Dial M for malts

In our series looking at whisky terms we have reached the letter m. In the first of two features Dominic Roskrow looks at malts and malting.
By Dominic Roskrow
It may well be that the romance of whisky making is epitomised by the shapes of the gleaming copper stills and the agitated liquid bubbling within, or symbolised by the aromas of maturing spirit in the bowels of a damp warehouse.But the work horse part of whisky lies way before – in the malting and mashing,because if these relatively unglamorous areas of the process are wrong then everything that follows will be off-kilter, too.More so than ever, in fact. I live among the wheat and barley fields of Norfolk,and my boys spent an afternoon on a combine harvester during harvest this year.The local farmers were relieved to get the grain out of the field – last year much of it was lost to the weather – but as the season progessed the face of farmer David next door got longer in direction proportion to the September evenings.The fields of gold had a distinctly grey hue in England this year,and after a poor harvest last, there’s not a lot of optimism round these parts.Barley is becoming a rarer resource, partly because of the poor crop but partly also to demand.One beer brewer in the North West of England went as far as to blame Diageo for increasing the demand for barley as the new markets in Asia and the East open out. Furthermore, as farmers turn to wheat production to supply grain for environmentally friendly fuel, barley fields are being dug up.All of which makes the need to maximise yields from what barley there is even greater, and you start to appreciate how crucial the early processes of extracting fermentable starch from the grain is. In fact up to two-thirds of the cost of making whisky comes from the cost of barley.To extract the starches properly, therefore, is essential.Malting is a three stage process perfected to do just this. First the grain is steeped in water, in large vessels known simply as steeps.Oxygen is added to improve efficiency.Then the grain is allowed to germinate – or to start growing.Enzymes are released and these break down the walls of the grain, making the starches contained with accessible.The barley is turned frequently to allow it to aerate it and improve the speed of malting.This process takes a few days, and will vary depending on the external climate.Finally the process is halted by kilning – applying heat.This stops the germination at a point when the starches are accessible and at their maximum.This in turn will maximise the yield of alcohol.This can be a quaint and farm-like experience, and a few distilleries maintain malting floors where the malt is spread out evenly and turned by shovel or primitive machinery.Certain whisky books understandably like to focus on such a process.More commonly today,however, the process is mechanised and carried out by commercial maltsters who germinate the grain in drum malting or saladin boxes.Barley isn’t the only grain that can be matted but it is the most efficient one for the production of alcohol.A proportion of malted barley is used in most mashes to some extent.And as the industry becomes increasingly cost conscious, the need for efficient malting will grow ever greater.GLOSSARY
Malt: any grain that has been ‘tricked’in to starting to grow and then dried to stop further germination. The process prepares the grain for fermentation by unlocking the sugars and starches
contained in the grain.Malt whisky: whisky made using only malted barley,yeast and waterMalting: the process of tricking a grain into growing and then controlling its germinationMaltings:the building where malting takes placeMarrying: the process of mixing different whiskies together in huge containers.May be used for blended whiskies but also for combining different malt casks tooMash: name for the mix of boiling water and grist – ground grain which is rich in fermentable starchesMash bill :in American whiskey production the mash is made up of three or more grains.The mash bill refers to the proportion of each grain in the mix.Mash tun: the vessel in which hot water is added to the grist to make the mashMashing: the process of soaking grist in hot water to extract fermentable starchMilling: the conversion of dried malt in to a rough flour known as grist before mashing takes place