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Waterford resurrects forgotten barley varieties

Irish producer Waterford Distillery has unveiled Heritage: Hunter, a whiskey that utilises a rare barley variety from ‘a bygone era’.

The single malt is made from Hunter barley

The Heritage: Hunter expression utilised modern technology to identify historic flavours and bring them back to life for consumers of today.

The barley variety, Hunter, was named after pioneering plant breeder Dr Herbert Hunter. It was introduced in 1959 and was, for almost two decades, noted for its distinctive flavour. However until now it had not been used in production since the 1970s.

Mark Reynier, Waterford Distillery founder and CEO, explained: “Malt whisky gets its flavour, its complexity, from barley. Over time, this inherent flavour has been compromised as distilleries prioritised yield.

“However, because Waterford whisky is agricultural produce, not a manufactured product, we took the step to resurrect iconic yet forgotten barley varieties. In doing so, we have been able to uncover remarkable insight into what whisky would have tasted like decades ago.

“Our ultimate aim is to identify the most flavour-expressive genes from these legendary barley varieties and cross them with modern breeds, so they have more agronomic potential. This will give us a ‘greatest hits’ of barley flavours and the ultimate variety for the most intense and naturally flavoursome whiskies.”

The rare varieties used to create the Heritage: Hunter are grown in nutritional soil with a higher humus content, which retains water more efficiently than conventional soil, creating the ideal inhabitant for carbon storage. This subsequently offers better protection against current climate challenges, including safeguarding crops against periods of drought.

This protection is enhanced by the fact that Hunter barley has a larger root ball than modern varieties and better access to soil nutrients.

It took more than eight years of leveraging lost breeding programmes from the 1990s to discover the original flavours that barley first evolved with when it adapted to Ireland’s terroir.

Costing three times as much as regular barley, Hunter seeds were upscaled from 50 grams into enough barley to produce 50 barrels from the first harvest.

Waterford Distillery then extracted spirit from two other long-forgotten heritage varieties, Goldthorpe and Old Irish, to create a run of 10,000 bottles.

The whiskey has been matured in a combination of first-fill and virgin American oak, French oak, and Vin Doux Naturel casks.

It is said to present notes of dry soil, lemon sherbet, red apple skin and chalk on the nose, and flavours of orange cake, dry savoury spice, cloves and wood char on the palate.

Heritage: Hunter is available to purchase via Speciality Brands, with an RRP of between €75-€86 (around US$115).

In August, Islay producer Bruichladdich unveiled the final single malt vintages in its Barley Exploration series 2022.

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