Craft Maltings Help Distillers Create More Experimental Whiskies

The concept of a Scottish craft malting revival has been germinating. Craft malting involves the production of custom-ordered batches of malted barley made from locally grown grains, unusual manufacture methods, or interesting barley varieties. Distillers undertake craft maltings primarily for the pursuit of distinctive whisky flavors. You may have tasted a number of drams that owe their existence to craft maltings: Glenmorangie Tùsail, Bruichladdich Bere Barley, Benromach Organic, and Springbank Local Barley to name a few.

Muntons, a global supplier of malt to the whisky industry, is handling more inquiries about the subject. However not everyone requires their services, explains Pete Robson, the general manager for malt sales. “Muntons’ commercial malting operations can handle typical batch sizes of 30 to 300 tons. A craft distillery may want to use a special heritage variety as a one-off, but they could end up having far too much of that whisky to sell.” For custom batches of up to three tons, distillers need to find a traditional floor maltster, where the additional labor and transport can push up the costs of manufacturing. Unfortunately for the distiller, the unavoidable analysis costs of the malt are the same whether it’s a 3-ton or a 300-ton batch.  Robson points out, “You’re paying 100 times more per ton for your analysis.”

Distillers are experimenting with varieties of barley used 50-100 years ago, such as Maris Otter, Proctor, and Zephyr. Cultivating heritage varieties is riskier for the farmer, as these became obsolete due to their low yield and lack of disease resistance. Each new modern variety of barley is superior in quality, with breeding advantages leading to continual improvements in agronomic, laboratory, and extract yield. A viable crop needs to be able to compete with wheat and modern barley. Robson remarks, “Say the yield to the farmer is half of growing a modern malting variety; you will have to pay double for the farmer to get the same return.”

With greater appreciation of the effort to produce these whiskies, distillers pursue further trials. “Like the American brewer, the American distiller is very experimental,” notes Robson, describing the use of highly-colored brewing malts such as chocolate malts to determine if the flavor is carried forward in the distillate. At Strathearn distillery in Scotland, they have been experimenting with Maris Otter ale malt, replicating the old ways, when beer was distilled into whisky. These malts have been fired at higher temperatures on the kiln, producing extra color which adds greater biscuit and malty flavors. “There’s a relationship between color and the alcohol yield from the malt,” explains Robson. “The higher the color and the heat treatment, the more the enzymes are denatured during kilning, so the alcohol yield is lower. That’s why the big guys go for low-color specifications.”

Robson is optimistic that the attractions of heritage, organic, or farm-specific barley crops will lead to new craft maltings being built alongside craft distilleries: “People experimenting with different varieties or manufacturing methods will drive a craft maltings resurgence.”

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