“Vic Cameron chats away about one of his favourite subjects; barley” Contributed by Paul Mclean of Mclean Scotland Whisky Tours

Vic Cameron chats away about one of his favourite subjects; barley

Barley is not just barley; barley is one of the three raw materials required in the production of single malt whisky – one of the main things we do in this world. Not just use any barley no, bred specifically for the purpose of producing single malt whisky, and there is a very successful barley breeding program in operation in the UK. If you had told me ten years ago there was a breeding programme fer barley I would have thought you had too many drinks.

Says Vic; When I started malting ‘as a boy’ many years ago we were processing Prisma, Puffin and Derkado, moving onto Chariot and Optic in the years that followed. We are now moving away from Concerto to Laureate and there have been many varieties that have come and gone in the meantime. During my career with Diageo I sat on various industry committees that organised and ran the barley test programs, aimed at finding the next big Optic, Concerto or Laureate. The program is known as the ‘Stairway to Heaven’; heaven being the royalties that can be collected by the breeding companies from the sowing of a successful variety. All very apt now for Vic, being a preacher himself with his own church and following. Mind, he is a great guy, a friend, he does not run a “cult”.

He continues; It starts with the breeders looking at thousands of new lines trying to pick the best. These are then micro-malted by the industry; malting in small 500-gram batches to see what gives the best analysis for whisky production. If successful the variety can gain Provisional and then Full Approval from the industry and then it is ‘happy days’ for the breeder, and hopefully for the farmer and the distiller (Paul; And, I might add, for the whisky drinker!).  In these trials, yield is king: yield for the farmer in terms of tonnage per acre and yield for the distillery in terms of litres per tonne of malt. Many producers are moving back to heritage varieties and maybe putting more importance back on flavour instead of yield. I myself am involved in a project using bere barley from Orkney and the Western Isles and other varieties with fanciful names from the past. We can sometimes produce problems for ourselves. In my opinion, we may have gone too far with dormancy reduction and introduced another problem for the industry known as pre-germination. But the breeding and the evolution of barley variety will continue in the future. Can we find that next Golden Promise, the variety back in the 1960s (created by gamma rays by the way) that produced that first big step change in terms of spirit yield? Can we find the next Optic, the variety that stayed and stayed for years and years longer than any other variety? What will we find next? Who knows, but it will happen sooner or later.

WHO IS VIC?  After 23 years with Diageo, in operations and laboratory management, process support and cereal procurement, Vic left for a ‘’higher’’ calling. Affectionately known as The Whisky Minister, Vic combines his own whisky consultancy, Discerning of Spirits, with running a church. Vic is also a committee member of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky School and Technical Manager for the UK NIR Grain Network. He has taught at a variety of events including the Orkney Science Festival and Holland’s first ever whisky school. Vic is the course lecturer for a Diploma in Single Malt Whisky and has also contributed his vast industry knowledge to the content of other Edinburgh Whisky Academy courses. He is also my good friend and takes whisky schools for us on tour.

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