A rare barley variety from 1959, that had not been in production since the 1970s, has been rediscovered by Waterford Distillery to produce a new single malt whiskey.

The distillery took the ‘Hunter’ barley variety and spent eight years working with its partners on the project, Minch Malt and the Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to give the variety a new lease of life.

Waterford leveraged lost breeding programmes from the 1990s to evolve the original flavours and then upscaled Hunter seeds from 50g into enough barley to produce 50 barrels from its first harvest.

The distillery then extracted spirit from two other heritage varieties, Goldthorpe and Old Irish, to produce 10,000 bottles of Heritage Hunter single malt whiskey.

The whiskey has been matured in a combination of 45% first-fill US oak; 19% virgin US oak; 21% Premium French oak; and 15% Vin Doux Naturel.

Iconic barley varieties

Mark Reynier, Waterford Distillery founder and chief executive officer, said it set out to resurrect iconic, yet forgotten barley varieties.

“Malt whisky gets its flavour, its complexity, from barley. Over time, this inherent flavour has been compromised as distilleries prioritised yield,” Reynier said.

“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,” he added.

The Hunter variety was named after a pioneering plant breeder, Dr. Herbert Hunter, and was first introduced in 1959 before falling out of fashion as yield-enhancing varieties took over.

According to Waterford Distillery although it developed its Heritage Hunter single malt “purely for the curiosity of flavour” it has claimed that there are also “environmental benefits” associated with the whiskey.

Waterford said the the barley was grown in soil with a “high humus content” which it said retains water “more efficiently than conventional soil” and protects crops against periods of drought.

It also highlighted that Hunter barley has a larger root ball than modern varieties and better access to soil nutrients.