I Lagavulin I Bruichladdich I Caol Ila I Port Ellen I Laphroaig I Bowmore I Jura I Kilchoman I Ardbeg I
The open afternoon of the maltings during the Feis Ile is the unique opportunity (normally closed to the public) to visit the Port Ellen maltings, the producer of (almost) all the malted barley used by the Islay whisky distilleries. Places are very limited so book well in advance if you plan to go there during a Feis Ile.
Not much is left from the former Port Ellen whisky distillery, at the exception of the kiln house (not anymore in production) and the warehouses currently, storing the casks of Lagavullin and the remaining Port Ellen casks (about 80 casks). Although the Maltings premises are much bigger than any of the other distilleries (including the Islay "monster" Caol Ila), its production only covers the needs of the Islay distilleries.
Without the agreement linking the Maltings to the Islay distilleries, the Maltings would be closed, since the barley they produce is more expensive than from its mainland competitors (£250/ton vs £150-200/ton).
Since very few distilleries (only 4, but 2 more to come) are malting (part of) their own barley, the malting process is almost as critical to the whisky as the distillation itself. If the barley being is too humid or has too much husk, the grinning will be problematic and/or the spirit yield will decrease.
The plant is relatively modern (from the eighties, but as you can see on the picutres below, the computers are also about that old!) and the Vicker's drums nicely looking. Each drum may contain up to 51 tons of barley and has its own kiln with a 5- ton peat capacity. The peat is mechanically cut on the island (close to the airport).
The tour was pleasant and was only interrupted by a fire alarm, forcing us to evacuate the premises until the source of the problem was identified. Afterwards, we had a nice display of barley samples used by the distilleries in Islay and Jura, as well as a glass of their new make spirits and regular bottling. We could nose the different samples, but unfortunately we were unauthorized to taste them!
Since we were in Port Ellen, a dram of Port Ellen 1979 was included in the £5 tour fee as well as a ticket for one additional dram of local whisky. Different local, cheap and homemade foods were served in one corner of the room before I moved to the master class led by John Thomson, the managing director of the Maltings. His presentation was covering the different peat cutting area in Islay as well as the kilning. We had the opportunity to smell some experimental "heavily" peated barley at a hefty 450+ ppm level !!! (10x the phenol level of the barley used by Ardbeg!)
The Port Ellen malting afternoon was a great experience and I highly recommend it to anyone going to Islay during the Feis Ile!