Historic barley, wheat and corn variants have resurfaced in recent years as whisk(e)y distillers revive heritage grains for their flavour profile, regenerative farming benefits and sense of tradition.

Grain harvests had greater genetic variance 150 years ago; one harvest could consist of hundreds of different plants. During the 19th Century, plant breeders started to select single varieties that were producing bigger yields under regional agronomic conditions.

This practice resulted in the winnowing down of grain variety to singular strains such as Squareheads Master wheat. These plants have been crossed and bulked up over the years but the result is that we use uniformly genetically similar crops in large harvests.

Producers across the food and beverage sectors are now making a return to heritage grains. A popular aspect of heritage grains is their diverse qualities and flavours.

“We use heritage grains because they offer different flavours and textures in comparison to the Laureate strain that is more commonly used today,” Calum Rae, distillery manager of Scotland’s Holyrood Distillery, tells Just Drinks.

Holyrood Distillery has worked with the heritage barley varieties Chevallier, Golden promise, Plumage Archer, Maris Otter and Hana.

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“Chevalier gives us a really strong malty taste, thick bready notes and a hint of spice. It also provides a lovely thick texture that really complements other malt flavours. Plumage Archer is very juicy and has a prominent fruit note while Maris Otter has huge biscuit notes,” says Rae.

Irish whiskey producer Waterford Distillery uses the heritage grains Hunter from the 1950s and the 1910’s Goldthorpe barley.

Head brewer at Waterford Distillery, Neil Conway, says: “We worked with the Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and our maltsters, Minch Malt, to upscale heritage barley over several years. What originally began as small 50g packets of seeds kept in an essentially refrigerated archive, eventually became enough seeds to grow at a scale to then distil.”

Danish producer Thy Whisky Distillery has worked with the barley grains Imperial (1893) and Langeland, whose origin is still shrouded but has been linked to Langland, an island south of Funen.

Both of these barleys are Danish breeds and Thy worked with the Nordic Gene Bank to revive the grains. Thy now grows them in its own fields and farms roughly 500 hectares each year. The two barleys now account for 20% of Thy’s whisky production.

“Whereas modern barley varieties tend to give a very comparable flavour profile, the old barley varieties each give a very distinct flavour in our whisky. We are a 100%-single-estate distillery. To us, making truly Danish whisky with a sense of place and terroir is the real purpose of distilling in Denmark,” Jakob Stjernholm, co-owner, master distiller and CEO of Thy Whisky Distillery, tells Just Drinks.

Distilling out of Missouri’s wine country, Wood Hat Spirits owner Gary Hinegardner has been working with heritage corn, from which he distils Bourbon and corn whiskies.  

Hinegardner tells Just Drinks: “I got one of my first corns from the Hopi Indians out in Arizona. Some of the red corn has come from the Amish community. I’ve also got corn from the world seed bank, corn seed bank, through USDA, and we’ve got 44 different corns there but we also breed our own.

“I select for taste first, and then we work on the yield,” Hinegardner adds. “We do chemical analysis and HPLC mass spectrometers and then we make cornbread and we make grits and we taste it and see how humans respond to those corns. Then we select the ones we want to plant for next year.”

Heritage grains help bolster regenerative farming and sustainability goals

The sustainability aspect of heritage grains is also a key draw. Modern seeds grow extremely well in controlled growing conditions but are slow to adapt, while heritage seeds adjust better to changing conditions.

Waterford Distillery’s Conway tells Just Drinks: “Our organic and biodynamic farmers are growing Hunter. Why? When farming regeneratively, the growers are creating a richer soil that’s vibrant and full of life.

“Modern barley varieties have quite short roots – perhaps used to a diet of fast food from the surface over the years – but the heritage varieties like Hunter, which was originally introduced in 1959, have much longer roots. They’re able to make better use of that richer soil, and the growers talk of crop improvements and yield improvements.”

Having a diverse genetic variance in crops is also just good practice. Take the Gros Michel banana. In the 1950s, the Gros Michel was the most popular banana in the US. Then Panama disease – a fungal disease – wiped out most of the harvest of Gros Michel in Central America.

As a result, the once ubiquitous Gros Michel is no longer found and Cavendish banana is dominant in the market. Singular genetic crops can fall en masse.

Why are heritage grains not more common?

There are a number of downsides to heritage grains that have been bred from modern variants. For one, they are more susceptible to disease. This can be countered with cross breeding but that takes time and money. Poor pest resistance is another issue; just as it could be open to disease, a grain can be open to destruction by insects.

Lower yields are the main reason we don’t intensely farm heritage grains. They’re the past for big farming operations, and dependable grains like Laureate and Metcalfe barley are currently desired.

Waterford Distillery’s Conway tells Just Drinks: “In a good harvest year, a heritage grower will be lucky to achieve 1.5 tonne per acre versus four tonne per acre for modern conventional barley varieties.

“The malting and brewing quality of the barley is also inadequate compared to modern varieties. For example, the barley will have higher protein levels and after malting it tends to have low soluble extract, low friability, low spirit-yield percentages.”

All of these can necessitate the maltster and distiller having to change processes to match the grain’s particular qualities, adding additional costs to something that has poor yields to begin with.

They can be challenging for distilling in particular, as heritage grains return lower alcohol yields in distillation, sometimes 25% lower than modern strains.

“They are also more difficult to use in the process as they haven’t been as refined or modified for the mashing process,” Holyrood Scotch distillery’s Rae says.

Despite their drawbacks, heritage grains are opening doors to innovation by those willing to break from traditional practices or, in some cases, return to older traditions.

Samuel Garbutt, head of whisky at East London Liquor Co., notes while yields are low and high-starch distilling malt varieties tend to yield less spirit at the end of the process, it’s not as big an issue for craft distillers.

“For huge, more traditional distilleries where production is based at 99-100% efficiency this is a big problem,” Garbutt says. “For newer distilleries like ourselves with more manual brewing techniques, we might only be able to manage 85-90% with a high yielding malt and the same with a heritage variety so with what should be a downside to a crop like Maris Otter suddenly makes a lot more sense to a craft distillery.”

Heritage grains are by definition not new but their use in distillation by both the larger and smaller players is potentially opening up different flavours and paths for innovation.

Regenerative farming aspects of heritage grains is also an enticing talking point for distillers that engage with heritage crops and regenerative practices.

The restoration of heritage grains and use by distillers appears to be commendable. A diverse future is surely not something to root against.