There were quite a few cheers going up in our group of visitors to Springbanks distillery in Campbeltown, when we were told that few of us could volunteer to pick up the shovel and push it backwards through the barley to an experience of floor malting.
The cheer was short-lived, as the treat ended with arduous five minutes as we empathized the toil of the men who did this over hours of their working lives, sometimes ending with monkey shoulders.
Malting is a process that has virtually remained unchanged over last few thousand years. A few chosen distilleries are still carrying out the process in its pure form. Hardly a surprise, a visit to these distilleries are generally endorsed as “preserving tradition”, “handcrafting” and similar indulgences.
Now understanding the process, this is a game of perky pretence played on the innocent barley. The honest grain is steeped into waterfalls for a carefree germination process. The water is absorbed into the raw kernel, when it sprouts its rootlets, a natural source of starch. All this furore, only to be dashed right in its next step, where it’s kilned & baked to hinder the germination.
The traditional method is laborious, and except the “heritage” currency, it is largely inefficient. Which is why bulk of the distilleries have hopped on to what is called the industrial maltings. A trip to something like CRISP Malting GROUP, one such industrial unit, overwhelms and dwarfs you with its sheer scale and extent of production.
Not only are these new age units efficient, the wastage owing to formation of moulds/ fungi is a lot lesser. But the distilleries that have continued to malt traditionally, aren’t quite anti-evolution per se. It is a healthy balance, between preserving whisky’s past, and progressing into technology frontiers. As they say, a healthy balance.
Laphroaig for example, has adopted a bit of both the old and the new, while converting their major floor malting unit into their cozy visitor centre of today and retaining a part of the floor malting in another section.
In addition to Laphroaig & Springbanks, there is Bowmore & Kilchoman in Islay, Highland Park in Orkney Islands, Balvenie & Benriach in Speyside which continue with floor maltings. Apart from Spey burn and Glen Ord with their pneumatic drum maltings, most of the other distilleries only produce parts of the malt they need, mostly as experts argue, for nostalgic/touristic reasons.
So does this romantic intervention, of the floor, shovel & sweat lend that little extra, or does it take away something from the resultant whisky given its old fashioned techniques?
I suppose not, since spirit has a way about itself of being a natural purifier.
So my closing remarks on this one would be, to savour your dram next time, take a few drops on your palm, rub your palms together, the warmth of your hands will release the aromas. Amongst the many aromas, there will be times where the whisky will take you back to the grain from where it comes from. That is preservation, as beautifully as it can express itself.