant breeders to collect royalties on varieties which they developed.Before Golden Promise was launched in 1968 the amount of malting barley cultivated in Scotland was insignificant, as numerous varieties couldn’t cope with the climate. This meant the majority of malting barley was imported from England. “Lothian and the Borders were the chief areas pre-Golden Promise, with farmers growing ‘dual purpose’ barley, in the sense that if they achieved the quality and nitrogen levels they could go for malting barley, otherwise it was used for feed barley.Golden Promise was reliable to grow across the whole of Scotland,” says The Edrington Group’s Dr Bill Crilly.Golden Promise has no particular soil preference, growing in light as well as heavier soil, though in wetter years it does better in lighter, free draining soil. Having a relatively short straw also enabled Golden Promise to stand up well, and avoid being demolished by wind, whereas long-strawed varieties were far more vulnerable in the Scottish climate.Barley varieties are either ‘early’ or ‘late’ maturing, and the timing of the harvest has always been a significant factor. “At the time when Golden Promise was launched it was very difficult to harvest some barley varieties before September, or even into October, whereas Golden Promise was generally harvested in mid-August, or definitely by the end of August,” adds Dr Bill Crilly.This was a significant advantage for farmers, who didn’t have to risk the autumn weather. (Subsequently, global warming has lead to hotter Scottish summers, with the 1990s seeing 10 of the hottest on record.Together with advances in agronomy, this has brought the harvest forward, and even late maturing barley varieties can now be harvested in August rather than September.) An earlier harvest also provided a key form of ‘compensation’ for farmers.“Golden Promise was at least as good if not better than other varieties in terms of the yield for distillers, though not for farmers, for whom the trade off was an early harvest,” says Dr Bill Crilly.Consequently, the uptake of Golden Promise during the first two years was phenomenal, and by the mid-1970s Golden Promise accounted for up to 95 per cent of malting barley cultivated in Scotland.Golden Promise made no impact in England, as the advantages it offered in Scotland didn’t apply south of the border.A related development, once Golden Promise was cultivated so extensively in Scotland, was that the 1970s saw various commercial maltings established in Scotland, to handle the ‘local’ harvest.However, Golden Promise also had a significant flaw, as it was susceptible to mildew. This condition is promoted by damp, humid conditions, with the first warning sign being white pustules appearing on the leaves.“Mildew was the biggest issue with Golden Promise, and you need to take control fairly early in each cycle to prevent it being a problem. Mildew mainly attacks and kills the greenleaf area which means the plant can’t photosynthesise, so the level of starch would be reduced. Anything that causes the plant stress reduces the performance,” says Alister Laing of The Scottish Agricultural College. “When you see the first traces of mildew it’s sprayed which provides three to four weeks protection. Spraying eradicates the fungus, to stop it from spreading, and a further spray prevents re-infection for up to three weeks.”Despite the mildew challenge, Golden Promise reigned supreme until the early 1980s, when a new variety called Triumph reached the top of the hierarchy. Triumph offered various advantages, not least of which was a better yield for farmers, and by the mid-80s Golden Promise had experienced a dramatic decline.But then Triumph also knows how rejection feels, having long lost that triumphant position. The current leader of the pack is optic, which took over from Chariot in the year 2,000 (Chariot had in turn commanded 40-45 per cent of the market since the mid-1990s). Optic currently accounts for around 60 per cent of the market, with the other key varieties being Chalice and Decanter, each with around 15 per cent market share. All three varieties were developed during the 1990s.“Golden Promise now accounts for less than one per cent of malting barley in Scotland. Farmers will only grow it if they know there’s demand for it, on a contract basis. Because of the lower agronomic yield the price has to be adjusted to compare with a modern variety, otherwise there’s no incentive,” says Pete Robson of the commercial maltings Muntons. The mildew situation doesn’t help either.Comparing the performance of barley varieties explains everything. Optic and chariot yield around three tonnes per acre.Golden Promise yields an average of two tonnes per acre, which could rise to 2.5 tonnes in a good year, or descend to 1.7 tonnes in a bad year, while also carrying a price premium of around 20 per cent over other varieties.But it’s the yield of alcohol that has really driven the development of new varieties, with optic yielding around 415 litres of spirit per tonne, compared to Golden Promise at 380-395 litres.The spirit yield also reflects the fact that Golden Promise has a slightly smaller grain size than various other varieties. As the larger the grain, the greater the ratio of starch to husk (which isn’t fermentable), a larger grain has a correspondingly higher potential spirit yield.Another consideration is how the grain size affects Golden Promise once it reaches the maltings. “During steeping the grain size influences the rate at which water is absorbed, so we tweak the process accordingly to ensure the correct rate of water uptake,” adds Pete Robson.Another issue is whether individual varieties contribute any specific aromas or flavours to the new make spirit, beyond the generic range of cereal, biscuity notes. “No” is a typical answer in the industry, though distillers using Golden Promise readily state the benefits.Glengoyne for example distils Golden Promise in conjunction with Optic. “Using Golden Promise adds more weight and body to the new make spirit,” says Glengoyne’s Gordon Doctor.Benromach has used the same approach, distilling Golden Promise together with optic, since 1998. “With Golden Promise there is a fuller new make spirit, more sweet maltiness and esters, and an increase in body,” says Gordon & MacPhail’s Ewen Mackintosh.“We distilled our first parcel of 100 per cent Golden Promise in 1999, and for the past four years we’ve contracted maltsters to source and malt Golden Promise at a phenol level so that we can distil 100 per cent Golden Promise. We wanted to promote esters and maltiness in the new make spirit, and more of these came through in the Golden Promise,” adds Ewen Mackintosh. The Macallan also distils Golden Promise in conjunction with Optic.“It always gives an oily, cereal note and robustness which is important to us. In the percentage we use (25 per cent), Golden Promise gives us the balance and profile that we need, and this comes through in the final malt,” says The Macallan’s Bob Dalgarno.“Golden Promise does add something. I’ve seen Golden Promise used with so many different varieties, but you always see the Golden Promise character coming through.” The Macallan has also distilled separate parcels of 100 per cent Golden Promise since 1996, cultivated on The Macallan’s 300 acre estate, adjoining the distillery, and malted separately at Tamdhu maltings (also part of the Edrington Group).I can’t wait to do a definitive taste off, comparing 100 per cent Golden Promise new make spirit and the resulting malts, to ‘mixed variety’ and other varietal equivalents. It’ll be fascinating. Let’s arrange a time as soon as possible.