Holy smoke

Holy smoke

Martine Nouet looks at the kiln's part in whisky making

Production | 07 Sep 2012 | Issue 106 | By Martine Nouet

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When you live on Islay, especially on the south-east coast, you know that “where there is fire there is smoke”, to mis-quote the old saying. I would not be surprised to hear that Port Ellen villagers’ blood tests come back with the noted presence of phenols! The peat reek which is released in the air from Port Ellen maltings can be hardly tolerable at times, at least for the Islay westerner like me. When I scanned Islay whiskies aromas through to establish (or try to) the Islay taste map last year, I was puzzled by the different expressions of peat in peaty whiskies. If it is easy to understand the difference between a heavily, medium or lightly peated whisky, why do two single malts distilled from two equally peated barleys show so many differences in the expression of their aromatic profile, even if we take into account the differences in the making? The other itching question was about the differences imparted in flavour between distillery malting and industrial malting.

I thought it would be interesting to concentrate on what happens in the kiln as this phase in the whisky making is crucial when it comes to enriching the aromatic profile.

Port Ellen maltings had stopped producing for maintenance and were just resuming at the steeping stage when I visited. But one of the kilns was still operating, so Islay group manager Brendan McCarron could clearly illustrate his explanations as we stood in front of the kiln.

The intensity of the peatiness has much more to do with the cut point at the distillation

Brendan McCarron has been in place for 15 months, coming from Oban where he was the distillery manager. “We have three kilns and malt 45 to 50 tons of barley in each,” he explained. “We process the two types of drying on peat and hot air at the same time. In fact, the peat has no drying effect, we just want the smoke for the flavour. The smoke is caught up by hot air and passes through the green malt bed”.

The heating starts at 60°C and the hot air, pushed up by powerful fans, picks up the moisture, chasing it up through the grain. The grain contains 45 per cent moisture at the beginning. The temperature drops to 30°C as the air circulates through the grain. But as the grain dries, the temperature goes up again. When the “break” point is reached at 60°C, the peat smoke is no longer needed as the phenols will only “stick” to the green malt.

Hot air carries on drying the grain and reaches up to 75°C/77°C. The whole process takes a minimum of 24 hours.

Brendan sweeps up a generally accepted idea: “If we want an extremely peated malt, we smoke more intensely, not longer. The intensity of the peatiness has much more to do with the cut point at the distillation”.

John Campbell, distillery manager at Laphroaig, points out a difference in the way green malt is dried on the site. “We operate peat first and hot air after to dry our seven tons of green malt, we are the only distillery to do that. It is less efficient as far as drying goes but it gives more flavours. We want the blue smoke!”

Brendan refers to Port Ellen kilns smoke as “white smoke” but they certainly both aim at the same results. The peat smoke is diffused into the wet grain at low temperature.

So when you stand by the kiln when visiting Laphroaig and you admire the red flames covering the peat, be quick at taking your photo as a quick spray of water will “kill” the fire to generate a big veil of smoke. Not as spectacular but efficient.

Port Ellen maltings use extruded peat, cut by machine into long “sausages”, which Brendan claims is no different than peat hand cut into bricks. “It does,” replies John Campbell. “The bricks keep the moisture better, which allows us to get more smoke than heat, hence heavier phenols. We are more protective with our land as we use less peat. We collect our peat nearer to the sea, on Glenmachrie Moss, in a “basin bog” which sits under sea level. This is why it contains specific plants, lichens and fungus but also seaweeds which gives wonderful flavours to our distillate. I am convinced some of the saltiness comes from it and so do earthy aromas”.

Seaweeds? Brendan McCarran shakes his head. The seaweed thing in Islay peat is a myth for him. “I even had a visitor once who told me: “You burn seaweeds in your kilns. I did not manage to convince him we don’t!”

So, impossible to know if the malts produced at Port Ellen and at Laphroaig are different?Laphroaig consistently blends the different origins: 15 per cent homemade on site, 50 per cent from Port Ellen and 35 per cent from the mainland as Port Ellen can’t produce enough to satisfy all the demand.

But John Campbell has a broad smile: “I did an experiment in 2003. I distilled 20,000 litres of new make produced with our own malt. I still wonder how Allied Domecq allowed me to do that!” The idea was to produce whisky as it was made one century ago. They ran only the small stills and worked them as a pair. “The small stills produce a fruitier and sweeter spirit, less oily, with more reflux,” explains John. “We also ran the distillation slower but did not change the cut point. The difference in the phenols is tremendous. We got heavier phenols up to 60/80ppm, which expressed more tars and more cresols. We produced a heavily peated Highland type of whisky”.

When will we be able to see if the proof is in the pudding? We will have to wait until 2015 as Laphroaig will release this special malt to celebrate the bicentenary of the distillery. “

A 10 Years Old from 100 hundred years ago”.

I can’t wait.
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