DNA profiling to create ‘super barley’ for Scotch

14th April, 2014 by Amy Hopkins

Scientists are appealing to fingerprint testing methods used in criminal investigations to create a new “super barley” for Scotch whisky.

Barley Scotch whisky

Scientists are attempting to create a new “super barley” for Scotch whisky production

Researchers at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen are experimenting with the use of human DNA profiling methods in barley crop genetics.

The £2 million Impromalt Project attempts to ensure the long-term sustainability of the base ingredient of Scotch whisky and increase production levels by identifying which genes make different types of barley ideal for distillation.

While only summer barley crops are currently used for malting in the whisky creation process due to their superior quality, scientists hope that new techniques will allow winter crops – which are more plentiful and robust – to be used in Scotch production.

Hazardous climate conditions across Europe, and particularly east England, mean that producers are downgrading their malting specifications to source sufficient intake.

These conditions are said to mainly affect the summer crops as winter crops escape the worst effects of summer drought through an early maturity.

Scientists therefore hope that Impromalt will enhance the quality of winter crops to reach the same level as those harvested in summer by identifying the genes responsible for summer barley’s high quality and replicating them.

Ensuring future demand is met

“We now use more barley grown in Scotland than at any other time. The challenge is for future years,” Dr James Brosnan, research manager at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute and chair of the project steering group, told Scotland on Sunday.

“We harvest spring barley in a fairly narrow time window, and if the weather or other growing factors close in to vastly impact on the crop, the challenge would be in procuring the amount needed in an expanding industry. We expect to be using more barley in the future due to Scotch whisky’s continued success around the world.”

Last week, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) released figures showing that worldwide exports of Scotch whisky increased 3% in volume to the equivalent of 1.3 billion bottles in 2013, from 1.2bn bottles the previous year.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government, which part-funds the project, said: “The Impromalt project aims to increase the long-term resilience of the supply chain of barley for the economically important malting and distilling industry.

“It helps support the Scotch whisky industry by main­taining the sufficient supply 
of malting cereals and provides important research to support Scottish farmers achieve this.”

The Impromalt Project is due to finish in 2018.

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