Early use of barley

With over 10.000 years of cultivating history, barley is one of the oldest grown grains. Since then it provided mankind with food in form of bread and also fed the livestock beginning with the early farms up to now. Aside from food people also learned how to use the precious seeds to produce alcohol.
While beer has evidently been produced between 8.000 and 5.000 B.C. in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the first explicit evidence for beer made from barley has its origin in the west of Iran around 3.500 B.C.. And with the first hints of distillation being used as early as 3.000 B.C. the first strong alcohols from cereals could have been produced.
After clear accounts in the 9th century for more modern distillation in Iraq the technique has spread via Italy all over Europe, where countries started using their most commonly available ingredients, e.g. barley, grapes and potatoes, to produce liquor and other strong alcohols.

Barley, the grain that Scotch whisky is made of
Corn: the main ingredient for Bourbon Whiskey
Rye: mostly used for Rye Whiskey in the US and Canada, it is also present in Bourbon

Why barley for Scotch whisky?

As a matter of fact, any grain could be used to produce whisky. All that is needed is a grain that holds starch, which can be conversed into sugars and furthermore being fermented and eventually distilled. Sounds surprisingly simple, doesn’t it?

The reason why barley became the chosen one was due to its availability. Barley was and still is the main cereal growing since the early history of Scotland and the rest of the UK. And when farmers harvested their barley and couldn’t manage to use all of it for further food production it was far more profitable to transform the raw barley into alcohol which can be stored safely or sold separately. Otherwise the barley would have been stored over the winter months, possibly mold or end up being eaten by mice and other animals.
And while barley remained the main resource for whisky production in Scotland and Ireland, oats and rye have been used before as well but have not established as much. Corn and rye where more common in the US and Canada for example and its use to whisky production formed a whole different flavour profile in their products now world wide known as Bourbon and Rye Whiskeys.

Nowadays it’s stated within the law itself, that a Single Malt Scotch Whisky has to be made of 100% malted barley. While other grains can be used for Grain Whiskies or Blended Scotch, the law aims for consistency within their iconic liquid to protect its historic value as well as the characteristic flavours that made it world famous.

Different types of barley

With advancing agriculture, farmers and scientists managed to increase the yield of the grown barley over time. That means that more sugars can be extracted and therefore more alcohol can be produced from the same amount of barley than before. The yield of barley is measured in LPA/t (litres of pure alcohol per tonne).
While whisky production started with different barley varieties like Bere or Chevalier, research and development focused more on creating new varieties in the 1950s and resulting in high hopes within the industry in the 1960s with creations like Golden Promise (1968).

The barley varieties most commonly used by distilleries today were created in the 1990s and early 2000s (Prisma and Optic in 1994, Chalice in 1997, NFC Tipple in 2006,  Concerto in 2008 and Odyssey in 2012). And while they all are aiming for the highest yield possible, distilleries are recently experimenting more and more with barley varieties that provide less yield but instead deliver a certain flavour that the distillery wants in their whisky. A few examples are:

  • Bruichladdich’s Bere Barley, first released 2006
  • Arran’s Orkney Bere Barley, released 2014
  • Glenmorangie’s Tusail, released 2015, uses Maris Otter barley that was more common 1965-1985
  • Springbank’s Local Barley, starting 2016, Optic or Bere barley, depending on release


Another extremely important ingredient for every whisky is water. It is needed in almost every production stage to make whisky. It takes roughly 100 litres of water to produce 1 litre of whisky.
Because of that the access to good quality water is very important to distillers and very often it was a the main factor for choosing the best place to build a distillery.

Water quality is influenced by different factors like its hardness and its mineral content.

Hardness: There is soft and there is hard water. It usually starts off as soft water and the longer it sits in the ground or riverbeds the more minerals it picks up. The more minerals (e.g. calcium) it absorbs the harder water becomes.

Minerals: Depending on where the water flows it picks up different minerals from the ground. For example the composition of water that flows through limestone is different from water that flows through granite. Additionally water can pick up notes from organic material like soil or peat and take on its flavours and aromas that eventually influence the whisky.

Glengoyne's water source: Stream water from Dumgoyne Hill


Washbacks at Glenfiddich: This is where yeast transforms sugar into alcohol

Yeast is a single-celled fungus which reproduces very rapidly by using oxygen. If there is no more oxygen to absorb, the yeast cells are converting sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

And there lies the reason why distillers need yeast for their whisky production. Most important for distillers is the efficient conversion of sugars in their malted barley into alcohol during a process called fermentation.
Different strains of yeast produce different amounts of alcohol at different speed. The most commonly used yeast strain is Saccharomyces cerevisae, used by manufacturers of bread, beer and also whisky as it proved itself most efficient. An efficient production of alcohol has long been the most important reason for choosing one strain over another.

Some experts argue that yeast has a stronger influence on the flavour of whisky than originally thought. And in recent past there have been experiments with other yeast strains that might not produce as much alcohol but in exchange provide certain flavours desired by the distillers.

Now that we know the ingredients needed to make whisky, it’s time to take a look at the production itself.

On the next pages we will explore:

    • How distillers extract sugar from the hard barley seeds
    • How those sugars will be converted to alcohol
    • How alcohol distillation works
    • Why whisky is matured in oak casks
    • And how different casks influence whiskies flavour