A visit to Bairds Malt in Inverness


Bruichladdich Brand Ambassador Joanne Brown, brand Academy Host Kate Hannett and tour guides Chloe Wood and Raymond Tibbs took a trip up to Inverness to visit Bairds Malt last week on a fact finding mission to experience the malting process at first hand.

Visits to Bairds have been routine for Bruichladdich production managers over the years but this was an ideal opportunity for the team behind our education, visitor and promotional programmes to acquaint themselves with this fascinating, and fundamental, stage in the journey to distillation.

The Malting Process

All Bruichladdich malt is produced at Baird’s with whom we have a long standing relationship.  The maltster has a unique  series of ‘Saladin’ type boxes which handle 49 tonnes of grain at a time.  These boxes are essentially large rectangular rooms with a slatted floor through which water and air, but not barley, can pass.  The size of these Saladin boxes, the smallest in Scotland, are of vital importance to Bruichladdich because they mean Baird’s are able to handle the small batch sizes that we require to preserve the provenance and traceability that is so central to our barley exploration series.

At the time of our visit, one of the Saladin boxes was malting a batch of barley for Bruichladdich that forms part of our ‘Regional Trials’ – an experimental programme during which we are exploring the variation in character between barley grown in different regions of mainland Scotland.

Barley, water, air (and sometimes peat smoke) are the only ingredients used to make our malt. When barley is harvested on farms across mainland Scotland and on Islay, it is dried to reduce the moisture content down to around 12% and stored, usually for several months to bring it into optimum condition.  Tests determine that it is of suitable quality and that the batch will achieve the necessary germination rate, which must be greater than 98%.

The aim of the maltster is to induce germination of the barley, prompting the individual grains to generate enzymes that have the potential to convert the starches stored in the grain into sugars during mashing. One of the many skills of the maltster is in stopping this germination at precisely the right moment.  This ensures that the enzymes are preserved so that when they are reactivated by hot water in the mash tun at the distillery, they are able to convert the starches into the sugars that make up the sweet wort that goes forward to fermentation in the washbacks.

The augers turning the grain in the bed

There are three stages to the malting process, all of which take place in the combined Saladin box.

1) Steeping.  The barley is soaked in water to initiate germination.  Germination generates heat, which needs to be dissipated, which is done by turning the grains, thus exposing them to cool air.  This is done is the Saladin box using a series of rotating augers that are dragged through the grain bed on rails.

2) Germination.  The action of enzymes produced by the individual grains on the endosperm cells is called ‘modification’. Three principal sets of enzymes are involved, glucanases break down the cell walls, proteases break down the proteins encompassing the grains of starch and amylases start to break down the starch into the fermentable sugars, although most of this latter process takes place when the amylases are reactivated during the mash at the distillery.

3) Kilning.  Germination has  to be stopped at a precise moment in time to optimise the quality of the malt.  This is done by drying the grain which has the added benefit of enabling it to be stored for long periods. Hot air is passed up through the slatted base of the malt bed to effect this.   Drying does not destroy the enzymes however which are reactivated after milling at the distillery by being soaked in hot water during the mash.

Kilning is the point at which peat reek can be introduced into the grain, giving the us the characteristic peated flavours of Port Charlotte and Octomore whiskies.  Creating the peat smoke to do this is an another skilled art that is dependent on a number of variables including the nature of the peat used, the control of the fire, the ambient temperature and the strength of the wind.

We would all like to express our appreciation of the hospitality shown to us by all at Baird’s during our visit, particularly MikeThomson, Andrea Fearnley and Mark Kinsman who were so generous with their time.

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