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DISTILLING Bere Whisky – rediscovering the spirit of an old barley Scotland’s Bard, Robert Burns, was fond of whisky and his poem Scotch Drink celebrates the drink and mentions the use of bere (bear), an old type of barley, for making it: LEFT: Bere spirit coming off the still at Bruichladdich distillery, Islay in February 2008. “Let other poets raise a fracas ’Bout vines an’ wines, an’ drucken Bacchus, An’ crabbit names an’ stories wrack us, An’ grate our lug: I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us, In glass or jug.” By Peter Martin and Xianmin Chang A mazingly, over 200 years since Burns’ poem, bere is still being grown in the north of Scotland and we describe recent projects to develop specialist whiskies using this old crop – probably Britain’s oldest cereal in continuous commercial cultivation. Bere is a very old type of barley which may have been brought to Britain by the Vikings in the 9th century and has been grown in the north of Scotland down to present times. It was also called “bygge” or “big” which probably originated from “bygg”, the Old Norse for barley. After its introduction, bere became particularly well-adapted to the north of Britain as successive generations of farmers grew it, probably carefully selecting seeds each year from the best plants. Some of the characteristics which make it so well-suited to this area are its rapid spring growth, short growing season and tolerance to acidic soils. However, in spite of bere’s suitability for the north of Britain, it has some serious disadvantages compared with modern varieties – in particular, its low yields and long, weak straw (up to 120cm long) which makes it susceptible to lodging (falling over) by harvest time. As a result of these shortcomings and the adoption of improved agricultural practices like liming and the use of higher yielding varieties, bere was abandoned by most growers during the 19th and 20th centuries. By the start of the 21st century, probably only about 10ha were being grown a year – particularly on Orkney, Shetland, the Outer Hebrides and in Caithness. In Orkney, bere survived in cultivation largely thanks to Barony Mills, a 19th century watermill, which purchases the grain and produces a flour (bere meal) which is used locally in bread, biscuits and the traditional bere bannock (a type of scone). Important crop Although today’s market for bere is small, historical documents show that it used to be an important multiuse crop in the Highlands and Islands and provided grain for both milling and malting and straw for animal bedding and thatching. Considerable quantities were also exported from Orkney and other Scottish ports to Northern Europe. The importance of bere to the early distillery industry is illustrated in Joseph Pacy’s book, Reminiscences of a Gauger, which describes the use of bere by the Campbeltown distilleries in the early 1800s and the attempts by people to pass off normal barley for bere because of the lower tax on bere malt. In some of the Western Isles, like Colonsay, so much locally grown bere was used for distilling that the islanders had to import meal for food. Although bere was an important source of malt for both legal and illegal distilling, a major disadvantage was its low alcohol yield on distillation and it was for this reason that, from 1804, bere malt An ear of bere showing its long awns and the arrangement of grains in 6 rows down the ear.. The BREWER & DISTILLER INTERNATIONAL • Volume 4 • Issue 6 • June 2008 • 41

Bere Whisky – rediscovering the spirit of an old barley

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