Barley is the grain with the most flavour, and improving barley strains is a continuous effort, both for the farmer and the distiller. The former is interested in as large a harvest per square metre as possible, the latter in the highest possible yield of alcohol from a ton of barley

Cultivating new varieties is an ongoing process, especially because barley is very vulnerable to fungi–even strains that were previously resistant. Well-known barley strains are Golden Promise, Minstrel, Concerto, and Optimum.

The general consensus is that the type of barley and its pedigree hardly influence the end product. Scotch, after all, doesn’t have to be distilled from Scottish barley. The majority of the barley used for Scotch is imported either from England, Canada, Europe, or Australia.

Price is usually the main factor when deciding where to get the grain. However, the suppliers have to follow the distilleries’ specifications to a T when delivering the barley, which can be as specific as the expected yield of alcohol per ton of barley.

Some distilleries, like Bruichladdich, Benromach, and The Macallan, are particular about the pedigree of their barley and source it locally. The barley has to be malted before it can be used, which takes about a week. During this time barley, now called “green malt”, becomes saturated with natural sugars, which will produce alcohol later in the distillation process.

Our whisky Q&A is provided courtesy of SMWS ambassador Hans Offringa’s A Field Guide to Whisky: An expert compendium to take your passion and knowledge to the next level