Malt, Grist, Husk, Grit and Flour

The Starting Point of the Malt Whisky Production

Alcohol is produced by fermenting sugar. The barley grain contains primarily starch. In chemical terms, starch is a multiple sugar (single sugar molecules forming chains). In order to release the sugar, the starch must be split into smaller sugars (maltose – malt sugar). Traditionally, the barley is steeped in water and left for germination on malting floors.

After steeping, a water content of 45% is ideal for the barley starch to be converted into sugar. The barley must be turned over by hand in carefully timed intervals so that all grains germinate equally. Germination takes about five days. Among the most important distilleries that still produce their own malt are Balvenie, Bowmore, Highland Park, Laphroaig and Springbank. Except for Springbank, the other distilleries produce only parts of their malt by themselves. They get the rest from large modern maltings.

The malting floors at the Glendronach distillery
Glendronach – Classic malting floor

After the barley grain has opened and the germ has reached approximately 2/3 of the length of the grain, the starch has turned into sugar. Now the germination process is interrupted by spreading the still wet barley on grids in the kiln and drying it with hot air from below. Drying is stopped at 4% humidity. This stage contributes significantly to the character of the whisky. If you add peat to the fire, the malt gets a smoky peat note. The steam is discharged through the pagoda roofs of the distilleries.

The production buildings at the Glen Garioch distillery
Kiln of Glen Garioch

Pagoda and Pagoda Roof

In the picture of the Glen Garioch Distillery you can see the classic pagoda roofs very well. These can be seen on the buildings of many Scottish Whisky distilleries. But what are these pointed, Asia-looking roofs doing on a Whisky distillery? A pagoda is actually a multi-storey tower, whose individual floors are usually separated from each other by cornices or eaves. This way of building is especially widespread in Asia. At the end of the 19th century this style was also modern in Europe and so Charles Chree Doig built Scotland's first pagoda in 1889 at the Dailuaine Distillery. The pagoda roofs can be found on the distillery buildings, which contain the kiln, i.e. the malt floor. Here, the germinating barley was spread out and dried over fire. Good ventilation is essential in this drying process, as the temperature in the kiln must not exceed 55 degrees Celsius in order not to destroy the enzymes in the grain. Today, kilns with their typical pagoda roofs have mainly decorative purposes: only a few distilleries still malt their barley in-house.