“Show up around half past nine and we’ll see what we can do”.
Our day began with us taking this advice of our host and the manager of the Maltings, who we just happened to meet at Lagavulin the day prior. We arrived into Port Ellen a wee bit early with the hope that there would be a cancellation and we would could join one of the sold out tours of the Malting Facility. The tour prior had gone out half full but the next tour was a whisky club and everyone turned up. By the good graces, they just tacked us on and away we went.
When you go on tours of the various distilleries throughout Scotland, one of the things you do not see is the process of preparing the barley that whisky distilleries rely on to create the iconic whisky they bottle and sell. On Islay, there is a single malting facility that supplies 6 of the 8 distilleries on the island. They use a single variety of barley to produce various recipes that different distillers use. Once the grain is put in the twin 25-ton hoppers, it is soaked in water for five hours, drained, and left to rest a short time before repeating the process twice more. This begins the sprouting of the barley. During this process, the moisture content of the barley is raised from 12% to over 40%.
Next, the grain goes into a massive drum that turns occasionally to facilitate sprouting without allowing it to grow together. After 95 hours, the grain is at a full stage of starchiness. When you break open the grain, it feels very much like cornstarch. At that point, we took a look at the peat shed and discussed the importance of having the right moisture content in the peat to get more smoke than fire. That led us to the kiln and the peat oven. It is the only part of the operation that still requires personal attention. The peat must be watched to ensure it burns properly.
When it is finished, the grain is brought down to 5% moisture. This allows them to store and ship the barley without worrying about mold or compaction. Lastly, it’s shipped off in large trucks to the distiller. Open just one day of year, we were excited to be able to see this process in action and get all the details.