Buoyed by soaring global sales, Scotland’s malt whisky industry is enjoying its strongest period of growth of the post-war era. In the past 15 years the number of distilleries has increased by 28 and large distilleries are expanding production capacity.
Fulfilling demand however has increased the pressure on growers to produce crops to strict specification standards. As the established varieties have steadily become outclassed on farm the need for new varieties capable on satisfying distillers has intensified.
The approval of KWS Sassy as a first-choice distilling variety has been a step forward with its reliable yields, good standing power and early maturity earning it the reputation as the most ‘farmer-friendly spring malting barley variety available’. After several years of successful trials, Sassy is now one of the primary Scottish pot still varieties taken by Bairds Malt.
“Sassy, with its proven consistency and reliability, is a very important variety for us. It gives us a nice bold grain with low nitrogen and low skinning levels, and that good husk retention helps regulate water uptake and maintain malt quality. It’s a great farmer’s variety and a great maltster’s variety, well suited to the variable Scottish climate,” explains Don Peters, seed manager for Scotgrain Agriculture.
For Letham farmer Findlay Russell growing spring malting barley has its rewards and it’s a task he has performed for more than 30 years.
“Scotland enjoys an international reputation for its malt whisky and as a grower I am proud to play a part in its continued success. It’s an important market and one I hope to supply for many more years,” says Mr Russell who farms at Drummietmont Farm in partnership with his son, Stewart and daughter, Caroline.
With three farms of contrasting soil types ranging from 220 to 560 feet above sea-level, harvest is often a drawn-out affair as crops mature at varying rates depending on the individual field conditions.
“Aside from the weather our success is largely driven by the variety we grow, but the limited number of acceptable varieties available means we have to accept a large degree of crop risk. As an industry we have been heavily reliant on just a few varieties. These are either heavily outclassed or becoming outclassed,” he says.
At the suggestion of his grain marketing partner, Scotgrain Agriculture, Mr Russell trialled KWS Sassy, a new variety making its way on to farm after receiving distiller approval in May 2017 and it performed well out-yielding both Concerto and Chronicle in the past two years.
“As growers we rely on plant breeders to develop new varieties with strong agronomic characteristics, such as yield, standing strength and low grain skinning, but if it doesn’t have the spirit yield of the existing standard then maltsters and distillers won’t move on. Of the four varieties we have grown in recent years, Sassy has been the most consistent and easiest to manage. It has reduced our crop risk,” says Mr Russell.
“Its yields have been good and grain nitrogen content has been consistent: in 2018 it was sown after stubble and a cover crop producing grain nitrogens of 1.64% and 1.66% respectively. Its also been easy to manage with low skinnings and no split grain. It looks to be better variety for difficult years,” adds Mr Russell.
Another Angus farmer reassured by KWS Sassy’s performance is Lour Farms manager Mike Cumming.
“Spring barley is an important crop for Scotland’s economy, and it suits the farm well from an environmental, staff workload and financial perspective. For example, Sassy at 3t/acre outperforms hybrid winter barley at 4t/acre due to lower input costs and better output prices,” says Mr Cumming.
“Sassy has delivered good grain and straw yields and is not too late to mature. It is a farmer-friendly variety with no achilles heel,” he adds.