Whisky is an old Scottish tradition, and so are haunted castles. Today, the Balvenie is one of only two distilleries in Speyside that maintains the old, farmyard ways of malting barley, and it takes place in a large warehouse-type building that was built in the 1920s. Some of it was built with stones taken from the nearby and long-ruined Balvenie Castle from which the distillery takes its name, as well as the equally derelict Auchindoun Castle that is also not far away, just on the other side of Dufftown. Some theorise that those stones brought with them their own apparition, known as the Green Lady.
Floor malting, the way the Balvenie still does it, is a manual, hands-on process, the malting house throughout which a bread-like smell always permeates. The raw, untreated barley, fresh from one the Balvenie’s own farms on the hills around Dufftown, is delivered and moved by elevator to the upper floor known as the barley loft. Here it is stored in tall piles until it is ready to be dunked into one of the cast iron steep tanks on one end of the building where they are soaked in spring water for a couple of days until fully hydrated.
Now, the barley is ready to grow, and is laid out on the malting floor proper, which is on the ground level. Here, sections of barley are carefully laid out by hand on the bare concrete, with defined bevelled edges suggesting the pride taken in the work. At this stage, the barley is drying out, absorbing oxygen, and about to generate a root – and developing the starchy substances inside necessary for proper fermentation. The process generates heat, and several times a day the maltmen need to stir up the barley to let some of the heat escape.
The organic piles of the barley loft and the precise arrangements of the malting floor can be quite soothing. It can also be very quiet in the malting house, at least when the elevators are not running. So quiet, in fact, that maltmen on the 11pm to 7am night shift – throwing the barley is a round-the-clock job – often report hearing the Green Lady’s footsteps emanating from the upper level. They counter this with music, as the footsteps are less unsettling when unheard; one can always tell who is on night shift duty by the type of music being played.
Opposite the steep tanks is the kiln, which is a tower-like attachment on the side of the malting house with a tell-tale pagoda-style roof that doubles as a chimney. This style of roof can be found dotted all over Speyside distilleries, but the Balvenie’s is exceptional because the smoke drifting out from it is a sign of its continuing operation. The barley is moved by elevator from the malting floor to the upper floor of the kiln, where it is laid out on a fine iron grate. This grate allows hot air and smoke to drift in from the furnaces below, drying out the barley, stopping the germination process and readying it for mashing and then fermentation. The furnaces below usually burn coal, but the Balvenie also uses peat – the heathery, mossy, sweet type of Speyside peat – most notably in its Week of Peat special expressions, but it uses a mild peat as a matter of course. The result is usually undetectable in the final expression, but it forms part of the distillery’s overall flavour profile.
The barley takes a couple of days to fully dry, the bread scent giving way to something more biscuity. It needs to be constantly turned here as well, and affixed to the wall is a mechanical turner that slowly rotates a corkscrew-like appendage across the entire room. This was installed very recently, in early 2021, and it was a bit of a challenge to anchor the heavy industrial machinery into the century-old walls of the kiln. Before it was installed, turning the barley in the kiln was done by hand, with protective gear in a hot, smoky room, one of the more unpleasant jobs in the distillery – and still not enough to escape the Green Lady. Robbie Gormley, the Balvenie’s recently retired head maltman who had worked there for over 40 years, never turned the barley with his back to the door in fear of the Green Lady sneaking up behind him and tapping him on the shoulder.
Gormley is himself a Balvenie legend, for so many years the steward of the malting process. During his final few night shifts at the malting house, he composed a poem in honour of the Green Lady who had so often kept him company. He recited this poem at his retirement dinner. Some of Gormley’s stories – including this poem – have been immortalised in a series of podcasts that accompanies The Balvenie Stories range of expressions. Listen to the stories from Speyside here.