Where the Peat still reeks in the Old Way

By Anthony Troon
Reproduced from the SMWS newsletter, with permission

The 'Pagoda Roof' is a malt whisky distillery's most instantly recognisable feature. Take it away, and you don't seem to have a distillery any more. It would be like having a French vineyard without a chateau.

It was as recently as the 1890s that these steeply-pitched roofs with the pagoda caps started to appear above the square-built kilns of malt distilleries. They are, basically, very attractive chimneys. Their height and the design of the vent at the top allowed an improved draught for the peat fires below as they dried the malted barley.

It's now the 1990s. With the great bulk of barley now being treated in industrial maltings, the function of the pagoda roof has been lost. It's simply embellishment, a distillery's visual identity.

But not quite. A handful of Scotland's malt distilleries still kiln a proportion of their malt in the traditional way: and one of these is Highland Park, the most northerly in Scotland; set dramatically on a hillside above Kirkwall in Orkney.

To stand outside the kiln and see the peat-smoke foaming away before a stiff breeze is a rare experience. It must compare with that of a steam-buff, watching a powerful 4-6-2 charging a gradient. Except that outside the kiln house the energy is expended silently as the soft reek feathers in the wind and disappears.

Inside it's different: the peat furnace roars and crackles and sends out a heat that would singe your eyebrows. Jim Robertson, the genial manager of Highland Park distillery, says that at the centre of the peat fire temperatures can reach a startling 1,200 degrees C; but ideally, it is kept to 800 degrees. On the drying floor above, the malted barley in whose honour this peat is burning roasts happily at 60 degrees, for two days. The eight tonnes of soaked barley that go in emerge when dried, weighing about 6 tonnes.

This ancient drying technique is essentially a crude one, and so the condition of the drying malt must be carefully monitored. An Orkney gale blowing across the pagoda vent might increase the draught through the fire to such an extent that six hours are cut from the drying time.

Highland Park malts and kilns one fifth of the barley it uses. In the kiln, peat is burned only when the moisture content of the malt is above 25 per cent; for only at that stage will the reek stick to the grain and impart its glorious flavour. This takes about 12 hours. After that, the drying process is completed by burning coke.

The other four-fifths of the distillery's barley comes by sea from industrial maltings on the Scottish mainland. The order is that it should be completely unpeated. Highland Park depends on its own island peat for its character. It's a particularly heathery kind of peat, cut from banks at Hobbister by a JCB with a specially-shaped digging tool, designed to replicate as nearly as possible the traditional shape of hand-dug peat blocks. Only Orkney peat will do, says Jim Robertson.

The distillery's barley store holds 600 tonnes of grain. The first stage, of course, is to steep each batch in water for two days ro start the germination process. Then the grain is taken to the traditional floor maltings and laid out as a 'piece' for seven days. At least every eight hours, the grain is turned by a hand-operated machine rather like a lawn-mower, with paddles instead of blades. A hand-pulled plough is taken through the 'piece' to disentangle the sprouting roots. Eventually it's ready for the kiln.

After milling, the dried malt is mashed for 5.5 hours. The distillery has 12 washbacks of 292 hectolitres capacity, and two are filled from one mash. At peak production, Highland Park makes 13 mashes a week, although nine is more normal. Distillation is handled by two pairs of stills - a modest production line for one of Scotland's most distinctive drams.

For maturing its own fillings, Highland Park puts about a tenth of the whisky in sherry casks and the rest in bourbon. This assertive spirit is an essential constituent of several blends. But when it's bottled as a single malt at 12 years old, considerably more than one-tenth of the content will be from sherry casks.

Jim Robertson has an amusing testimonial hanging framed in his office. Dated 1914, it's from Alan Walker of the Johnnie Walker family. 'I am in the process of conversion,' he wrote, 'to the idea that Highland Park is the only whisky worth drinking, and Johnnie Walker only for selling to deluded sassenachs.'

But a glance through the membership list of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society shows that the sassenachs are better-informed these days.
© Anthony Troon, SMWS

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