As commercial maltsters supply the majority of distilleries, many of Scotland’s historic floor maltings have been repurposed as cafés, distillery shops, tasting rooms, and extra warehousing. While the flat bladed wooden shovel, known as a shiel, has been chosen to illustrate floor maltings on the second release in Highland Park’s Keystone Series, the humble shiel is not the subject of this article. Let me introduce you to a custom bit of kit that helps the maltman to do the job more quickly.
“We’ve got traditional hand ploughs, but we also have these big, mechanised turners which look like you could sit on and drive them, but you can’t,” says Marie Stanton, the Highland Park distillery manager standing in their Y-shaped floor maltings. “It’s got this set of paddles on it, which flips the malt over and over. Have you ever seen the film Robots? It reminds me of one of them.”
Stanton has managed Highland Park for the past two winters, moving north from her job on Speyside as distillery team leader in charge of Balvenie and Kininvie, where her remit included the Balvenie floor maltings. “The turner at Balvenie was more upright, more like a rotivator blade,” she describes. “George, the engineer, made them for the guys in the workshop. Every time they began to wear out or break down, he would tinker with them and we would get the next evolution in design. They were called Ike and Tina, because they were the ‘Turners’, but then Ike completely broke down, so George built us Tina II instead.”
The turners look a little like the propulsion mechanism liberated from a riverboat paddle steamer. Despite an aesthetic straight from a Transformers movie, this monster is more like an office floor buffer than a ride-on lawn mower. They are driven by electric motors, so surprisingly, they aren’t noisy machines when you pull on the throttle. It’s actually quite manoeuvrable, a practical attribute given the need to negotiate around the supporting columns found in most traditional floor maltings.
Highland Park has different sized turners on their malting floors, but the biggest beast has a row of four turners, each with ten spinning spokes fixed with rubber paddles that scull up and down through the germinating grains. At the front end, flappy panels hang down to guard against deeper drifts of malt, while angled vertical ploughs direct the grains into the path of the windmilling paddles.
A rear safety grill keeps the operator’s legs safe from the back wheeling machinery. Other than eliminating the risk of monkey shoulder, the only other apparent concession to health and safety is a hefty breezeblock plonked out front, which crudely stabilises the turner to prevent it tipping backwards.
Simpson’s Malt supplies barley and unpeated malt to Highland Park distillery, transported in bulk from Berwick to Aberdeen then filled into 10 ton containers for the 155 nautical mile journey across the North Sea to Kirkwall. “Derek Linklater, our full time maltman, looks after all the raw material intake,” says Stanton. “He checks it all in, and makes the stocks balance. As winter approaches, Derek starts watching the weather and sometimes orders extra supplies, just in case. It’s not unknown for the boat to encounter rough weather, miss us out, and go on to Shetland and only come in on the way back.”
“I like having a maltings,” admits Stanton. “Orkney has a better climate for malting than Speyside because it’s much more temperate. Despite cold winds, when you get inside the chunky, stone maltings, it’s a more even temperature all year round. In Speyside, you sometimes get absolutely horrendous winters and breaking the ice off the top of the steeps is not unknown. That doesn’t happen here, everything is just a little bit cooler which is great for germination.”
Floor malting takes four to six days on Orkney but it’s weather driven so it can be left down for seven days if it’s cold. The maltman turns the floor at least once every eight hour shift, but it’s their choice as to whether they use the turner or the hand plough. After all, one good turn deserves another.