Future health of Scottish whisky is in the genes

LOVERS of a wee dram may soon be raising a glass to cutting-edge DNA fingerprinting techniques being used create a Scottish “superbarley”.

LOVERS of a wee dram may soon be raising a glass to cutting-edge DNA fingerprinting techniques being used create a Scottish “superbarley”.

Scientists at the forefront of barley crop genetics are using the sort of profiling methods associated with criminal investigations in a bid to ensure the long-term sustainability of whisky’s raw material and increase production of the national drink.

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If successful, the £2 million Impromalt project, which is being led by agriculture researchers at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, could be the single biggest breakthrough in barley genetics since a new variety was developed in the 1960s.

Two crops of malting barley are sown each year north of the Border – spring and winter. All whisky is currently made from the spring crop due to its superior quality, which allows the maximum amount of spirit to be produced. However, crops grown over winter have a much higher yield and are more robust.

Supplies of malting barley have been hit by seasonal problems in many parts of Europe and the UK, with drought and wet conditions in 2011 and 2012 seriously affecting quality. Predicted global warming scenarios suggest weather fluctuations will become more frequent and have the most drastic impact on the spring crop. Winter barley can escape the worst effects of summer drought or a late harvest because of its earlier maturity.

The aim of the five-year study is to identify the genes responsible for spring barley’s valuable attributes and breed them into hardy winter crops. This will help guarantee barley supplies for malting and boost production of Scotland’s liquid gold.

“This project is about the future more than what’s happening today,” said Dr James Brosnan, research manager at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute and chair of the project steering group.

“We now use more barley grown in Scotland than at any other time. The challenge is for future years. We harvest spring barley in a fairly narrow time window, and if the weather or other growing factors close in to vastly impact on the crop, the challenge would be in procuring the amount needed in an expanding industry. We expect to be using more barley in the future due to Scotch whisky’s continued success around the world.”

“This is not a genetic modification,” stressed the institute’s Dr Bill Thomas, principal investigator in the project.

“It’s being done through conventional breeding techniques but using DNA fingerprinting to identify the regions we want to mobilise from spring barley and put into a winter barley background. Then we select the progeny in future generations.

“Technically it’s no different from criminal DNA profiling, except our criminals are lots of different barleys.”

Around 40 per cent of all barley grown in Scotland is for the whisky sector. As well as making high-quality malting barley hardier, the project will deepen understanding of the chromosomal make-up of the grain to help growers around the country.

“We’ll identify what it is that creates malting quality at a genetic level and how the genes of the barley will react with the environment. It’s just like DNA fingerprinting,” said Brosnan.

“At the moment if a breeder wanted to make a successful malting barley, they would do better to buy a lottery ticket – you’re looking at probabilities of two million to one when you’re making crosses.

“What this work is trying to do is help win the jackpot. But instead of six balls, you will only have to pick three.”

Thomas added: “Whilst plant breeders have previously tried to add spring quality attributes into winter barley, they have relied on chance events to assemble the right genes, which is like searching for a needle in a haystack when the crops differ at thousands of genetic loci.

“But we now have the knowledge and tools to introduce spring attributes into winter barley in a highly targeted manner to test the hypothesis that this will improve winter malting quality.”

The latest figures from the Scotch Whisky Association show annual exports of the water of life were worth £4.3 billion last year. In volume terms, overseas sales rose by 2.5 per cent to the equivalent of 1.23 billion bottles. Overall, the spirit accounts for about 85 per cent of Scottish food and drink exports and nearly a quarter of the UK total.

Scotch whisky distilleries currently source 80 per cent of the barley used in malting from growers north of the Border, but industry experts predict a continuing rise in demand for the world-famous tipple. They say it is vital to act now to safeguard future supplies of the grain and maximise the industry’s potential.

“Distillers can produce 16 more litres of raw spirit per tonne of malt on average from spring barley than they can from winter barley,” said Thomas. “For an industry that used approximately 600,000 tonnes of barley during the 2012 harvest, this is a highly significant difference in production efficiency.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government, which part-funds the project, said: “The Impromalt project aims to increase the long-term resilience of the supply chain of barley for the economically important malting and distilling industry.

“It helps support the Scotch whisky industry by main­taining the sufficient supply 
of malting cereals and provides important research to support Scottish farmers achieve this.”

However, it is likely to be at least 10 years before drinkers get their first sip of whisky made from superbarley.

“We would be doing laboratory tests and field trials at the end, with small-scale testing of the harvest in 2018, at the earliest. Realistically, though, the commercial impact will not be felt for at least a decade,” ­Thomas said.

Impromalt is also supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the cereal and oilseeds body HGCA. Partners include the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, plant growers and the Maltsters’ Association of Great Britain.