Something’s Brewing in Distilling

Every year InchDairnie Distillery clears the calendar for up to two weeks to distil something out of the ordinary. These are generally “firsts” for the Scotch whisky industry and part of the reason why whisky writer Dave Broom states “Other distillers will be looking at InchDairnie for years to come”. Some of the firsts have been distillation of oats, wheat and sour mash to name but a few – all of which will be bottled under the PrinLaws brand in the future. PrinLaws takes its name from a local Fife farm and the name is applied only for one-off, limited bottlings.

This year the distillery has gone all nerdy for a few days and distilled 6-row barley, a winter barley not usually used in distilling. While common in brewing it may be a first at a Scottish distillery. The reason? 6-row barley has a higher protein level than normal 2-row distilling barley (spring barley). This makes it difficult to handle in the distillery mash tuns across Scotland – the mash tuns where the sugary liquid, wort, is separated from the grain (draff). However, at InchDairnie there is no sign of the common distillery roller mill, that breaks the grain into a coarse flour (grist). Instead, the innovative InchDairnie Distillery employs a hammer mill which grinds grain into a fine powder for better flavour extraction. This would clog any standard mash tun but at the unique Fife distillery there is no mash tun. Rather, a mash conversion vessel converts starch to sugar before all is transported to a mash filter, resembling a giant row of teabags with built in compression which secures more flavour to be extracted.

An additional bonus to more flavour, the combination of the hammer mill and mash filter also increases the yield. The turbidity of the wort (sugar water) is greater than from normal barley distilling and after fermentation with distillers yeast (MG Plus) and double distilled, the new make spirit shows more of a cereal note coming through.

From L-R: Standard wort, 6-Row Wort, Munich Wort

From left to right: Standard wort from our Stratheny, 6-Row Wort, Munich Wort.

Distillery Manager Scott Sneddon explains “In all we do, we keep flavour at the core. We already break the norm by using winter barley when we distil our seasonal distillates Autumn and Winter while we use spring barley for our Spring and Summer distillates” – eventually these four distillates will mature and meet many years down the line to form a Vintage Single Malt. Scott Sneddon explains “We wanted to explore the difference from 2-row spring barley (Laureate) to 6-row winter barley. We have the right equipment with a hammer mill and mash filter to pursue this”. And the result? “A more pronounced cereal note with increased maltiness and a lighter fruitiness” explains Scott. “So, the question is, ‘why use a winter six row barley’? The answer is it makes a flavour difference.”

The new make spirit was selected between 68% – 73% abv and was reduced to 63.5% abv before being filled into second fill ex bourbon casks ensuring a balance between maturation and wood influence. The maturing spirit will now be closely monitored and at some point, a decision will be taken when to bottle it. This will be most likely at a point where the spirit flavours are marginally still dominating the flavour profile.

More on Winter Barley

Winter barley is sown in the autumn, and it is then harvested in the early summer the following year unlike spring barley that is sown in the spring and harvested the same year in the late summer. In the UK and Europe, it is normal to grow two row barley while in America and Canada it is normal to grow six row barley. Six row suites the climate better in America. All barley is actually six row, but with two row varieties four of the rows of grains are not fertile so they do not develop. The difference is a natural historical genetic variation.

From a distiller’s point of view six row tend to be higher in protein, the grains are smaller, and they tend to be more brittle leading to milling issues. These features can be problematic in a traditional mashing system, but not a problem for InchDairnie with its mash filter.

In the past some six row varieties were grown in Europe but for grain distilling malt, often called high diastatic power (HDP) malt. Some six row varieties can be difficult to grow in Europe because they tend to fall over after the ears begin to form, the stems are a little weak at that stage of the plant’s growth.  When the plant flowers, they can be exposed to some fungal disease. None of these problems were found when growing the barley here in Fife.

In addition to the flavour the use of a winter six row barley may provide some badly needed variety in the malting barley pool, reducing the risk from disease and climate change. Most farmers will only grow barley

that are on the ‘Recommended List’ because they are almost guaranteed a market for the crop. However, the number of varieties and their narrow genetic origins present a risk. If we have a bad year the whole barley crop could be at risk. Bringing in some winter varieties and varieties from a different gene pool may help us out of a difficult situation.

The seed was developed in France by Secobra. It is grown mainly in France for brewing malt.