Spiralling demand for Scotch whisky in overseas markets means that distillers, maltsters and growers have an opportunity to gear up output.

While it is also clear that some of the old stagers which have dominated the malting scene are beginning to exit stage left, choosing the right variety to replace them will be a key driver in the spring barley market for the next few years.

That was one of the main messages from an inaugural malting barley conference held in Fife, recently, organised by plant breeder, Syngenta.

Speaking at the event, Keith Headridge, the commercial director for Scotgrain – the grain procurement division of Bairds Malt – said that while UK whisky consumption is static, increasing demand is being predicted in many areas of the world, and distillers are increasing spirit production.

“With spirit for Scotch whisky having to be laid down for a minimum of three years, or much longer in the case of premium products, which can be 12 to 30 years or even longer in some instances, distillers take a long term view,” said Mr Headridge.

“The last few years have seen significant increases in both production and the number of new distilleries being commissioned. Distillers are building new capacity and laying down stock for longer in anticipation of increased demand for aged Scotch whisky. This process cannot be accelerated,” he argued.

In line with this, Mr Headridge said Bairds is boosting its malting capacity with a £50m investment in new plants at its existing sites in Arbroath and Inverness. All the malting barley required to meet this demand will be ‘sown, grown and malted in Scotland’, he added.

Due to be completed in 2019 and 2022, respectively, he said these new plants will add to the company’s other malting facility at Pencaitland, east of Edinburgh – taking Bairds’ total Scottish malting capacity from 200,000 to 300,000 tonnes per year, and Scotland’s total annual malting barley requirement to around 950,000 tonnes.

“Scottish provenance is important for high end product. I think a lot of consumers believe Scotch whisky comes from Scottish barley,” Mr Headridge explained. “To ensure the extra malting capacity is comfortably met, more barley will be required.

“Spring barley yields currently average around 6 t/ha. With new varieties, of which Laureate is one, I think we could lift that by an extra 1 t/ha, giving sufficient supply to meet demand.

“Growers are now also getting a higher level of acceptance of malting barley due to husbandry and varieties and there are contracts available for Laureate from all Bairds Malt plants in Scotland,” he noted.

Syngenta’s malting barley expert, Tracy Creasy, said in line with increased demand for distilling barley, production of Laureate seed in Scotland had been increased to the extent it was now Scotland’s biggest spring barley variety for seed production.

“Laureate could be a key variety to help farmers step up production,” said Mrs Creasy. “It has the highest North region treated yield figure of spring malting barley varieties with full MBC approval for malt distilling use on the AHDB Recommended List for 2019.

“It also has a high spirit yield and has produced low skinning. Plus, it has full MBC approval for brewing use, so it gives flexibility for different end markets.”

As well as malt distilling, Mrs Creasy said it was important to consider the significant, albeit smaller, grain distilling market. “For the grain distilling sector, Fairing is another variety where seed production has been stepped up. Bred specifically for this market, it has full MBC approval for grain distilling use and offers other appealing characteristics for Scottish growers, including very early maturity, big bold grain and low screenings,” she added.

Protect against disease for yield too

As well as varietal choice, keeping crops clean of disease will also be important for maximising malting barley output, highlighted Syngenta area manager for Scotland North, Katie Murray.

Following a successful launch in wheat, there is now huge scope to utilise the yield-protecting benefits of the SDHI-based fungicide Elatus Era in barley, said Ms Murray, for both malting and feed.

“Elatus Era combines prothioconazole, which is a well-respected azole fungicide in barley, with a robust dose of SDHI (solatenol) and provides long-lasting protection,” explained Ms Murray. “It offers growers broad-spectrum activity against key diseases of rhynchosporium, net blotch and brown rust.

“In trials, including Elatus Era once in a two-spray fungicide programme had shown excellent yield responses in spring barley and winter barley, with yields matching and exceeding those achieved by applying one of the industry’s main barley fungicides at both timings.

“Importantly, Elatus Era is also compatible with Bravo, which is essential for protecting against ramularia leaf spotting,” she added.