There’s something beautifully self-contained about a distillery that still malts its own barley – taking the grain direct from the farm, steeping it in water and then spreading it over a stone floor, to be turned by hand. It’s the start of a process that ends with smoke billowing from the pagoda roof, and it represents a powerful bond with the past, when every malt distillery in Scotland operated this way.
Fifty years ago the practice was suddenly deemed archaic and inefficient. In February 1968 the Northern Scot reported that DCL (now Diageo) had ceased floor malting at its 29 malt distilleries. Its rivals were following suit, and today only six distilleries from that period still malt some of their own barley, though in the case of Springbank in Campbeltown every grain is malted on site. They have since been joined by Kilchoman on Islay and Abhainn Dearg on the Isle of Lewis.
One imagines that Diageo didn’t dither too long over whether to install floor maltings at its Roseisle distillery near Elgin, any more than Pernod Ricard did at nearby Dalmunach. And you would doubt that plans for the new Macallan distillery ever included a kiln or a pagoda roof. Yet they would have been in good company, for as well as Springbank the list includes Highland Park, Laphroaig, Balvenie, Bowmore and, latterly, BenRiach, which began malting again in 2013.
To visit these distilleries and see the unmalted grain on the floor, the smouldering bricks of peat in the kiln and the wisps of smoke wafting into the cold air is quite an experience. Compare that with every other distillery and they win hands down on aesthetics.
“It gives us a more intense, richer flavour to our new-make character,” he says. “And we believe some of the fruity flavours that are well-renowned in older Bowmores are from the floor maltings.”
He insists that: “If no-one turned up to go round Bowmore, we would still have them. It’s a great tourist attraction, but it also plays an important part in the new-make spirit.”
In the 1960s, before the era of visitor centres, the distillery was owned by the whisky broker Stanley P Morrison, who refused to rip out the maltings. “Even though times were tough back then, the Morrison family always tried to employ locals and keep the work here,” David explains.
Ranald Watson, Springbank’s sales & marketing director, is convinced the Mitchell family felt the same way about Springbank. And it probably played a part in Highland Distillers’ decision to carry on with Highland Park’s floor maltings, being the owners at the time. There may have also been a touch of old whisky industry conservatism. “After 220 years of making whisky on the site you would have to be very brave, or very stupid, to make a fundamental change,” says the current Highland Park brand director, Jason Craig.
As a paid-up believer in Orkney peat he says: “It burns longer and throws off more aromatics from the heather to give a softer smoke.” Some 80 per cent of Highland Park’s malt is supplied unpeated from Simpsons in the Borders, which means the smoky element all comes from the local Hobbister Moor peat used to dry what is malted at the distillery.
Over the years there have been trials of bringing in peated malt from the mainland, but in the end it was decided it wasn’t a risk worth talking. “Before the science, we knew we were different, but we probably didn’t know why,” says Jason. “We were aware the topography and lack of trees makes Orkney peat unique. It’s different from Caithness peat which is only 20 to 30 miles away.”
The debate whether to close Highland Park’s floor maltings and save money rumbled on for years, but as the brand has grown he reckons it is now finally “off the table”.
But why stop there? Why not go the whole hog and become fully self-sufficient and malt all your barley on site like Springbank or Kilchoman? Jason pauses to consider the implications, before replying: “Yes. The romantic side of my nature and the marketing side would say yes, wholeheartedly, but the harsh reality is it would be a hell of an expensive way to proceed. You would need more kilns and a couple more pagoda roofs.”
Ask the same question to David Turner and he doesn’t hesitate for a second: “Yes, absolutely. If we could do 100 per cent floor maltings that would be us living in an ideal world.” As things stand, some 70 per cent of Bowmore’s malt is shipped over from the mainland.
David knows just how labour intensive the process is, and says: “We turn our malt by hand every four hours, day and night. We’ve got guys working eight-hour shifts, 24 hours a day.” It is turned to prevent the rootlets matting together as the grain begins to germinate, and to maintain the temperature of the malt at around 16-18C. It will lie on the floor for between five and seven days depending on the season, before it is transported to a wire mesh to soak up the smoke from the kiln below.
When DCL closed Port Ellen in 1983, seemingly for good, it made a gentleman’s agreement with others who had distilleries on Islay that they would take a percentage of their malt from the Port Ellen maltings. It kept the business afloat and saved a few jobs at a time when Islay’s distilleries were struggling. Today they are all working flat-out and their number is set to become nine with the reopening of Port Ellen. You have to wonder if the Port Ellen maltings will be able to supply them all.
Bruichladdich recently announced that it plans to install its own on-site malting facilities next to the distillery. Of course, the island’s other distilleries will be free to import as much peated barley from outside as they wish, but it won’t be infused with the DNA of Islay peat.
That is just one example of where the decision to close floor maltings may have been misguided. In most cases that decision occurred in the 1960s when malt distilleries were anonymous factories pumping out spirit for the blending industry. There was pressure to cut production costs and shed jobs almost to the point of unmanned distilleries, which must be technically possible if you can have unmanned satellites in space. Luckily no-one took it that far, and yet if you go round most modern distilleries you will be amazed by how few people you spot actually making whisky.
Meanwhile, Springbank employs more people to produce its whisky than many much larger distilleries, and while that doesn’t make it a better dram of course, it may give the brand owners a more legitimate claim to that human element known as craftsmanship. Floor maltings are a part of that.
This feature is from the May 2019 issue of Unfiltered and was written by Tom Bruce-Gardyne. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit https://www.smws.com.au/product/smws-annual-membership-subscription/