The Port Ellen Maltings was a thing on our wish list for the Feis Ile week. This is only opened in this week for tours, and very nice to see what the process is on this side, and get more information on it.
Port Ellen Maltings is situated in Port Ellen, next to the Port Ellen Distillery. The maltings started in 1974, for supplying Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Port Ellen. Now a days, owned by Diageo, then supply to all the Islay distilleries except Bruichladdich and Bowmore. For Jura I am not sure where they get theirs. Tobermory is the only mainland distillery who they deliver to.
Click here for a video on the maltings.
Some technical details from a small booklet we got after the tour written by John A Thomson. It states perfectly the process and history, so here is a little piece out of it.
In the early 1970s Scottish Malt Distillers owned 3 distilleries on Islay: Port Ellen, Caol Ila and Lagavulin. The company decided that the quality, quantity and cost of malt being produced by these distilleries’ traditional floor maltings could be significantly improved by building a single modern maltings to supply all 3 distilleries needs. Thus Port Ellen Maltings was built in 1972 and commissioned in 1973. It was designed to supply high quality heavily peated malt to the 3 Islay distilleries. Barley arrives at Port Ellen by boat, 750 to 1,200 tonnes at a time.
Up to 650 tonnes of barley can be held temporarily in the grain silo alongside the pier. Port Ellen Maltings has nine barley silos with a combined capacity of 2,040 tonnes, approximately 2,700 tonnes including the pier silo.
To initiate malting, Port Ellen has eight steel steeps, they are cylindro-conical vessels which hold 25 tonnes of barley and 30,000 litres of water each. Each steep has two aeration systems. The first system, ‘suction aeration’, is used to suck fresh, cool air into the steep when it contains barley but is empty of water.
The second system, “pressure aeration”, is used when the barley is under water. Compressed air is blown from the bottom of the steep up through the water and barley, causing the barley to become well mixed. To germinate the malt, Port Ellen has seven huge, steel Boby drums, each drum holds the contents of two steeps which is 50 tonnes original barley weight or 65 tonnes of barley at 45% moisture content. These are the largest malting drums in the UK.
Large fans blow carefully controlled volumes of air through the ‘green malt’ in the drum at just the right temperature and humidity to provide ideal growth conditions. Every eight hours the drums take five minutes to do a complete rotation and so keep the malt in the drum mixed and free flowing. To kiln the malt, Port Ellen Maltings has three kilns, each capable of holding the complete contents of a single drum. Automatically controlled burners heat the malt and peat fires provide the ‘reek’ (smoke) to flavour the malt. A typical, heavily peated, 50 tonne batch will require about six tonnes of peat to be burned. The peat used is harvested from Castlehill moss less than three miles across the hills from Port Ellen. The finished malt is stored in one of 31 malt silos with a combined capacity of 3,500 tonnes.
The new maltings worked normally until the early 1980s when there was a general downturn in the production of new make whisky. Many distilleries across Scotland were closed at this time and all the others went on to part time production. At Scottish Malt Distillers, Port Ellen Distillery closed (in 1983) and Caol Ila and Lagavulin were both producing well below their maximum capacity. At this point it appeared that the maltings might have to be closed too as it was not economic to run the plant at these low production levels. However, the other distillers on the island came to the rescue.
They wished to obtain high quality Islay produced malt from Port Ellen and so the seeds of an agreement were sown. In 1987 the Concordat of Islay Distillers was signed – a gentleman’s agreement between the maltings and all the distillers on Islay and Jura, who agreed to take at least a proportion of their malt from Port Ellen Maltings – this saved the maltings from closure and gave the distilleries access to high quality Islay malt.
As part of the agreement the maltings had to produce malt to each customer’s specification. Instead of producing only high peated, direct fired malt, the maltings had to satisfy the requirements of 8 distilleries whose specifications ranged across the entire spectrum of distilling malts from unpeated, indirect fired, through low and medium peated to the more familiar high peated and direct fired malts. The changing pattern of distillery ownership on the island, and changes in senior management, means that today the Concordat is not what it was, but demand for malt from Port Ellen remains high, driven largely by the requirements of Lagavulin and Caol Ila distilleries.