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What’s it like distilling with heritage malts?

The word ‘heritage’ elicits a spectrum of shared and individual meanings for everyone on this planet. For some, it provokes an intrinsically linked feeling of connection to one’s past (the people, places, and things that came before them); for others, it’s a wider appreciation of their surroundings in relation to how they came to be and their significance in identifying said surroundings. For whisky distillers, heritage is becoming inextricably linked to an essential ingredient in their production process: distillers malt.

A man checks the barley grains in a field that are destined for distilling.Heritage malts have become the darlings of some of the UK’s (and further afield) newest and most exciting distilleries. From Chevallier and Maris Otter, to the lesser-seen Plumage Archer and Hana (and some even more exotic ones across the pond), these malts – while more historically at home in brewing circles – are giving the beer industry’s spirited cousin something rather exciting to shout about beyond the cask.

So why are some distilleries using heritage malt and some not? What are the pros and cons of working with grains usurped by more modern varieties? And how do we maintain whisky’s integrity while pushing the needle forward? Questions all posed to some of the distillers working with heritage malts right now.

We do have a habit of sort of standing still, sometimes, being stuck in our ways, which is so important, and it’s why we are what we are, and what keeps the category what it is

Calum Rae, Assistant Distillery Manager at Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

But what a great way to innovate without doing anything too radical – just looking at the past and bringing it all back around.

Bringing it back

Distilling with Heritage Malt from Crisp, a bottle of Holyrood Whisky.Of course, the main driver of using these malts is an inclination towards their flavor expression and a focus on the beginning of a whisky’s journey versus its time in the barrel. Over at Edinburgh’s Holyrood Distillery, in Scotland, it’s no surprise that heritage malts have been on the cards. The team has taken the city’s rich brewing background to explore how they make their range of new makes, strong waters, and their soon-to-be-released first whisky, Arrival, using the likes of Chevallier and Golden Promise malt.

We strive to be different and looking at the past, reviving these strains and being a part of that is really important to us. There are so many unique and characterful properties in there that you’ll otherwise never get, no matter how good your cask is. Sure, it’s a big challenge, but we really enjoy the trade-off.

explains Rae.

In a diner in east London, at Bow Wharf, the East London Liquor Company’s Whisky Manager Sam Garbutt, has worked primarily with Maris Otter Malt (floor and regular malted), as well as Chevallier, and a tiny bit with Hana as they continue to produce a range of single malts and rye whiskies which continue to invigorate England’s burgeoning whisky scene.

It’s not necessarily better quality to use heritage malt. Still, you are kind of proving that you’re taking a stand on making something maybe more flavourful or a different type of flavor than what’s around at the moment. It is separating you slightly from what is going on.

Sam Garbutt, East London Liquor Company’s Whisky Manager


Looking at the whiskey-making process before the introduction of wood has been a big driver of the brand’s creativity since it launched in 2014. “That the bit before the barrel? Yeah, that didn’t seem to matter, so the raw ingredients didn’t matter – until a few people questioned that here and started looking at America and what craft distilling was doing there.”

One such distillery is Westland Distillery in Seattle. In 2015, the team distilled Maris Otter and Golden Promise Malt to learn more about their production efficiencies with local malt compared to those in Europe. Currently, Distillery Manager Tyler Pederson and the team are experimenting with an ancient Middle-Eastern strain, Purple Egyptian, and a heritage barley from Orkney in Scotland, Bere, which make up an important, albeit small, percentage of their production.

With varieties like Maris Otter and Golden Promise, their flavor is richer with more notes of toasted bread and a biscuity character. The Purple Egyptian variety has probably been the most exciting so far. We’ve worked with it several times now, most recently as a Vienna-style malt, and the flavors were just wonderfully rich, and it had an intense Raisin Bran character to it. The smell in the distillery while it was in production was enthralling.

Tyler Pederson, Distillery Manager

Over in Ireland, Waterford Distillery is pioneering single farm, biodynamic, and heritage malt varieties, including hunter and goldthorpe. For Head Brewer and Production Manager Neil Conway, the barley is where everything begins:

That’s where it starts; that’s the important part. Further down the process, you can twist the flavor profile by introducing different yeasts and different casks, different ways of distilling raw material – but that raw ingredient is where the effects are coming from.

Get to grips

Holyrood distillery - distilling with Heritage MaltWhile working with these malts may come with bountiful bonuses, there are naturally challenges to overcome too, as with all malts. According to Pederson, where Golden Promise and Maris Otter’s low protein and high starch content means they have favorable yield potential, Purple Egyptian and Bere’s higher protein and beta-glucan content make them trickier to work with. Heritage malt varieties also have no shortage of free amino nitrogen – no bad thing, he explains, until you have too much of it and in turn overproduce fusel alcohols.

