Making whisky is a dram difficult challenge

Providing the feedstock to sustain the continued growth in whisky sales seen in recent years presents a challenge not just to Scotland’s barley growers but also to its researchers and plant breeders.

Picture: Contributed
Picture: Contributed

And the country’s largest meeting of scientists involved in barley research heard that, with whisky exports accounting for around £4.3 billion worth of sales in 2012, the product stood behind only oil and gas as the country’s chief generator of external income

Jeremy Stephens, spirit and process quality manager with Morrison Bowmore distilleries, told the meeting, organised by the James Hutton Institute, that 90 per cent of all whisky production was exported, accounting for more than 140 million cases of Scotch last year:

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“And not only does this account for over 25 per cent of our total food and drink exports but it also feeds over a billion pounds into the supply chain and a similar amount to the exchequer.”

He added that this figure didn’t take into account the extra tourism income which the industry generated for Scotland.

He said that the overall spirit production side had been helped in recent years by new technologies and new varieties: “It’s only a few years ago that the yield was between 405 and 410 litres per tonne of malted barley but that figure rose to 420 litres in 2012, partly as a result of varietal improvements.”

But he indicated that research to maintain this performance was needed as even a small reduction in this conversion figure – which could be caused by factors such as this year’s higher malting barley nitrogen levels – could have a significant impact on both profitability and overall production levels.

And this view was echoed by independent malting consultant Phillip Morrall, who said that, with barley costs accounting for between 65 and 75 per cent of all costs for companies that sold malt rather than whisky, using science to identify and improve the agronomic factors that allowed the maltsters to maximise the yield and quality of malt from each tonne of barely was a crucial.

He said that energy costs were another important area stating that there was increasing pressure on companies to look at the lifetime carbon foot print of their products – both on plant an on-farm.

The energy requirements for producing fertilisers – and the greenhouse gases which could be released during its use – together with the CO2 costs of crop protection chemicals, and fuel used for cultivation, harvesting and drying were, according to Morrall, all likely to come under increasing pressure in the future.

But research was already underway on this issue and Hutton researcher Cathy Hawes gave some early results from a field-scale trial covering 42 ha put over to a sustainable cropping system.

She said that on a low-input rotation consisting of spring barley, beans, winter barley, oilseed rape, wheat and potatoes there had been a range of yields – but only winter wheat had shown yields that were consistently lower.