As you’re reading this blog, we assume you’ve drunk whisky made from barley and corn, and probably had some things made from wheat and rye too. But these aren’t the only cereals: what about oats, millet or sorghum? And what on earth is triticale? Ian Buxton investigates.
What’s whisky made from? Easy: barley, corn, rye and wheat. Custom, practice and legislation have led to the global dominance of these four cereals, and with the many wonderful whiskies that are created from them, we don’t need to look any further.
Well, apparently, we do and a new generation of distillers are asking, ‘what about oats, millet or sorghum?’ Some go even further. Take, for example, Australia’s tiny Adelaide Hills distillery where founder and head distiller Sacha La Forgia explores local varieties such as wattleseed and weeping grass. With his Native Grains releases, he’s aiming to start a debate around diversity, sustainability and the preservation of indigenous species requiring fewer inputs to flourish in their native environment.
La Forgia is part of a global movement that seeks to challenge orthodoxy and offer enthusiast consumers new taste horizons. While in Scotland a limited number of barley varieties have come to dominate production, distillers such as Bruichladdich have looked to whisky’s history to revive the hard-to-grow heritage strain known as bere (see header pic).
Going further into the records, field-to-bottle distillers Ardbikie, located in the fertile farmlands of Scotland’s east coast, have determined that rye was used in making Scotch whisky well into the 19th century. Though enjoying a revival in the USA, Ardbikie’s Highland Rye can proudly claim to be unique in Scotland.
But with the craft distilling movement most fully developed in the USA, it’s here we turn for some more radical experiments. A number of distillers have released heritage corn varieties, first brought to us by Balcones with their Baby Blue Corn Whisky, amongst them Jeptha Creed Distillery (Shelbyville, KY) with their Bloody Butcher and Charleston, SC High Wire Distilling’s Jimmy Red. For a distinctive take on heritage corn, though, look no further than Mexico’s Abasolo with their use of non-GMO cacahuazintle corn and the 4,000-year-old nixtamalization cooking process (see article here).
The Corsair Distillery in Nashville has pioneered a number of different grains, including quinoa from South America. For something even more off the wall from Corsair, known for its buccaneering approach, just try its Red absinthe: it’s not fairy juice! However, back to quinoa. It’s demanding to work with because of the small size of the grains and their bitter seed coating but almost because of the perversity of that challenge it attracted the attention of Australia’s Whippersnapper distillery who use a Western Australian variety for its earthy and peppery notes.
A vital food source across Africa, sorghum has also found its way into the repertoire of smaller distillers, possibly because of its appeal to the gluten intolerant. As well as High Wire Distilling, Sorghum whiskies include expressions from Still 360 in Saint Louis; Madison, WI’s Old Sugar Distillery and Jersey Artisan Distilling, NJ.
Virtually all of the distillers mentioned are small in scale and unlikely ever to break into the mass market. But major players have flirted with the alternative grain option, most notably the limited run Jim Beam Harvest Bourbon collection released in 2014 and 2015. The whiskies included Whole Rolled Oat, Soft Red Wheat, Brown Rice and Triticale (a rye/wheat cross also distilled by Dry Fly Distilling in Spokane, WA). Oats, in particular, represented a radical approach for such a large distiller but the collection appears to have been a one-off, with any remaining supplies ironically now more sought after for investment than drinking.
But the drive to experiment cannot be denied and I anticipate unorthodox grains from craft distillers to trend in 2021 and beyond.