Over at Waterford, the team has something new to get to grips with: “I was speaking to our maltster, and they have a batch of Spratt-Archer, a variety from the 1920s that we grew for the first time last year – we’re malting and brewing it next week. Now, I need to sit down and go through my processes for it. The farmer has taken a lot of time growing it, the maltster has taken a lot of energy processing it through the malting plant, and now it’s come through to me. If I don’t pay close attention to it, it could go drastically wrong.”

While Rae advocates for the textural qualities heritage malts like Chevallier bring, they can sometimes come at a cost. “Processability wise, it can be a bit of a nightmare. Chevallier is a bit a little bit like wet cake coming out, and it doubles our draffing time if we do 100%. You start to see why some of these fell out of favor with some of the bigger distilleries and why over time.” Saying that, the Holyrood team have found the relative underdog, Hana, to be much nicer to process. “We tend to get on a really high cut of the Hana, so it’s clean, it’s smooth, and it’s fresh. I like it because it’s not too showy, you know, it’s, it’s the bass player in the band.”

Heritage malts used for distilling on traditional floor malting at Great Ryburgh.Garbutt has also noticed nuances regarding cut points, specifically with Maris Otter. “You do have to be careful on your tails cut – you can’t run too far into your tail. So it’s harder to make a kind of fatty, oily spirit with it because those tannins start to come in. For Rae, these nuances not only let you really dial in on these malts’ idiosyncrasies but also make them really quite versatile. “We can cut super high on something like Chevallier, and you’re very much getting your kind of classic realm of new make tastes, but as soon as you start going a little bit lower in there, all of a sudden, it kind of explodes. When we got below 60 and into the high 50s, some of the flavors coming out of there were just totally unique. They’re not a one trick pony.”

And their versatility means that heritage malts are also a dab hand at not only holding their own in mash bills but also allowing other elements like yeasts to shine too – Trojan horsing flavors and textures through the mashing, fermenting, and distilling process. “When we use things like specialty malt in conjunction with some of these heritage malts, it helps some of those unique flavors that come from the specialty really kind of carry through and also hang around as well,” explains Rae.

We’re in a unique position as distillers where we now have all of them available, and we can put them in a mash bill together. And that’s really what’s exciting me at the moment about heritage malts – not just how we use a single one, but how we can use them all together.

Calum Rae, Holyrood Distillery’s assistant distillery manager

Building a future

A glass used for whisky tastingOf course, aging still remains a large part of the discussion, and it’s something the team at Waterford is still navigating. “We’re still learning,” he says of their experience with heritage. While Hunter has performed exceptionally well, some of the other heritage varieties they’re working with are “a bit of an unknown for us now. We went into this for the other side of the process.”

Back in London, Garbutt is finding that heritage malts seem to taste better in a short space of time than some of its more modern counterparts. They’ve also used more neutral casks and eschewed sweeter finishing casks to try and keep it as simple as possible – perfect for a young distillery which is releasing at four, five, six, and seven years old – “It’s kind of like a little secret weapon in some ways for us being a younger distillery.” Rae agrees that aged heritage gives the illusion of being a slightly older whisky than it really is.

And, of course, the question of yield isn’t something that can be ignored either. For Pederson, it is an extremely important topic that cannot be ignored in the shadow of flavor: “We’re working with heritage grains to showcase new or forgotten flavors, which is really exciting from a liquid perspective. However, I think it’s just as important that some of these varieties can offer better yields to farmers through genetic resistance to threats in the field, such as pests, diseases, or severe weather events.

“As distillers, we’re not really looking at yield,” explains Conway, “it’s about quality. The future of heritage lies with the medium distilleries, unless there’s a shift in consumer demand and people want more heritage.” Conway also explains that the organic, biodynamic and heritage crops this year in Ireland have performed better than those farms who have grown modern varieties – the fledgling implications of this could be very exciting for heritage farmers indeed.

The battle we’re fighting now is to get the farmers to grow a lot of this stuff, because we’re in a unique point at the moment where the demand for this has really gone up. We’re all aware that we need to look at how we can sustain these things because it’s something that we love, and I think it would be an absolute crime if they vanished again.

Calum Rae, Holyrood Distillery’s assistant distillery manager

Millie Milliken drinking at a bar


Article written by Millie Milliken

Award-winning drinks and hospitality journalist, content creator and editor
who also judges at the Great Taste Awards, IWSC and more.

Find out more about Millie Milliken here.

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