...where distraction is the main attraction.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Single Malt Report: Bruichlaiddich Bere Barley 2006

Whisky is made from malted barley.  Wine is made from grapes.  If wine nomenclature is organized by grape varieties why do we NEVER hear about the barley varieties in our whisky?  In fact, there are a ton of different barley varieties out there, which ones are malt distilleries using?

For the vast majority of beverage companies, whisky is a business first, a craft second.  Thus they choose barley types from which they can distill the most alcohol, varieties like the two-row Optic and Chariot.  Strains that had been used in the past, like Golden Promise and Triumph, gradually became less cost effective as companies found other barley types that squeezed out 10 to 20 percent more alcohol from their sugary starch.  So the barley choices being made have to do with profit-and-loss sheets 99.9% of the time.

Meanwhile, every whisky producer invests considerable sums in oak casks.  Depending on who you're reading or talking to, 60-80% of a whisky's nose and palate come from the cask it ages within.  What about the rest of the character, though?  Many distilleries will reference their water sources (or you can figure it out via maps and the terrain).  But rarely is there any mention of yeast, let alone the barley!

This is a subject that a lot of whisky fans are currently discussing.  We're aware that grape varietals determine much more of a wine's characteristics, than barley does with whisky.  But still......if some whisky producers brag about the sherry that was formerly in their casks and the very forests from which the oak was felled......then how about a word or two about the whisky part of the whisky.  You know, the malted barley?

There have been a few barley words shared here and there.  Kilchoman, Bruichladdich, and Springbank have turning out limited releases of malts made from locally grown barley.  Glenlivet released a Triumph-only single malt a few years ago.  The Arran Distillery has a Bere Barley release, as does Bruichladdich.  Bruichladdich used to be quite open about their barley: see here for their 2011 harvest information; and here for some info on their 2008 harvest.

I don't think there's some huge conspiracy against the customer in terms of varietal transparency (we can always discuss other conspiracies though!).  Part of the lack of forthrightness came from the fact that no one really inquired into brands' barley breeds over the past 200 years.

But now things are different.  Craft distilleries around the world are cranking out distillate made from all sorts of grains, and proudly printing mash detail.  We, as drinkers, can now compare and contrast these whiskies and the grains within them, studying which mash bills we like the best.  For instance, I love the hell out of American straight ryes with a 95% rye 5% malted barley mash bill.  Love 'em!  And I purposely seek them out, handing over my cash to the companies that turn out the best stuff.  That mash bill openness results in revenue.

How about it, Scotch whisky makers?  Perhaps terrior may not dominate your product as much as it does wine.  But it has an effect on the final product.  Your distillers know this.  Your sourced farms know this.  Even if it turns out barley varietals make very little difference in the final product, there's a whole market to exploit here.  Give it to us.  We'll drink it up!

Here's an example.

Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2006.  I bought it blind......from Europe.  See, I'm part of that potential demographic.  I found the chance to own a bottle of whisky made from the oldest of old school Viking-toted barley breeds.  And I'd heard it was tasty stuff.

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Bere (pronounced "bear") was likely brought to Scotland by Viking invaders back in the ninth century.  Mostly grown on Orkney, it's a dense grain and proves difficult to squeeze much alcohol out of it.

But the whisky Bruichladdich managed to make from it tastes unlike any other single malt I've had.


Barley variety(!)Bere from Kynagarry Farm in Achaba, Achfad Fields
Age: 6 years (2006-2012)
Maturation: ex-bourbon barrels
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 50%
Limited Bottling: 7,650
Chill-filtered: No
Caramel colored: No

The color is a natural light amber.  The first thing that strikes me about the nose is the similar characteristics to Corsair's Wry Moon -- the only White Dog in my house -- specifically bold bursts of cinnamon red hots and cracked white pepper.  From there the Bere switches to the Spice Channel (sorry): coriander, cardamom, and ground cloves.  There's also almond butter, fruit cake, and brown sugar.  And something that may just be a sniff of peat.  The cinnamon red hots and cracked white pepper are right there in the palate, followed by a pleasant IPA-like bitterness.  It's a little grassy, a little rough around the edges, and has that hint of peat.  But in front of all that, this is the barley-est whisky I've ever sipped.  I mean it's boldly out there with very little oak to hide it.  Toasted grains, toasted peat, toasted whole wheat bread lead the significant finish, along with that good Pale Ale bitterness.

The nose becomes more sugary.  The ethyl is a little stronger.  Fruit bread and menthol have joined the red hots and white pepper.  There's also a curious smoked fruit note in the background.  The palate is less bitter yet sweeter and more peppery.  Burnt grasses and anise notes arise after awhile.  The anise remains in the finish, joined by the pepper, red hots, a little soil, and a little citrus.

Yeah, this one is a lot of fun.  Its nose evokes different herbal notes with every new pour.  I love the fact that the oak remains waaaaaaaay in the back, the barley in the fore.  It's not an easy whisky by any means.  It is young and brash, 6 years and 50% ABV.  Frankly, it's a bit weird sometimes.  I have to switch off the "Scotch" preconceptions every time I pour a glass of it, even though this may be what some North Highland whisky tasted like a few hundred years ago.

For those in the US looking to explore this one, the good news is that it is now available in The States, though in a wide range of prices.  Because it's so unique, I recommend trying it before buying it, if that's possible.  As I can picture it not appealing to all palates, perhaps it's a one-time whisky for many folks.

Ultimately, I cheer on further exploration into Bere barley whisky.  Since it's quite a tough grain, I'm not sure if Remy Martin will encourage such experiments by the 'Laddie folks.  Perhaps they will, but at a considerable premium.  But there are many other distilleries out there with an ever-growing customer base.  Some of that base will be like you and me.  And they'll crave something they've never had before, something unique, and maybe a little more transparency...

Availability - a couple dozen liquor specialists in the US
Pricing - $55-$80
Rating - 88