While five of the seven Glenmorangie Private Editions were about the casks (Sonnalta PX, Artein, Ealanta, Companta and Milsean – to be reviewed tomorrow) and the Finealta showcased the peat, Tùsail is all about the strain of barley used for mashing.
But how much effect does the strain of barley used to make the whisky have on the finished product?
Glenmorangie’s Tùsail highlights a strain of barley that hasn’t been used for commercial distilling in several decades – Maris Otter. The strain was first introduced in 1965 and was widely used until supplanted by other, higher yielding strains, such as the current king strain, Concerto, which has largely supplanted Optic, reigning supreme in the first decade of the century. Nevertheless, it’s still popular among brewers and has maintained a presence on the market for craft beer, though not for distillation. Appearantly, Optic was an outlier staying around for as long as it did, as most strains come and go in a manner of years.
The Maltsters Association of Great Britain (MAGB) has all the numbers on tonnage by strains, and divides them up between malt for England, where Maris Otter still has a solid presence, and Scotland – which would include both beer makers and distilleries, with no presence for Maris Otter at all (well, presumably in the “Others” category).
Which brings us to the paramount question of this post: Does the barley strain have an effect on the whisky produced, a question not only pertinent to the Tùsail, but to other expressions such as Bruichladdich’s Islay and Bere Barley products (as well as editions tracing the origin of the barley to specific farms or regions, two of which were tasted in the 2016 Feis Ile tasting), Springbank’s Local Barley and Kilchoman’s Rockside Farm. The concept, of course, is terrior, taken from the wine industry and referring to the influences of the locale in which the barley was grown, the casks were matured, and by extension, probably, the origin of the wood for the casks. This, of course, makes perfect sense. One would expect such things to make a difference. Or not?
In a recent article on the subject in scotchwhisky.com, Vic Cameron, who has been with Diageo for over a quarter of a century in various capacities relating to malting and distilling, and along the way served on the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD) Barley Committee and the MAGB Technical Committee, is unequivocal in saying that he has not seen any real difference in the new make produced by different strains of barley. In his words, “barley variety has very little or no effect on new make spirit character”. In fact, says Cameron, if the strand were an influential factor, flavor consistency would be impossible to maintain for over a few years, let alone over the decades.
On the other hand, proponents of terrior in whisky swear by the differences that not only the barley strain imparts, but also by the differences the exact location of its growth imparts, be it on a farm on Islay battered by ocean gales, or in a fertile and rather protected field in the granary fields of Perthshire.
Being neither scientist nor distiller, I don’t have a definitive answer. I can, however, see merit in each side of the argument. On the one hand, you can tell grain whisky from malt whisky, and those from bourbon or Irish pot still very easily. Different ingredients impart different flavors, and it would stand to reason that whisky (and other spirits like rum and tequila) also be defined by the specific terrior from whence they came. On the other hand, you really can only make these comparisons either with new make spirit or with whisky that was aged in an identical wood regime (or as identical as different casks of the same type, make, age, fill etc. can be). We don’t have access to such samples, and in truth – whisky may just be different: Wine and beer get their flavors from the grapes or the malt whereas whisky is distilled to 70% ABV, leaving only a fraction of the original barley components. Moreover, then you get the peat, the cask and the vatting – all of which seem to work against the effects of terrior in whisky.
Having left the main question open, I do have to say something about the PR. Reading the (very well written) text on the back of the box, you would not be faulted had you come away with the impression that Maris Otter is an extinct strand of Barley, and that being able to create this expression is nothing short of a miracle. In truth, Maris Otter is alive and well, and is very easily obtained. True, it’s not used that much by distillers, but only because newer strains offer better yields. Does that mean older strains have no place? Of course not. But I would have liked to see it in a twin set of Maris Otter and Optic (which was the strain in use when this was probably distilled) in the same exact casks – maybe even as a lovely twin 35 cl set. This would have enabled a side by side comparison, and would have truly allowed us to determine, for ourselves, if the barley strain is, actually, of any importance.
Glenmorangie Private Edition VI – Tùsail (46% ABV, NCF, NC)
Appearance: Gold, quick legs with a lot of residue.
Nose: Milk chocolate, honey, barley sugar, sugared orange peel, malt and walnuts. The malty note is different than the notes that are usual for my description of “malt”, maybe more earthy than “normal”, but can I directly attribute it to the Maris Otter strand? Maybe going head to head with optic barley matured in exactly the same casks…
Palate: Wood spice and citrus bitterness, malty and sweet, but not overly so. Some nuttiness and spice, with the spice give some further resolution on pepper, a hint of cardamom and some allspice.
Linger: Coffee, some oak, cereal and some dryness. A touch of woodsy dryness on the back of the throat, and very light pepper and allspice on the tongue. Long and rather gentle finish.
Definitely different and, but honestly, I have no idea how much of this is the barley strand and how much is the wood regime. It’s good whisky and is definitely a novelty, but I would not rank it in the first line of the Private Editions Dr. Lumsden has served up before. For that, we’ll have to wait for the Milsean, coming up next!