The first ingredient we need in the production of whisky is barley. There are many varieties of barley used, but does it make any difference to the whisky produced? There are arguments on both sides. Vic Cameron’s of Diageo, a major whisky supplier, thinks not and writes in Scothwhisky.com ‘Does barley variety affect whisky flavour?’. On the other side, Adam Hannett and Carl Reavey from Bruichladdich Distllery have ‘No Doubt’ barley variety affects whisky. Either way, the barley must be malted to produce our malt whisky.
In the past each distillery would have malted the barley on its malting floors, however, because of increased production volumes, most grain is now malted in commercial malting plants and transported to the distillery. On Islay, Laphroaig, along with Kilchoman and Bowmore, still malt their own barley but also have to buy in malted barley as well for production volume.
Malting the barley can be broken down into three categories;
- Peating – Kilning
The barley grain is steeped in water in large cylindrical tanks to stimulate the germination process. The water is then drained off, then fresh added as the barley swells and soaks it up. The last water is drained off and the barley is then taken in ‘chariots’, bucket type containers with two side wheels, and spread across the malt floor. The barley before germination tastes starchy. The germination process turns this starch into sugars which is required to make the sugary solution now called wort .
The grain is now spread across the malt floors in an even layer of about 6 inches. This is turned regularly either by hand using a shovel or a special plough, or by machine into furrows. This is to provide more surface area for the barley to cool down and let air in to stop it matting and sticking together. The grain must be kept at the correct temperature during the germination process.
Peating – Kilning
The germination process must now be halted before the sugars which the grain now contain are turned into green shoots. This is done by heating the germinated barley in a kiln, traditionally using a peat fire.
Laphroaig is famous for its smokey and peaty aromas in its whisky and most of this comes from the peating process where the malted barley is dried over a peat fire.
Laphroaig has its own peat beds where it’s cut by hand. It’s maintained that hand-cut peat retains more water containing the oils and phenols compared to machine cut peat which squeezes the water out of it.
Only the upper layers of peat just below the turf is used in order to provide the most amount of smoke rather than heat. This imparts the peaty phenols which can be measured in ppm, parts per million.
At Laphroaig the barley is first peated by partly drying over smoking peat, then fully dried using warm air heated from surplus heat taken from the stills.
The peat kiln sits below the kiln room and the rising smoke imparts the oils and phenols into the grain.
Anthracite was burned in the past to dry off the rest of the moisture down to about 4%.
The barley now is sweet to taste and cracks in your teeth with smokey flavours, ready for milling into grist.