Waterford Distillery Produces 50 Barrels from Rare Heritage Grain

15 Mar 2019 1:13 PM | Cathal Fleming

Waterford Distillery has successfully distilled 10,000 litres – totalling 50 barrels – from a heritage grain that has not been seen in the industry for 40 years.

The Waterford team are currently working with industry-leading researcher Dr. Dustin Herb from Oregon State University, as well as the Irish agricultural body Teagasc, to demonstrate the influence of terroir on flavours found in barley distillates. 

Grace O'Rielly (Waterford Distillery), Pat Kennedy, Tom Bryan, Alan Dempsey (all of Minch Malt), Neil Conway (Waterford Distillery)

For those not familiar with the term, terroir is a set of environmental factors that affect a crop's makeup - including unique environment contexts, farming practices and a crop's specific growth habitat.

In the case of this grain, the guys at Waterford partnered with Minch Maltsto resurrect the "Hunter" malting barley variety, which was introduced in 1959 but last used in 1979.

This is the first in the distillery’s planned production of spirit from newly accessible heritage grains, in a journey to explore what flavours were available in the past. Most modern barley varieties are produced with grain yield in mind, not flavour, so the distillery aims to discover if a more flavoursome whiskey could be made from these old varieties.

Through their partnership with maltsters, Minch Malt, and following the distillery’s production of Ireland’s first organic and biodynamic whiskies, Waterford Distillery is once again putting terroir-driven production methods to the fore. 

Head Brewer Neil Conway says: “Contrary to what much of the industry is telling drinkers, flavour starts with the grain and the terroir in which it’s grown. Hunter is an old favourite, a very successful variety, so much so that it dominated for 20 years. That’s why we’re working with Minch Malt and our growers – we’re on the hunt for profound sources of flavour, even if that means going back decades to find these forgotten treasures. What’s more, we’re producing these heritage spirits on as large a scale as possible, rather than a barrel here or there, so as many whisky drinkers as possible have a chance to follow our journey.”

More about Hunter Grain: 

Irish farmers grew barley from home-saved seed from the previous harvest before the development of new hybrid varieties in the early 20th Century. This home-saved seed had poor yields, highly variable from plant to plant, and from farm to farm, and dependent on the weather.

Farmers struggled year on year and the crop was susceptible to the elements. Such practices were commonplace before the introduction of the Hunter variety.

Hunter is the result of a cross between Spratt Archer - which was the first hybrid variety bred by Herbert Hunter – and Kenia, a Scandinavian barley. Spratt Archer was grown very successfully in the UK but it needed Kenia’s characteristics for shorter and stronger straw to stand against the Irish climate.

Hunter accounted for 75% of Irish malting barley purchases by 1966. Hunter’s dominance of the Irish malting barley industry continued up until 1978-1979 when it was replaced by Ark Royal and Triumph both of which possessed significantly higher grain yield potential and better resistance to fungal diseases. Hunter was widely missed by brewers and distillers as it is thought to be one of the most flavoursome varieties compared to more recent varieties.

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