Scotch Whiskey Barrels

Sustainably grown barley trialled for whiskey-making in Scotland

Image credit: Belish Shutterstock

Scottish scientists have been trialling the use of green fertilisers for growing barley to be used in whiskey production.

Barley makes up 63 per cent of Scotland’s cereal crop and is used for malting and distilling, as well as animal feed. Its production depends heavily on nitrogen fertilisers made from fossil fuels.

Using more sustainable fertilisers will help make barley ‘greener’, but farmers and the whisky industry want to ensure that their use won’t make the crop less suitable for whisky production.

A team of researchers from Heriot-Watt University and University College Dublin have been testing three types of sustainable fertilisers or biostimulants.

Dr Angela Feechan, a plant pathologist at Heriot-Watt, said: “The Irish BioCrop project is carrying out field trials at the moment, and we’ll be using their grain.

“They are investigating how biostimulants made from algae, bacteria and yeast perform for barley growth, health and yield compared to traditional fossil fuels.

“It’s not enough to know if we can grow barley without fossil fuels. We need to know what changes using biostimulants could have on them, whether it’s their quality, resistance to disease, how they respond to high heat or whether their flavour changes.

“Reaching net zero means making our food production more sustainable. Biostimulants can hopefully do just that, but we need to be sure whisky won’t suffer as a result.”

The BioCrop project will supply three barley varieties to Heriot-Watt: Cassia, Valeria and RGT Planet.

The researchers will carry out controlled experiments in a series of ‘micro-maltings’ to give them a controlled way to test grains at all stages of whisky production.

“Although it’s laboratory-based, it is possible to produce malt comparable to that produced in commercial maltings,” said Dr Ross Alexander, a researcher on the project.

“We’ll examine the barley on the nanoscale throughout the process to ensure it meets industry standards. That’s everything from how its seeds grow, grain size, enzyme values and soluble protein content.

“Nitrogen content is key to barley meeting market specifications. Malt distilling requires a nitrogen level of below 1.65 per cent.

“Any change to that could mean it’s not useable for whisky production; the micro-malting analysis will give us certainty on the effect of biostimulants on barley.”

The project will run for around two years and the Heriot-Watt team will visit the field trial site at Lyons Farm, University College Dublin, to see the biostimulants in action.

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