If you balk at the high price of a bottle of craft whiskey, ease up — you’re getting more than a few drinks out of it. There’s also a unique flavor and story about the grain’s home in that bottle of liquor.
New research co-authored by Oregon State University researcher Dustin Herb says that the environment where grain is grown can affect flavors in products, such as whiskey. The research could be used for more than just whiskey production, though. Herb says any business — from farmers to bakeries — that use grains such as barley can use it to market their product and find a spot in the marketplace. And one regional distillery is already finding success with this path.
The researchers found that flavor differences in whiskey can be differentiated based solely on the environment where it was grown — adopting the French word terroir, a term commonly used when describing the elements that affect wine growing.
Working with a team in Scotland, Herb studied barley planted in two different regions in the country: the coastal Bunclody and the inland Athy. The grain went through a sensory analysis (as well as mathematical and statistical analysis), and the team of researchers found that where the barley was grown had more of an effect on taste than the variety of grain, according to OSU.
“Its biggest implication is that small batch distillers and small batch producers can diversify and distinguish their products in the marketplace by capitalizing on their regionality, their local terroirs,” he says. “It really brings to the forefront the growers who are producing the barley to center stage of the total whiskey production.”
This research could also lead to an increase in farmers choosing to diversify their crops to include barley, Herb adds. The Willamette Valley has a lot of rye grass production, he says, because it’s easy and profitable. Because of this research project, barley could make its way as a local crop for small and large growers.
And the marketing of a locally grown grain’s terroir could benefit businesses that are trying to find their foothold — whether it’s a brewery, a distillery or a bakery.
Pacific Northwest-based Heritage Distillery’s CEO and chemical engineer Justin Stiefel says he knows how important it is to buy grains from smaller, family farms that this research could support. He says Heritage buys the grain directly from the farm and makes whiskey with grain that hasn’t been malted, which often changes the profile of the grain. Although Heritage does buy some malted grain for certain liquors, buying grain straight from the farmer preserves its pure flavor profiles.
“It’s almost as if you’re walking behind the combine during harvest,” he says about the taste difference. “You get all that dust in your nose and you feel like you’re on the farm — those are the essences we can capture when we deal with unmalted grain.”
Stiefel says the flavor profile of the rye that Heritage buys has peppery notes. The barley is sweet and cereal-like. “In fact, when we do the mash with the unsalted barley, it tastes as if you had a bowl of Malt-O-Meal and you poured in some maple syrup,” he adds.
Because grain has different flavors depending where it’s grown, this has led to consumer interest in the craft of liquor, Stiefel says. Consumers, he adds, want to get closer to authenticity, as well as support local farming. So he recommends that drinkers should ask their bartender or the clerk at wherever they buy their liquor about the story of their drink.
Herb says the research isn’t a rebuke of large-scale liquor production; it’s a way to show producers another way of growing. And it makes the consumer involved in the process, allowing them to learn the story of a bottle of liquor. Similar to vintage wine labels, drinkers can cherish specific years or whiskey, he adds.
But what does home taste like for a Willamette Valley barley?
Herb says in 2017 he researched grow sites in Madras, Corvallis and Lebanon for a beer study. The Madras site had a heavier sweetness, like a darker aroma. In comparison, the Lebanon and Corvallis area had a floral sweetness.
Heritage Distillery is opening a new Eugene location at the 5th Street Market Expansion, which offers a Cask Club program to try different spirits — and more. For more information visit HeritageDistilling.com.