Port Ellen is known for the closed distillery whose whisky now fetches insane prices at auctions, however the site of the distillery is now used as a maltings. The maltings is owned by Diageo and thus supplies Caol Ila and Lagavulin, however they also supply Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Kilchoman, Bunnahabhain, and Tobermory (for Ledaig) . While this site is usually closed to visitors, they open it up for tours once a year during the Islay Feis Ile (music and whisky festival) . We were lucky enough to go to Feis ile this year and obviously had to go on the maltings tour! Here’s a brief summary of the tour for those who are interested.
The tour starts out walking on the road side of the maltings where the vents pump out this strawberry yoghurt like fragrance. The tour guide says that this is the smell of green malt. When we step inside, there is a map of the UK on the left and the guide points to the smaller map on the right side which shows regions with varying shades of green.
He explains that the greener the region the more/better barley it is able to produce. He points out that it’s pretty much only green on the east coast. Thus most of the barley comes from the east coast of Scotland and England. Apparently the maltings is on Islay because it is cheaper to ship barley to the maltings than to ship peat.
Next went into a huge warehouse like room with big blue cylinder containers. These containers are for steeping the barley. After going on so many distillery tours, I instinctively thought this was a washback due to the foam at the surface. Obviously no washbacks in a maltings!
Here’s a picture of the container with barley but no water. They repeatedly soak and “dry” the barley during steeping to ensure that all grains get to a water content of about 40%. They initially start out at about 17% moister content. The reason for “drying” is to avoid drowning the barley.
Then we filed down a maze of stairs in this gigantic warehouse to the germination drums. The barley is moved from the steeping vats to the drums where they germinate. Pretty straigh forward stuff. The drums continuosly rotate to break up the clumps that form as the roots and shoots of the barley elongate and intertwine. The drums were installed in the 70’s or 80’s and were quite costly due to the amount of steel needed to make them thus more modern maltings have other solutions for keeping the barley from clumping. I believe the tour guide said that the use of rotating drums is unique to Port Ellen.
The inside of the germination drums looks like you are travelling in a worm hole through space and time. At this point in the tour, the guide took out small buckets of germinating barley (green malt). He picked up a grain of barley and smashed it between his fingers. What remained was the husk and a nice white paste. “This is what you want,” he said while holding up his hand to show everyone. We all got a chance to repeat the test and have a taste of the paste which was sweet and porridgey.
Next we walked through a door and were immediately in front of the kiln. There was a great fireplace like structure with a great metal vent to a room we couldn’t see. This was the most kinetic part of the tour with hot embers dropping below the peat grating and the lively smoke rapidly rising into the chimney. There was as shovel next to a pile of peat on the ground and we were given the chance to throw some peat on the fire. Fun stuff if you are a whisky geek!
The guide explained to us that before they start blowing hot air of the barley to stop germination, they run the peat smoke over the barley so that the wet kernels absorb more of the smoke. When we asked about the conservation of peat and possible worries about running out of peat, the guide told us that there was actually an intiative going on to reduce peat usage. He said that most of the peat (about 90% if I remember correctly) actually goes to compost for gardening centres. So in comparison, the whisky industry uses very little peat.
I also asked if they produced the malt for Caol Ila’s unpeated whisky, and if so, did the malt contain some peat simply from being in the same kiln. The guide confirmed that they produced the unpeated malt and that it probably had a small amount of peatiness to it. He said that the peating process was very difficult to control in terms of getting a specific ppm (perts per million) for phenol content. So they send samples of each malting to a lab to measure and if it was within an acceptable range for a specific distillery then it would be sent to that distillery. So while distilleries sometimes give ppm information for their whiskies, the actuality is that it will be within some range.
Next stop on the tour was the last, which was the control room for the maltings. It looked a little like a space command centre (with some imagination!) with monitors displaying diagrams and measurements for each step of the malting process. A picture of the queen hung on the wall near the exit. The guide explained to us that when she visited in the 70’s (or 80’s? Can’t remember exactly) the distillery gave bottles of Port Ellen whisky labelled for the Queen’s visit to all the employees at the time. Most of them just drank them but now that bottling is worth a few thousand quid. Liquid gold.
After that we headed out through a loading bay which is what the windows in the control room are facing.
We ended up back in the car park where there were some tables set up to sell some Port Ellen merchandise and a BBQ van selling pulled pork. We were given a plastic sauce cup filled with Port Ellen malt and a booklet on Port Ellen maltings (which I was surprised to see on auction!).
It was a really informative tour, and definitely a must see for whisky geeks. It’s nice to see the full cycle of whisky production!
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