If there’s anything we’ve become known for over our first ten years, it’s our indignation over the whiskey industry’s disregard for barley. We’ve been outspoken and have undoubtedly ruffled a few feathers. But it’s important to prompt the debate. Single malt whiskey, globally, is at an important crossroads. While whiskey has humble roots as an agricultural product that was made and consumed near its source, industrialization and globalization gave rise to a new model where stocks of spirit were distilled at the lowest price, then bought and sold on the open market for blends. Malt whiskey became a commodity and along the way something meaningful was lost. But now we live in times where once again single malt is revered and we can make choices based on new standard. In today’s world, we can confidently step away from the commodity mindset and return to a reverence for raw materials and a pursuit of flavor.
As one of just four ingredients in single malt, it’s surprising to see that the vast majority of whiskey makers have yet to really imagine what more barley can give us. This is largely due to the still swift current of economic motive—the proverbial race to the bottom. Certainly this has, in part, encouraged the pervasive dogma that barley doesn’t contribute to flavor in whiskey. But the truth is, many who adhere to this prevailing wisdom do so because they’ve never known anything different. The global barley breeding community develops varieties of barley to suit the demands of the industry and the system. Those demands are, (a) strong disease resistance, (b) high yields for the farmer and within the distillery, and (c) a grain that malts consistently and successfully within the macro-malt system. Admirable goals, all of them. But what’s conspicuously missing is flavor. Breeders are giving the malting and distilling industry exactly what they’re asking for, and as a result, whiskey makers are left with barleys that are all but exactly the same in character. As the whiskey industry has become increasingly married to the commodity system, the notion that barley actually matters has faded from the collective mind of the industry.
When we first started in 2010, the idea that barley is simply a means to end (that end being solely the collection of alcohol) didn’t sit right. What if we elevated the role of barley in whiskey? What if we could breed barleys with flavor first in mind? After several futile years attempting to convince suppliers to step with us beyond the commodity system, we resolved to build it ourselves, and in 2012, a door opened for us that would change the course of Westland forever. In the town of Burlington, WA, an hour north of Seattle, we met the good folks at The Bread Lab and Skagit Valley Malting who in turned introduced us to several of the Valley’s most progressive farmers. In two years of buying barley in Washington State and beyond, we hadn’t once met a grower. In fact, we were forbidden from doing so by our existing suppliers. Now we had the opportunity to collaborate with everyone in the chain—from breeding to growing, malting to distilling.
Everyone in the room recognized that if we stopped treating barley like a commodity and instead consider it thoughtfully as the main raw ingredient and a source of flavor in single malt whiskey, it promised a world benefit for everyone involved. So, we set out together to build an entirely new economy for barley and a proving ground for new ideas. Since those first days our work has been an ever-expanding inquiry into the infinite possibilities to be found in barley.
Today, we are on the outer edges of knowledge and the brink of an exponential leap forward for not only our own industry, but also for our regional agricultural community at large. The compass by which we navigate now is a new fellowship program that Westland is fully funding at The Bread Lab. With access to the Lab’s seed bank, which houses thousands of different varieties of barley dating back centuries, the program is dedicated to developing novel barleys for whiskey. The charter of the fellowship is to research and breed barleys that fall outside the commodity system while balancing three primary objectives:
First, the barley must work for the farmer. For too long, growers in this country have been left behind, squeezed by the cruel machinations of industrialization and commodification. We don’t view ourselves as simply end users for barley. We see Westland as an integral part of a community and an agricultural system that betters the land and its people. Our role in that community is not to drive people down, as is the capitalistic norm, but to help build everyone up. We must create value for each and every person in the system, starting with the farmer. This means that the varieties we develop must be grown in an economically viable way that provides meaningful income for the grower. That means both yield and value (read: novelty and flavor). Equally as as important, the varieties must be suitable to a role in farming, not just whiskey. Each new variety must help sustain complete crop rotations so growers can improve their soil and perpetuate a healthy agricultural system.
Second, the barley must work for the changing environment. In just the past decade the rate of change in our climate and ecosystems has accelerated to the point of outright unpredictability. We are not spared from these forces, even in the relatively isolated and idyllic Pacific Northwest. The preservation of healthy farmland requires both economic and ecological alacrity. In addition to aiding in rotational farming, the varieties we develop in the fellowship program must be suited to certified organic, regenerative-organic, Salmon-safe, or other low-impact cultivation methods. But beyond stewardship of the land as it exists, we must also be prepared for what it might become. We breed with the unknown in mind, bringing back genetic diversity to barley, and judging the success of a variety partly on its ability to withstand (or tolerate) changes wrought by global climate change.
Finally, the barley must work for the end consumer. This should be obvious. Even if it checks each and every other box, if it isn’t good, it’s not worth pursuing. In fact, we take it one step further. It isn’t good and isn’t unique, it’s not worth pursuing. Uniqueness and novelty are not things to be feared, but rather embraced. We breed varieties for these qualities because, in the end, if it tastes like everything else, what’s the point?
Our first PhD student in the fellowship program, Louie Prager, began his work in 2020. He is the first in what we hope will be a long line of researchers to carry forward this ambition. It’s fascinating to witness Louie, a bakery owner and biologist who carries none of the baggage that we do from the world of whiskey, create his own relationship to the inquiry. At first, he was simply gaining a basic understanding of technique, history, environment. But quickly his work has become more a communion with the barley. A slow, incremental awakening is unfolding. It’s intensely personal. He describes his work as a dance and his job to find a rhythm within it.
It is this level of familiarity that will greatly benefit everyone that follows in the chain, from farmer to maltster to distiller. For Westland, the fellowship is a long-term proposition, one we invest the whole of ourselves into. This is the only way in which it can be successful. This isn’t something any of us can be detached from if it’s to work in the end. Only when you get this intimate with a process can you find the opportunities within it.
The relationship to barley that we’re cultivating—both individually and collectively—is so far removed from the rote barley ordered with a click of a button on the commodity market. In just ten short years we have already distilled over 20 different varieties of barley, each with a character distinct from the other. We’ve proven that barley can not only contribute to flavor in whiskey, it can also define it. We’ve made our choice at the crossroads, but have only just begun to imagine where it might lead. One thing we know for sure is that: it’ll be way more rewarding than the short road to uniformity.
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