The Spirit of the "Little Dark Hill"

By Anthony Troon
Reproduced from the SMWS newsletter, Winter 1990, with permission

All true lovers of Scotch malt whisky know how the spirit is produced. But here's a short resume for those who have forgotten:

There are only three ingredients - barley, water and yeast. The barley is steeped in water and allowed to germinate. The germination is stopped by heating, and the malted barley is dressed, milled, and water is added to make a "mash". Yeast is added and fermentation takes place. When this is completed, the liquid is distilled and stored in casks to mature.

End of resume: but of course, it is the many, imponderable variations at every stage of the process which makes every malt whisky distinctive.

Until about 1950, almost all malt distilleries could be expected to carry out the entire process on the premises, from buying in the grain to laying the spirit down to sleep in casks from their cooperages. And the traditional malting process was a particularly sensitive and laborious one, in which the soaked barley ¥vas laid, one foot deep, on stone floors to germinate.

This could take up to 14 days. During this period the malting barley had to be turned over many times by distillery workers using wooden shovels. This controlled the build-up of temperature in the lower levels of the grain, which would stop germination. Unhappily, the repetitive work with the shovel also gave some of the workers a muscular condition which they called "monkey shoulder" - a precursor of the "repetitive strain injury" which is known today among computer operators. There's an irony.

But 40 years ago, two things happened almost simultaneously that transformed this part of malt distilling. The first was the introduction of the "Saladin box", a French invention from the l9th century which mechanised the turning process. The second was the concept of industrial maltings, in which the barley was delivered to big, centralised plants where it was malted (usually in revolving drums) and sent to the distilleries, dried and ready for the mash.

But one malt distillery was left in a sort of time-warp by these changes. This was the Tamdhu-Glenlivet Distillery on Speyside, established in 1897. It was among the very first to instal Saladin boxes, a move which greatly increased its malting capacity, allowing it eventually to build a new kiln, put in new stills and treble its output.

The bulk of the other distilleries were slower off the mark. They might well have been thinking of putting in Saladin boxes - but the intention was overtaken by the rise of the big, centralised malting plants and that was where they looked for their ready-malted barley.

The result is that Tamdhu, whose Gaelic name means "the little dark hill", is the only malt distillery using this intriguing process. A few still have floor maltings. Glendronach and Balvenie still treat a little of their barley this way: but at Highland Park, Bowmore, Glengarioch, and possibly Ardmore, floor malting is done on a serious scale.

The Saladin box is a concrete trough with a perforated floor. The steeped barley is poured in to a depth of more than four feet and air is blown through the floor to control the temperature.

For the first 24 hours, the germinating grain is left undisturbed. But then the turning process must begin to dissipate the build-up of heat. The job is done by a bank of six mechanical turners resembling giant, flat-bladed corkscrews, which reach right down to the bottom of the grain. They turn slowly, lifting the lower grain to the top of the heap. As this happens, the row of turners moves slowly from one end of the box to the other, taking an hour to complete the journey.

Over a period of four days, the turning of the grain is repeated every eight hours, or at the discretion of the maltman. Then the malt is ready to be taken to the kiln for drying; in fact, it is sucked out of the Saladin box through a hose and pumped into the drying room, where the drying process takes 18 hours. About six cwts [300 Kg] of peat will be burned, adding its smoke to the heated air and giving the malt a flavour which follows the spirit into the cask, the bottle, and your glass.

The mathematics of this are interesting. Each Saladin box takes two steeps-full of grain; two boxes fill the kiln; and the original 44 tons of barley make 37 tons of malt.

Because all of these processes are carried out at Tamdhu, it has complete control over its own raw materials. This must make it one of the most interesting distilleries to work in; and of course it requires a larger-than-average workforce. The Saladin boxes themselves are now 40 years old and require a bit of careful nursing at times. But without them, this would not be such a unique malt distillery. And "old fashioned" as they might be thought, they give the distillers a cost advantage over bought-in malted barley.

Tamdhu has its own laboratory where samples of barley from the farms are tested for protein and moisture content before being accepted. A new protein-testing machine does in eight minutes a task which once took four hours. The staff are also on the look-out for such horrors as the grain weevil and its friend, the saw-toothed grain weevil. If they find one, the load of barley is rejected - because, statistically, there could be as many as 40,000 of them in a 25-ton load.

When the railway line to this part of Speyside was closed, the station was bought and converted into Tamdhu's visitor centre. But there was one essential change that just had to be made. The station's name was Knockando - which, of course, is also the name of a "rival" malt distillery nearby. The new board on the station platform now reads - firmly and unequivocally - Tamdhu.
© (1990) Anthony Troon, SMWS

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