Tipple Tales: Six-row barley, terroir & Indian single-malt whisky

For quite a while the whisky industry has agreed to disagree on many things. From the Irish whiskey vs. Scotch whisky (which came first) debate, doubts over the Scotch industry’s claim that source of water is the most important aspect of whisky making to the current discussions over the use of the term terroir for whisky. In India, there’s a simmering disagreement that’s yet to be addressed — six-row barley or two-row barley, what’s best for the Indian single malts?
Which makes for a better whisky, two-row or six-row barley? Image: shutterstock.
Which makes for a better whisky, two-row or six-row barley? Image: Shutterstock.

When it comes to whisky production, the smallest differences can impact the final product. And, the spirits distillery of origin plays a huge role too. This is why the matter of provenance and terroir are talked about in whisky-making these days. Then why is a country with one of the highest Scotch drinking populations only recently starting to make good quality whisky? The answer is a combination of things such as availability of raw material, know-how and the country’s ever-changing import laws.

Let’s focus on just the raw material part for now. Whisky can be made from any grain such as barley, corn, rye, malt, oats & millet, rice, etc, adhering to the regulations in a particular country. In India for a long time we were making whisky from sugarcane molasses due to the abundance of sugarcane production. However, in recent times, most of the cheap, as well as premium Indian whiskies, are not only made by using blends of Indian grain base spirit and imported Scotch but also from 100 percent Indian barley. One of the most sold whiskies in India, 8 PM (millionaire brand) by Radico Khaitan is made with Indian grain, malt whisky (distilled from six-row barley) blended with Scotch.

Six-row barley is the more popular variety in india.
Six-row barley is the more popular variety in India.

So, why six-row barley? To understand that we need to know that the majority of barley grown in India is six-row barley and the one used for making Scotch is two-row barley. Both have an impact on the flavour profile of the end spirit says, Anup Barik, Master Distiller, Radico Khaitan & Rampur Single Malts. “India is one of the largest producers of six-row barley and the Indian distilling industry uses the same due to its availability throughout the year. Though the yield in six-row barley is less as compared to two-row barley because of low starch and high husk, it gets compensated by higher protein contents ultimately responsible for fruity notes.”

A barley field at sunset. Image: shutterstock.
A barley field at sunset. Image: Shutterstock.

The same six-row barley is also used for making Radico Khaitan’s premium single malt Rampur. Barik adds, “Rampur Indian Single Malt is a beautifully balanced single malt with creamy vanilla, a hint of spiciness and tropical fruit notes. The complex yet exotic notes of Rampur evolve from a combination of factors such as use of six-row malted barley, the yeast strain, fermentation time and condition, distillation process, pot still design, geographic location & wood policy.”

According to Surrinder Kumar, independent consultant in the alcobev industry, and Master Blender and Distiller for some iconic single malts such as Amrut, Indri and Kamet, “Protein levels though are more in six-row barley which is helpful during the mashing process in the faster conversion to fermentable sugars, on the flip side, high protein could also result in the turbid wort (the liquid extracted from the mashing process during the brewing of beer or whisky) which is not very desirable and could lead to the development of more grassy notes in the new make spirit. DP, the diastatic power is more in six-row which is good for the conversion of starch to fermentable sugars.”  

Even though the single malts that Kumar has created so far have been internationally acclaimed, he would still prefer to use two-row barley over six-row barley. He explains, “Are there marked differences in the quality of six-row over the two-row barley? I would say, yes. It is the matter of mere availability of six-row barley in India & its competitive cost vs. the two-row imported barley malt plus the hassle of imports that Indian distillers are opting for the only locally available six-row malted barley.

The differences between two-row and six-row barley.
The differences between two-row and six-row barley.

“Quality of new make spirit and the yields are much higher in two-row than the six-row because of bulkier and stout grain, gives more starch, less husk and more uniformity of grain size, consequently resulting in the proper modification of the barley during the malting process. Hence, more yields of spirit and better quality.

“My personal choice would be to use two-row barley because it tends to result in a fruity and floral new make spirit with appreciable yields which ultimately ends up yielding a well-rounded & complex bodied matured whisky after using good quality barrels for maturation, provided the financial health of the company allows one to go for it.”

Bipin Kumar, Director & Master Blender, Rare Blends believes that it totally depends on what style of flavours a whisky brand wants to highlight. He says, “If the desired results are derived from the locally grown six-row barley, then why not.”

The brand that has truly brought six-row barley to the limelight is Paul John Single malt, advertising it in all its communication materials.

Michael D’Souza, Master Distiller of Paul John believes that both these strains (six-row and two-row) have their own merits and demerits. Different countries grow different types of strains according to their environmental condition and requirement. In India, farmers prefer to grow six-row barley because most of the cereals, beers and malt-based drinks are produced using six-row barley due to high protein content. According to D’Souza it is difficult to identify the difference when it comes to flavour profile in the final whisky. “Taste-wise two-row malt has a fuller, maltier flavour while six-row produces a grainier flavour in the whisky. At Paul John we use 100 percent six-row barley for all our single malts.”

The iconic paul john single malt is made with six-row barley.
The iconic Paul John single malt is made with six-row barley.

The quality of single malt depends on the quality of barley, yeast and water. While Barik believes that the term ‘terroir’ can be used to describe Indian single malts, D’Souza is of the opinion that there is no concept of terroir in whisky making, especially when produce in various parts of India is collected and together processed in malting units. “Terroir is the three-dimensional impact of soil, microclimate, and topography on the growth of a plant that suits more in the case of winemaking as wines are just fermented and not distilled like whisky. With just fermenting, you tend to retain some of the influences of the soil and substances where the plant is grown.”

Many international spirits experts believe otherwise. During an online session on “Terroir In Spirits” that I attended recently, most of the international experts were of the opinion that the role of terroir is significant in spirits such as Rhum Agricole, Mezcal, Tequila and Baijiu. However, whisky expert Richard Foster shares, “I strongly believe that terroir has a role to play in whisky. The taste of the place is clearly evident in the products of many distilleries such as the White Peak Distillery using a locally grown barley, the wort from which is significantly different from their standard ingredients. Also the same is evident in the Copper Rivet Distillery and The Oxford Artisan Distillery who are using 100 percent local barley.”

May be D’Souza is right. In India we are yet to grasp the full sense of terroir in spirits, or strongly propagate the production of two-row barley instead of six-row barley. However, a country where the average angel’s share is between 8% to 10% (compared to 2% in Scotland) depending on the location and whisky matures almost three times faster than in Scotland, we tend to have some advantages in the end.

A strong supporter of two-row barley, Kumar says, “We have started encouraging certain maltsters in India to promote the local two-row barley producers for malting and we have started experimenting with the results. Unless we work with a mission in a particular direction we will continue to remain content with what we have.” He, however, agrees that ultimately, the quality of whisky depends on many components, including maturation since “65% of the whisky gets made in the cask.”  

Nonetheless, looking at the success of Indian single malts on the international market, we can only say that six-row barley may be a blessing in disguise for the Indian whisky makers for now. Specially for brands like Rampur whose priority is to offer a unique taste to malt connoisseurs embodying the mysticism of India.

Rojita tiwari drinks columnist 1
Rojita Tiwari is the Founder and Director of Drinks & Destinations, a drinks event and consulting firm. She is an award-winning drinks writer, educator, trainer & consultant and also a juror at several international wine, spirits & cocktail competitions. She is a Senior Specialist at International Drinks Specialist, UK and co-founder of Agents Of Cheer & Story In A Bottle, India’s foremost curated drinks events. Her Instagram handle is @rojitatiwari.

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