English barley supplied to Scotch whisky distilleries

By Craig Anderson
BBC Scotland

image captionBarley is harvested in Lincolnshire before later being delivered to a Speyside distillery

It's enough to cause a seasoned whisky drinker to choke into his dram.

But - whisper it - increasing amounts of the main ingredient for Scotch are being imported....from England.

The recession-busting success of the drinks firms in selling whisky around the world has lead to soaring demand for quality malting barley.

Scotland can't supply all the barley needed to keep the distilleries running so maltsters are now encouraging more English arable farmers to grow grain specially for the whisky industry.

Lincolnshire farmer Mark Ireland produces barley for the distilling and brewing industries as well as for cattle feed.

"This is some of our fruits of our 2013 harvest - spring barley," he said as he surveyed mountains of grain.

"This shedful here... all of it's going for malting. Some of that will go to produce lager and the majority of it - that which has the right specification - will be going to produce whisky."

Tiny differences in the nitrogen content of the barley determine whether it goes for beer or Scotch.

Malting the barley involves soaking the grains and allowing them to sprout, enabling more of the starch to be converted into sugars.

The whisky industry in the UK currently needs 800,000 tonnes of malting barley a year while 500,000 tonnes goes into brewing beer.

Ten years ago those figures were the other way round and Guy Newsam, of Muntons Maltings of Bridlington, in Yorkshire, believes that 950,000 tonnes will be required by distillers within five years.

He said: "The distillers are resurgent at the moment, I think it's fair to say.

"And the distillers have announced that there's going to be around about a 20% increase in that requirement over the next five years as well."

Muntons are now trying to persuade more farmers in Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire to sow the kind of barley that will find favour with the whisky producers.

Mr Newsam said: "The distillers are after fermentable extracts. They need as much alcohol out of the malt that we supply as possible.

"What's really important is to get the message through to the growers that the right varieties are grown - those that the distillers are looking for."

This week the Speyburn distillery at Rothes on Speyside welcomed a consignment of Mark Ireland's malted barley from Lincolnshire.

Raw ingredients

While some might baulk at that idea, distillery manager Bobby Anderson was philosophical.

He said: "It'll probably surprise a few people but the fact is that Scottish whisky production is so large at the moment that Scottish farmers can't meet the demand for the barley so we've got to take barley from England.

"But that's been ongoing for years, it's not a new phenomenon."

Such is the global boom in sales of Scotch that whisky companies are ramping up production as fast as they can.

Old plants are being taken out of mothballs, existing distilleries, like Speyburn, are being expanded and new ones are springing up throughout Scotland.

The fact is that, while much whisky marketing is aimed at stirring the emotions, the industry is run by hard-headed business people and managers who have always bought their raw ingredients wherever they can get the right quality at the right price.

And if that has meant barley from Germany, Denmark or England then that is where it has been sourced.

Once a distiller has decided whether they want their barley peated or not - dried using peat smoke to flavour the grains - there's no noticeable difference.

Factors like the shape of the still, the type of cask the spirit is matured in and the skill of the stillman are what give the product of each distillery their unique flavour.

But malt whisky is made using only three basic ingredients: water yeast and malted barley.

So if the main element comes from England, is the spirit still Scotch?

"Oh definitely, it's still very much a Scotch product," insisted Bobby Anderson.

"It's a very traditional site we've got here."

It's a conundrum best considered, perhaps, over a decent dram.

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