If there isn’t a country & western song about a mashbill, there should be. It would be a song full of ‘good ol’ boys’ in denim dungarees making moonshine in Kentucky or Tennessee. Hell, the word even rhymes with Nashville.
However, it may be developing a slight Scottish twang, as distillers on this side of the pond wake up to the potential of tweaking their mashbills to introduce different flavours and aromas into their whiskies.
If so, it could mark another step on the journey back down the whisky-making process. For years distillers have been fascinated, some would say ‘obsessed’, by what happens at the end when the spirit meets the wood. However, some are beginning to explore that earlier meeting of grain, water and yeast. Clearly, American and Irish distillers have more freedom with their choice of grains than their Scottish cousins, who are stuck with barley – at least for single malt. That said, distilleries like Arbikie in Angus have pioneered some notable rye whiskies, and there’s news from Fife that Ian Palmer of InchDairnie has been experimenting with oats.
“The thing about the front-end of the process is you have to wait at least three years, and that’s probably been a barrier to this kind of work,” says Dr Jim Beveridge OBE, master blender for Johnnie Walker. The brand’s Blenders’ Batch series has given his team a platform to experiment however, and two years ago it released its rich, earthy expression called ‘Espresso Roast’. “I think it really captured the flavours you get from heavily roasted malt, like coffee and dark chocolate,” says Jim. “And these combine with other classic whisky flavours like spiciness in wood, or vanilla in American oak.”
BEFORE THE BARREL
David Robertson, co-founder of Edinburgh’s new Holyrood Distillery, senses a slight fatigue with wood innovation. “It’s maybe not done to death, but it’s been done a lot in the last 10 years,” he says. “I think some of us are thinking: ‘How can we introduce interesting flavours into the spirit before it gets to the barrel.’ So, people are looking at different varieties of barley, different toasting levels, different yeast strains and playing around with different cut points.”
Holyrood plans four whiskies named Smoky, Spicy, Fruity and Sweet. The first is obviously peated and the second inspired by sherry casks, but “Sweet and Fruity will be influenced more by the mashbill recipe, and or the yeast and cut points,” says David.
“I know from experiments we’ve done using crystal malt, chocolate malt, caramalt and black malt, that it can have a massive impact on the spirit’s character,” he continues.
LOST IN THE PROCESS
If you see whisky as essentially distilled beer, which can vary from the palest of pale ales to the darkest, creamiest porter or stout, you can see where David’s coming from.
“If you told a brewery that you were changing the variety of barley they were using, they would be horrified!” says Matt Pauley, assistant professor at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University. “Roasting conditions and toasting levels are crucial to the production of the colour and flavour compounds.”
Once you distil it you will strip out any colour in your new-make spirit, which makes you wonder what else is being lost in the process. “There will be a proportion of compounds that will survive distillation because some will be volatile,” says Matt. “However, it depends on what flavours you’re talking about and whether they are water or alcohol soluble. When distilling, you take the essence of lots of flavours and leave behind lots of others.”
He predicts that “as espresso flavours or chocolate roast whiskies become more popular, distillers will investigate it as a point of difference in the market.”
DIFFERENTIATE OR DIE
If the big whisky firms are driven by consistency, David Robertson reckons “the wee guys live by the manta of ‘differentiate or die’.” Yet when it comes to mashbills he credits the pioneering work done by Balvenie and Glenmorangie. The experiments by William Grant’s malt master David Stewart MBE in the early 1990s led to the Balvenie 14-year-old Roasted Malt in 2006. Two years later Glenmorangie brought out Signet. It’s ‘a fusion of unique and rare elements, and clouded in secrecy’, and its ‘melting sweetness and explosive spiciness is, at least in part, caused by our unique roasted ‘chocolate’ barley malt …’.
That’s according to the brand’s somewhat overblown website. But what of the man behind it, the man who claims to have dreamed up the idea while he was a student at Heriot-Watt in the mid-1980s? We’re talking of Dr Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie’s director of distilling and whisky creation.
“My pal Ian and I were determined that whether we were drinking wine, beer, whisky or coffee, or buying new shirts, we were going to settle for nothing but the best,” he says, admitting that this was more of an aspiration given their student budgets. Bill also admits their belief that Jamaica Blue Mountain was the best coffee money could buy may have been influenced by James Bond, who was another fan. In Bill’s mind, he says: “The kilning and peating of the barley, and the roasting of coffee beans, somehow merged together. I said: ‘Right, I’m going to invent a new style of whisky, and, rather than a peat fire, I’m going to use a coffee roaster’.”
But as he discovered at Glenmorangie that obviously wasn’t going to work with a 10-tonne mashtun, so he turned to the brewing industry to source some high roast chocolate malt. He says you have to be careful when milling such malt in a distillery “because it’s liable to disintegrate into powder, or gum up a traditional mashtun, so you need a mash filter”. And you can’t use too much of it. “In roasting the malt, you kill the enzymes,” he explains. “When we’re on our two weeks of production for Signet we have a dramatic reduction in spirit yield, by at least 25 per cent.”
WORTS AND ALL
Virtually every bottle of Scotch is made from distiller’s malt, which is easy to process and gives the maximum alcoholic yield. This is unlikely to change reckons Dr Andy Forrester, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s new spirits educator who previously worked with the Scotch Whisky Research Institute.
“I certainly see a move to more interest in the raw materials,” he says. “But the reality is there’s very little evidence of any flavour diversity in different strains of barley…yet.” Far more important in his view, is the state of the worts after the mashing process. “If they’re cloudy, you’ll get a cereal nutty character, and if they’re clean it’ll be fruity,” he says.
Pinpointing the source of a particular flavour in a single malt can be a thankless task given the huge number of variables involved, and it can get a bit technical. Talk about enzymes and marketing folk are liable to drift off, but mention chocolate malt and it’s another story. “Chocolate is a shortcut to thoughts of luxury and decadence,” says Matt Pauley. “Conjuring these images through the language used on the bottle is a valuable tool.”
For that reason alone, there will be more whiskies, and perhaps even the odd song, trumpeting the joys of the mashbill.
*Mashbill is a term widely used in the bourbon world to describe the mix and percentage of grains used in the production process, including corn, rye, wheat and malted barley
This feature is from the November 2019 issue of Unfiltered. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership