Scientists to trial sustainably grown barley for future whisky production

The research, funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, is taking place over two years.

Heriot-Watt University scientists to trial sustainably grown barley for future whisky production iStock

Whisky experts are to test green-grown barley to ensure it is fit to be used in Scotland’s national drink.

Researchers at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, are running tests on barley grown with green fertilisers in hope that it will still meet the requirements to distil whiskies.

Barley makes up 63% of Scotland’s cereal crop and is used for a wide range of purposes, including malting, distilling and as animal feed.

If the tests, named the BioCrop project, find the green option is suitable, it will mean production will rely far less on using non-renewable fertilisers.

The research, funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, is taking place over two years.

The team at Heriot-Watt are working with scientists from University College Dublin, Ireland, who are testing three types of sustainable fertilisers.

A field trial site will be established at Lyons Farm, University College London.

Dr Angela Feechan, a plant pathologist at Heriot-Watt, said: “The Irish BioCrop project funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine 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 with 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, named Cassia, Valeria and RGT Planet.

Researchers Dr Ross Alexander and Dr Calum Holmes are to carry out experiments in the university’s world-renowned International Centre for Brewing and Distilling (ICBD).

Dr Ross Alexander said: “We’ll be testing the barley in our micro maltings, which gives us a very 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.

“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%.

“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.”