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Issue 27 - Golden promise

Whisky Magazine Issue 27
November 2002


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Golden promise

Ian Wisniewski looks into that vital ingredient in whisky production so often overlooked-barley

The main talking point is always a distillery's water source, with the influence of the stills, peating levels and wood policy more recent additions to the debate. But what about barley, which seems to be taken for granted, as though it's merely a starting point before all the other influences take over? Ordering barley is, however, far more involved than simply stipulating quantities and delivery dates, with numerous options for the distiller to consider.

Most of the current barley varieties used for malt whisky are two-row, as opposed to six-row (which is indigenous to countries such as Sweden, Norway and Finland, where it is the basis for Finlandia vodka). This numerical distinction refers to the fact that the ear (or ‘head') essentially contains two rows of seeds, while six-row barley contains six rows of seeds.

An ear of two-row barley contains a total of around 24 to 34 seeds, depending on the variety and environmental conditions. Those with higher totals can have smaller sized seeds, while varieties with lower totals may have larger-sized seeds, which pretty much evens it all out. Moreover, the amount of seeds is not as important as the overall weight of the grain.

Another distinction to draw is between winter barley (sown in August to September and harvested in late July to early August), and spring barley (sown in March to early April and harvested in August to September).

While both can offer the same flavour and level of quality, spring barley is a standard ...

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