I have sampled plenty of Irish single pot still whiskies, where a mix of malted and unmalted barley is distilled together (in a copper pot still). But this is a first for me – a 100% unmalted barley whisky.
Typically, malted barley is used in whisky production, where the malting process activates native enzymes, breaking down long-chain starch molecules into more easily digestable sugars (necessary for yeast to work their magic in creating ethanol). Unmalted barley can be added into the mash (as in the case of Irish whiskies) to introduce some “green” (aka tropical) fruits flavours. Interesting, this was originally a tax dodge used in the production of Irish whiskies, but is enjoying a particular resurgence today in the hands of Middleton.
But back to the topic at hand. This whisky is part of the Masterson’s family of whiskies produced by 35 Maple Street in the US – but actually made by Alberta Distillers in Canada. Which explains a few things, as Alberta distillers makes their own enzymes for unmalted whiskies (which is necessary here). I have previously reviewed Masterson’s 100% straight rye whisky (which is similarly unmalted) – the signature product from this producer.
As I understand it, the original spirit used in Masterson’s Straight Barley was distilled in a beer column still, then re-distilled in a stainless steel pot still (which is a bit of a different process). Sold as a “straight” whisky in the U.S., it must have been barreled and aged in virgin American Oak.
Here are how the various Masterson’s whiskies compare in my Whisky Database, relative to Irish pot still whiskies and North American malt whiskies.
Masterson’s Straight Rye 10yo: 8.88 ± 0.41 on 17 review ($$$$)
Masterson’s Straight Wheat 12yo: 8.63 ± 0.23 on 9 review ($$$$)
Masterson’s Straight Barley 10yo: 8.58 ± 0.61 on 7 review ($$$$)
Bushmills 10yo Single Malt: 8.18 ± 0.30 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Bushmills 16yo Single Malt: 8.48 ± 0.48 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Copperworks American Single Malt: 8.60 ± 0.24 on 4 reviews ($$$)
FEW Single Malt: 8.44 ± 0.53 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton 10yo Single Malt: 8.03 ± 0.45 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton 14yo Single Malt: 8.08 ± 0.62 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton 15yo Single Malt: 8.53 ± 0.27 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Green Spot: 8.49 ± 0.38 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Parker’s Heritage 9th 8yo Malt Whiskey: 8.41 ± 0.55 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)
Powers 12yo John’s Lane: 8.82 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Redbreast 12yo: 8.75 ± 0.41 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Redbreast 15yo: 8.74 ± 0.26 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Stalk & Barrel Single Malt (All Casks): 8.27 ± 0.41 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Teeling Single Malt: 8.47 ± 0.34 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Westland American Single Malt: 8.57 ± 0.35 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Writers Tears Pot Still Irish Whiskey: 8.49 ± 0.34 on 16 reviews ($$)
Yellow Spot: 8.78 ± 0.27 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
First thing you will notice is that the standard deviation of scores on the Masterson’s Straight Barley is higher than usual, which is always an interesting signal.
My sample comes from Jason Hambrey of In Search of Elegance, and was from the first batch bottled in 2014.
Bottled at 46% ABV, with 10 year old age statement. Here is what I find in the glass:
Colour: Golden apple juice.
Nose: Incredibly herbal – reminds me more of some gins that I’ve tried than whisky. Not woody exactly – more plant-like (bamboo maybe?). Mint. Dill. Very earthy, with moist earth notes and cedar chips. All kinds of exotic spices, like cardamon, caraway seeds, anise – and tons more that I can’t identify. Baking spices too, but much beyond the all-spice level. All-dressed bagels (Montrealers will know what I mean). Some caramel. Fruit compose, with stewed apples. This is an unbelievable nose – I’ve never come across a whisky like this before.
Palate: Caramel and vanilla initially. Sweet and soft in the mouth (like mineralized soft water). Same exotic spice notes from the nose return at the end, along with the baking spices and a heady rush of spearmint and menthol. Rye bread. Pepper. Earthy, with peanut shells. Yowza, this is a unique whisky! And it tastes much like it smells. Doesn’t need any water (although it ups the caramel sweetness slightly if you do). Easily drinkable at 46% ABV.
Finish: Long and lingering, with many of the earlier notes making a reappearance over time. A bit musty. Ends with the earthy herbal notes, dill weed and spearmint in particular. A bit anesthetizing on the tongue (flavour fatigue perhaps?).
I will definitely be keeping an eye out to see if this ever comes back – what are an incredible herbal rush! Seems more like some sort of natural product medicine than a whisky. Mackmyra First Edition was the first thing that really brought in some noticeable herbal notes for me (more juniper in that case) – but this is completely over the top in comparison. A tough one to score, I would personally give it in the high eights – incredibly complex, and not a gentle sipper by any means. May be too much character frankly, but it is always a treat to come across a quality product that is so unlike anything else on the market.
And again, why is Alberta Distillers not releasing these sorts of products into the local market? It blows away anything they produce under the Alberta Premium/Alberta Springs brand.
For further reviews of this whisky, it is really a love it or hate it proposition. Davin of Whisky Advocate, Jason of In Search of Elegance and Andre of Quebec Whisky all love it. Patrick of Quebec Whisky, Chip the Rum Howler and Jake of Whiskey Reviewer would all take a pass on this one. Personally, I’m in the first camp with the fans. This expression is not currently available, but if you ever get the chance to try it, I recommend you go for it (but wouldn’t suggest picking up a bottle without tasting it first, given the polarizing views).