Friday, October 5, 2012

Behind the Scenes of the Port Ellen Distillery

By Geoffrey Kleinman

Located on the site of the historic Port Ellen Distillery in Islay, Port Ellen Maltings converts a massive amount of Scottish barley into malt used by many of the island's whisky producers. Port Ellen Maltings provides all the malt for Caol Ila (who uses a whopping 338 tons a week of malt) as well as Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, and Kilchoman. Malt for each distillery is custom malted and peated to the specific distillery's requirements. Port Ellen Maltings works with a number of varieties of barley, mostly coming from the east coast of Scotland.

Malting is very much the same thing as sprouting a grain. Barley is added to large soaking tanks where water is added, mixed, and drained. The water that the barley is soaked in comes from a loch which is close to the maltings and is brown in color from the peat in the ground that surrounds the loch. It's a common misconception that the peat in the water somehow impacts the peat flavor in this whisky, but this is not true. I've tasted the peated water and aside from the fact that it's brown, it just tastes like water.

In the soaking tanks, the barley is soaked, aerated, and drained several times to trick the grain into thinking that it's spring time and therefore time to sprout. This process takes the better part of two days. At this point the barley has begin to shoot out tiny roots and stalks. The barley is moved from the soaking vats into huge 50 ton drums. Here cool air is blown into the drums to regulate the temperature and keep the environment ideal for controlled and consistent sprouting. The drums are also turned to help dissipate the heat and keep the roots of the barley from growing together and becoming matted. After 4 days in the drums, the barley has completed its process of 'modification' and is now green malt. Barley has a disproportionate amount of starch in the grain, but it's well locked in by the husk, cell walls, and starch granules. The process of malting uses the grain's natural process of breaking down these elements to use that starch to create a new barley plant. To make malt for whisky, this process is arrested and that starch is converted into fermentable sugar.

To stop the green malt from becoming a plant, it is dried. It's during this drying process that the malt accepts peat reek from peak smoke fires that carries over to the final whisky. Malt only accepts peat reek when it's wet and so it's through the first part of the drying process where the malt is peated. The second half of the process ensures the malt is free of moisture so it can be stored properly and used by distilleries.

How much peat smoke a malt is exposed to greatly determines the final character of the malt, but it's not the only element. Both Caol Ila and Lagavulin use the same malt peated at the same level to produce two very different whiskies.

Ultimately the term "malt" really just refers to barley that has been sprouted and dried. It also sounds much more delicious than drinking a single sprouted barley whisky.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Report written by Geoffrey Kleinman, a nationally published drinks writer who has appeared in Playboy, Tasting Panel Magazine, and runs DrinkSpirits.com.

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