Is the whisky industry missing a trick when it comes to the use of speciality malts to create points of difference in flavour creation?
WORDS: TOM BRUCE-GARDYNE
“It’s the number of litres of pure alcohol (lpa) per tonne of malt. Distillers live or die by that number, and we get judged on it too.”
Consider, if you will, all the investment that is lavished on the casks used to mature a single malt whisky, compared with what’s spent on the grain to make the spirit in the first place. The malted barley used to produce a £20 bottle of Glen Moray for example, or a £299 Macallan 18-year-old sherry oak if you’re splashing out, would have cost the distiller around 30 pence at today’s prices. That might surprise a few whisky drinkers.
YIELD BEFORE FLAVOUR?
Of course, with The Macallan you are buying a rarefied whisky of considerable age and status as well as paying £68 to the taxman. To weigh that against the malted barley sounds a crude comparison, but it does highlight the extent to which the principal raw ingredient has been overlooked. That is certainly the view of Colin Johnston of Crisp Malt, the UK’s leading independent maltster.
“The discussions are really so myopic when it comes to malt in the Scotch distilling world,” he says. “It’s – ‘Right, what’s your PSY (predicted spirit yield) this year?’ It’s the number of litres of pure alcohol (lpa) per tonne of malt. Distillers live or die by that number, and we get judged on it too.”
Colin explains how the maltsters will produce malt with a very light kilning to preserve the enzymes and thus the fermentability to give distillers what they demand – maximum alcoholic yield.
The result is a standardised commodity of ‘distillers pure malt’ for Scotch, compared to the dozens of speciality malts regularly used by brewers, especially those making craft beer. This is bizarre considering the two drinks are joined at the hip, what with whisky being essentially distilled beer. If nothing else, it helps explain why distillers are so reliant on wood to give their single malts subtle points of difference.
“It’s amazing to take something with 15 per cent chocolate malt and realise just how much of that roasted character comes across the still.”
The result is a standardised commodity of ‘distillers pure malt’ for Scotch, compared to the dozens of speciality malts regularly used by brewers, especially those making craft beer. This is bizarre considering the two drinks are joined at the hip
“I don’t think there’s ever going to be a really big distiller getting into [specialist malts] big time. Glenmorangie is probably the closest”
CHOCOLATE, CRYSTAL AND CARAMALTS
Yet plenty of distillers argue that the different malt flavours evident in beer would never survive distillation. “Well they can, and they do,” retorts Colin. “It’s amazing to take something with 15 per cent chocolate malt and realise just how much of that roasted character comes across the still.”
Chocolate is part of a family of malts that include amber, brown and black that are given different degrees of roasting after kilning. There are also crystal malts and caramalts that involve stewing and “where you get a toffee and caramel-type flavour,” says Colin.
Chocolate malt costs considerably more and produces a mere 12 lpa per tonne compared to the 420 lpa you would expect from distillers malt. Use 15 per cent in your mashbill and that 30 pence quoted above suddenly jumps to £2.90, enough to give your average corporate bean counter a heart attack. “I totally understand how the profits of these bigger groups have been built on being very good at efficiencies,” says Colin. “If you’re buying 10,000 of tonnes of malt, it’s big money.”
DISTILLING WITHOUT CONSTRAINTS
Diageo did use speciality malt to produce its Johnnie Walker Espresso Roast in 2017, as did Glenmorangie with its Glenmorangie Signet a decade earlier. However, Holyrood’s head distiller, Jack Mayo, is surely right when he says: “I don’t think there’s ever going to be a really big distiller getting into it big time. Glenmorangie’s probably the closest, but I couldn’t see Glenlivet, Macallan or Glenfiddich doing it because it’s a massive hassle and changes your spirit profile, which they can’t do.”
A new boutique distillery is far less constrained. Jack and Holyrood’s co-founder, David Robertson, have worked with speciality malts since 2016 and now have examples where the flavours are still prominent even after four years in wood. In a recent presentation to the SMWS, Jack began by explaining how these malts offer a great opportunity to differentiate and be innovative in something other than wood. He then progressed to the nitty gritty of the Maillard reaction, which is far more tasty than it sounds.
Without getting too technical, the reaction – named after an obscure French chemist – concerns the way sugars and amino-acids from the proteins in the malt combine during the kilning or roasting process. It is the same reaction that crisps up roast potatoes and helps make roasted coffee and freshly baked bread so moreish. In whisky it can give rise to flavours that are nutty, earthy, fruity and caramelised among others.
“In whisky it can give rise to flavours that are nutty, earthy, fruity and caramelised among others”
UNAFRAID TO EXPERIMENT
Members will soon have a chance to taste for themselves with the release of a pair of whiskies, specially created for the SMWS by the Holyrood distillery, one using 20 per cent crystal malt and the other 20 per cent chocolate.
You could never use just chocolate malt because it lacks the necessary enzymes. Colin Johnston did taste one made from pure brown malt in San Diego and says: “It was like no whisky I had ever tasted before. Instead of that sweetness, it was earthy, complex and nutty – almost hazelnut.”
In his view, maltsters could have done more to talk up the diversity of malts and enthuse whisky-makers. “We’ve been quite divided in our approach, selling one portfolio to brewers and just plain and peated malt to distillers,” he says.
I think the American craft spirits revolution has been the driving force, as a lot of these new distillers have come from the brewing side. So they already understand what all these speciality malts can do in terms of flavour contribution in beer, and they’re not afraid to experiment.”
“They already understand what all these speciality malts can do, and they’re not afraid to experiment.”
“It throws open a much bigger question about what is ‘value’ when it comes to whisky. For a long time it’s been about supply and demand and scarcity”
A QUESTION OF ‘VALUE’
Running alongside the arguments over speciality malt are those concerning the use of different strains of barley. If distillers can swallow the drop in alcoholic yield from using roasted malts they might be happy to pay the premium required for farmers to grow low-yielding heritage varieties like Marris Otter or that ancient six-row barley, known as bere. It will certainly cost more, but then as Colin Johnston says: “It throws open a much bigger question about what is ‘value’ when it comes to whisky. For a long time it’s been about supply and demand and scarcity – about how much has evaporated away and how much is left in the cask.” Maybe it is time to reframe the debate.