The final element in this recalibration is the middle part of the chain – malting. Those efficiencies in barley supply drove the building of larger maltings, in turn making it difficult for them to process smaller batches and to break out of a fixed process cycle.
As the NFU’s commercial operations director for number of years, Alison Milne had first-hand experience of this dilemma: brewers and distillers wanting to build a closer relationship with farmers, accentuate provenance, utilise different varieties and species, but not being able to under the system. Even if they were growing ‘unusual’ varieties, where could they be malted? In 2017, therefore, she and Daniel started Crafty Maltsters.
With a 4-ton drum which combines germinating and kilning, they are malting their own barley as well as some for customers – including organic from Falkland Estate, and Salome for Raasay distillery. They are now at full capacity – but the calls keep coming in. There’s demand, but a lack of capacity.
Ian Palmer is a Crafty Maltsters fan, but with Inchdairnie’s capacity at 2million litres of alcohol per annum it would be impossible for Crafty to supply, reinforcing his argument of the need for a new supply chain for those distillers who want to break free of the homogenised system. Part of this would require more local, and small-scale maltings – or distilleries building their own.
No-one is blaming the maltsters in this. They too are changing. Simpson’s has been awarded B Corp status, Muntons has set up a new supply chain for Inchdairnie to be able to secure barley from its six Fife farmers.
Bruichladdich’s perspective is interesting here. The original decision to use Baird’s in Inverness rather than the local Port Ellen maltings ultimately came down to the Inverness maltings’ flexibility, allowing the distiller to try its experiments with peating levels on Octomore, and smaller- scale batches.
While Baird’s and Crisp continue to find workarounds, it isn’t easy. Some English maltings can supply small batches of specialist varieties, but that further increases a Scotch distillery’s carbon footprint, further demonstrating that the current system is incompatible with the desire on the part of distillers and farmers for greater flexibility.
The need for flavour, the need for it to be profitable for farmers, allied to the need for a wider genetic base for barley, and the developing of regional-suited varieties, plus the very real need to reduce inputs, all push against the commodity system. Something has to give.
Are we at the start of a new world for Scotch, with more varieties, more flavours, made by a new parallel chain once again linking farmer, maltings, and distiller? Alison Milne and John Stirling both think so, and not just for the potential commercial benefits, but because of a greater imperative – sustainability and soil health – the same thing which underpinned Andrew Jones’ decision to plant rye.
For a few pennies more a bottle, Stirling claims, the farmer could make a living return from more environmentally-conscious malting barley production. But it requires compromise and willingness to change.
Crafty Maltsters shows that small-scale maltings can work, and Milne is excited about the possibilities. There are many examples already of distillers breaking from the norm, not just the ones here, but Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, Holyrood, Daftmill, Raasay, Nc’nean and Ardnamurchan. Glenmorangie’s new experimental Lighthouse distillery is also addressing these questions directly.
What might, on the face of it, seem to be a purely commercial incentive has shown the need for an examination of the links between agriculture and distilling. There is an ecology at work within whisky, one which has been fragmented. It goes beyond growing for flavour, compelling though that element is. The growing of the crops, be it landraces, oats, or rye, has to benefit the farmer and the land as well as the distiller, maltsters and consumer.
I think back to the distillers not knowing that they were all making rye. There has been a disconnect at that level as well. Bruichladdich pioneered many of these developments, but it is no longer alone. For the industry to evolve, those links need to be reforged – and though it will take time and effort, they can be.
Many of the themes explored in Dave’s articles are interrogated in more detail in his new book ‘A Sense of Place’. It is now available for pre-order from Blackwell’s and Waterstones in the UK.