Buoyed by soaring global sales of the old stuff, Scotland’s malt whisky industry is enjoying its strongest period of growth of the post-war era. Across five regions 128 distilleries – the most since 1945 – support more than 40,000 jobs and last year exports reached £4.73 billion, a new record. Scotch Whisky is now the UK’s single biggest manufactured export contributing more to the UK’s balance of trade than any other industry.
The market for distilling malt in Scotland began to expand in 2004 and in the years since 29 new distilleries have been constructed and many existing distilleries expanded. For much of this period however, the industry has been heavily reliant on just a few varieties to meet demand.
As malting barley growers, Scotland’s farmers play a central role in the future success of the industry, but meeting quality specifications is not without its challenges.
Such reliance on a handful of varieties has caused alarm among end-users who would rather spread the production risk across several varieties should one underperform on farm or at the maltings. But the exacting needs of distillers mean the list of suitable varieties is typically short and it often takes several years before a new variety gains distilling approval and finds its way on to farm.
For Gareth Kerr of Barrelwell Farm, Brechin, variety choice is limited, and his preference is often determined by factors such as straw stiffness, maturity and yield potential. In 2018 he split his crop area between KWS Sassy and Concerto and after seeing how each performed, he is clear about which variety he intends to sow this spring.
“The area of spring malting barley in 2018 was split between KWS Sassy and Concerto, with both varieties grown as seed crops for W N Lindsay. Maturity dates for both varieties were similar with KWS Sassy out-yielding the Concerto by 0.75t/ha. The grain quality of the KWS Sassy was very good and it harvested well with a very good straw yield. This year our whole spring barley area will be KWS Sassy,” says Mr Kerr.
Another grower keen to spread to the variety risk by trying one of the more recently approved varieties is Ronald Dick of Mains of Throsk Farm, Stirling.
“2018 was my first year growing KWS Sassy and it certainly impressed, yielding about 7t/ha despite the dry spring. It was grown as a seed crop for W N Lindsay and was harvested before Concerto or Laureate, so for us the variety has no maturity issues. It harvested well and with good quality, low screening grain and plenty of good straw and it is a variety we will be growing again this spring,” says Mr Dick.
Fulfilling market demand means the need for better varieties that yield ever higher and offer good agronomics will ensure growers continue to help move the industry forward and maintain the appeal of Scotch whisky to a new generation of consumers.