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By Fred Siggins, Contributor

The Ancient Grains Of The Future

At Archie Rose, we’re always saying that good whisky starts in the field. But what if that field were 6,000 years old? For the first time ever, we’ve just released a whisky that includes an ancient strain of purple barley from Tibet, and a black barley from Ethiopia, both cultivated in those undying cultures for thousands of years, but grown right here in NSW for us during the 2019 harvest season. Dry Grown Rye Malt Whisky, Harvest 2019 is an exciting step for us in the use of ancient barley strains and the never-before-tasted flavours they bring when combined with our local heritage rye.

An Ancient Hymn to Beer

Humans have been cultivating grains for thousands of years, and doing so was the very foundation of what we now think of as complex culture and society. Think back to your social studies class from school - what was the thing that the “cradles of civilisation” - the fertile river valleys of places like Iraq, Egypt and China - all had in common? It was the cultivation of grains, which gave people a reason to settle down into large, organised communities and created a surplus of food, which allowed people the time to develop things like art, writing, laws and specialised trades.

In fact, many archeologists now believe that it was alcoholic beverages like beer made from those grains that formed an important basis for ancient civilisations to thrive. That’s because back then, people didn’t understand sanitation, so drinking the water was dangerous, and many people would have died from water-born disease. But if you mix water with grains to make beer, it all gets boiled in the process, eliminating any bacteria.

They didn’t know how it worked back then, but work it did, so the folks who drank beer instead of water had a much healthier life! The ancient Sumerians even had a goddess of beer called Ninkasi, and had a hymn to her that was a way of remembering the recipe for brewing. Three cheers for a couple of frothies as the basis of Western culture, hey?

But what did those ancient grains taste like? Certainly nothing like what we grow today. Over thousands of years, we’ve selectively bred our barley to increase the starchy, sugary bit that gives us maximum carbohydrate and yield. Unfortunately, that’s often at the cost of flavour, and also tends to make the grains reliant on lots of water and lots of chemical inputs like fertiliser and pesticide. That’s why we’ve been working with our farming and malting partners at Voyager Specialty Malts in Western NSW to explore different grains - heritage and ancient strains of rye and barley that grow in the harsh, dry conditions of Australia, even in drought years, don’t need a lot of water, don’t use many chemicals, and are packed with unique flavours that have never seen the inside of a whisky bottle.

Old Flavours New Again

So what do these ancient Tibentan purple and Ethiopian grains taste like, and how did they come to be grown in NSW during a drought? Our Master Distiller Dave Withers describes the flavour of the Black Ethiopian Barley as having a unique umami character almost like miso, while the Purple Tibetan Barley lends a rich, floral note of violet to the whisky.

Stu Whytcross from Voyager Craft Malts grew these grains for us on his own family farm during the 2019 harvest season. Whycross says they’re totally different from the more common modern varieties of barley used for most beer and whisky. Firstly, “they look completely different, both as grain and in the field,” he says. “Visually, they look more like black rice than any modern day barley.” And while modern barley varieties have had thousands of years of selective breeding focused on improving yield and ease of processing all the way along the supply chain, Whytcross explains, “that has been at the sacrifice of flavour. So whilst there are some challenges in growing, harvesting and processing these ancient varieties, the flavour profiles we get are unlike anything else.”

From Drought to Delicious

Despite the challenges compared to more standard barley varieties, Stu and his family are having a lot of success with organic, regenerative farming systems where these older varieties perform much better. For instance, both ancient black and purple barley varieties have quite dense canopies that help to shroud out weeds, meaning there’s less need to spray chemical weed-killer. The thick canopy also helps the soil to retain water when rain and irrigation are hard to come by. The drought tolerance of these ancient grains and the others grown during 2019 has been critical to our Dry Grown Whisky project.

“It is hard to imagine that after a few years of tragic flooding that back in 2019 we were in the midst of a devastating drought,” says Dave, our Master Distiller. “From our conversations with farmers, we understand that grain responds to the climate where it grows, including extreme conditions such as drought, but not all grain varieties will cope the same. A couple of these ancient barley strains in particular showed themself to be quite drought resistant. These two hulless barley varieties were able to thrive in wilting heat and without adequate water where other strains could not. For our Dry Grown Rye Malt, we wanted to illustrate the unique local conditions of this once-in-a-decade drought, so we used grain grown under these stressful circumstances from a single harvest year, all grown without irrigation or what you would normally think of as adequate rain.”

As with our previous harvest release, when fermenting this product we also added some raw grain from the field to capture the naturally occurring yeast specific to those fields and those climate conditions, allowing a wild fermentation to take place and resulting in a unique combination of flavours that would be impossible to replicate anywhere else.

The result is a whisky that showcases the spice and dryness of the 2019 vintage harvest, while allowing for complex fruit and malt flavours to complement each other. Archie Rose Dry Grown Rye Malt Whisky, Harvest 2019 opens with a nose of candied orange, peaches with treacle and sugared almonds, followed by richer notes of cola, galangal, polished cedar and honeycomb. With a palate of toasted rye and poached apricot and a mouth-coating combination of mandarin, strawberries, roasted almonds and chocolate-coated oat biscuits, this whisky finishes strong with silky milk chocolate and coconut butter, baked up with a touch of drying oak to bring the whisky to a close.

As we continue to break new ground in the search for innovative and environmentally conscious ingredients for our whisky and explore new flavours, we couldn't be more proud to share this single vintage rye malt whisky with you.