The Chemistry of Whisky

The Chemistry of Whisky: Barley

barley | scotchwhisky | whiskyingredients

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September 26, 2021

Barley is one of the fundamental ingredients for Scotch Whisky. But what is the transformation process and how does it take place?

Along with the east coasts of Scotland and England, where the soil is light and sandy, and the rain gently falls on the ground, you may notice a golden sea dancing to the sunset. The peculiar waves are barley fields, most of it destined for whisky production. This precious grain, besides being used to make blends, is also the only one admitted by the Scotch Whisky Regulations to produce Single Malt Scotch Whisky. 

Why Barley?

barley field image

Barley has been one of the main protagonists of the history of whisky for over 300 years. It gives whisky such distinctive features that, as soon as you close your eyes, you can already sense the malted notes that gently envelop your mouth and the final scent of biscuits and nuts. All of the sudden, you find yourself in that very same sea of barley, mesmerized by the supreme alchemic art that bottled up such a complex experience.

But why barley, you may ask. The answer is quite simple: it was the most widely used grain in the past. Indeed, barley thrives in challenging weather conditions, thus, the yield has always been abundant.

Nowadays, due to high demand, the distilleries import barley from all over Europe and Canada. Certainly, there is something poetic about the idea of a scotch whisky entirely made on Scottish land, starting from the origin of its core ingredients. However, it must be said that what influences the taste of whisky is the quality of the barley used.

Varieties of barley

Indeed, despite the vast array of available varieties, only some of them are selected by distilleries. The most popular among those varieties are Belgravia, Concerto, Propino, Quench, Shuffle, Moonshine, Odyssey, Chronicle and Overture. All of them have the same things in common: rich in starch and low proteins. The results will be more fermentable sugars and, consequently, more alcohol. There lies the secret at the base of its chemistry reaction.

barley draw

If you look closer, you would also notice that there are specific characteristics that can guarantee a high yield when choosing the perfect variety of barley for whisky: the grains are arranged in two rows rather than six, as this will ensure more consistency. Indeed, poor homogeneity of the grains would create problems in the still, ending up altering the whisky’s taste.

The process: how barley is transformed into whisky

We are still at the very beginning of the process. Barley must be transmuted into malt to become whisky and every step of it will contribute to the final concerto of flavours.

malting process of the barley

Once it has been harvested, the barley enters a dormancy period and is subjected to several humidifying stages to activate the germination process. Then, the barley is spread across the malting floor in thick layers. During this process, the starch is transformed into white soft flour, whose sugar content will be extracted during distillation. Finally, when the rootlets of the grain have grown, the germination process is interrupted, and the barley is dried using peat or charcoal. 


The Malting Floors

A typical malting floor is a large room where the malting process is conducted. It is important that there is a suitable climate, not too warm or too cold and with adequate ventilation, otherwise the barley will germinate poorly. The grain is spread out on the malting floor, where it begins to germinate within four to seven days. During germination, the barley has to be turned manually (or mechanically) several times a day to achieve the ideal microclimate. Today, very few distilleries still have malting floors, since malt is most likely purchased from third parties.

The few distilleries that continue to have malting floors until today are:

  • Laphroaig, Islay
  • Bowmore, Islay
  • Kilchoman, Islay
  • Highland Park, Orkney Islands
  • Springbank, Campbelltown
  • The Balvenie, Speyside
  • Benriach, Elgin, Speyside
malting flors used in the distilleries

Can you believe it? A simple ingredient such as barley is transformed by skilful hands to become the foundation upon which a symphony of flavours could be arranged. And while it is rare for a distillery to undergo the malting process by itself, preferring to buy this product by external malts making, it is also true that this key component is accurately chosen according to the necessary characteristics that make a whisky unique and distinctive.

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