One of my biggest misconceptions at a distillery, was the easy life of the Mashman. I used to take tours around Glenkinchie, and most of the time the Mashman was nowhere to be seen, as if he’d come into work, pressed a few buttons, and buggered off to watch the telly. However, every new distillery tour I do, and every Mashman I meet adds another string to their bow of skills. They just make the job look easy, but in fact have a lot of things to think about.
Nowadays, at a lot of distilleries, the title Mashman no longer exists, as every member of the team can competently and expertly complete every phase of production. The skills needed change from site to site, its not just making porridge!Mashing
Mashing is the part of the process where we change starches in the barley into soluble sugars. The mashing machine is a screw-like machine which is used to mix the water and grist from the mill as it is added to the mash tun, which is the vessel in which this crude porridge is stirred and mixed. The mash tun has a false bottom for drainage.
Water is introduced to the grist at around 64C (This changes depending on mash tun type, barley strain and from distillery to distillery. The Mashman needs to know what he is processing to gauge the temperature of water to add.) The water will enable enzymes in the grist, as well as converting starches into sugars and dissolving them into sweet liquid known as wort
. This wort is taken forward for the addition of yeast and the fermentation into alcohol. Water will be added at least twice more, each time at a higher temperature allowing maximum sugar to be dissolved, and ensuring we get as much alcohol from our barley as possible. The Mashman’s job doesn’t begin in the Mash House however, he needs to prepare his malted barley in the mill.
This is definitely the most overlooked skill by most visitors touring a distillery.
The mills in Scotland tend to contain two sets of heavy rollers, the first set must be adjusted so that it just cracks the husk of the barley grains, and the second grinds it into grist. The grist MUST be ground to the correct consistency.
The barley is introduced to the top of the mill, here any large stones and bits of dirt are removed with a coarse filter. They are then weighed and dropped into the mill in 40kg coups. Now they are introduced to the two sets of rollers.
Too fine a grist will lead to the false bottom in the mash tun clogging up and poor draining of wort, too coarse a grist and the water will drain out as soon as it is added. Think about baristas deciding on coffee grinds. It’s the same principle, they are needed to create a great cup of espresso, just as the Mashman is essential to a great glass of Whisky.
Milling is a skill all on it’s own, and to get it right, you need one of these:
The box has 3 different meshes, each one finer than the last. This is filled with a fixed weight of grist, shaken a particular number of times, then each section is weighed. Generally a Mashman is looking for 10% flour at the bottom, 20% grits or middles and 70% husks in the top, but again this will change depending on the distillery and the barley. At Bruichladdich, Graham, their South African Mashman was explaining how we were working with Islay Barley. This barley had not been dressed at the maltings, basically it was arriving with lots of dust, and the rootlets from germination were still part of the mixture. (This was due to the unstandardised size of grains from the Islay harvest, dressing would have led to the loss of many of the grains in the batch, and a huge loss of whisky.)
All of this meant that Graham needed to mill much more coarsely than usual to make sure his mash tun didn’t clog up. The mash was visibly different to any other I had ever seen, but this was essential for the Bruichladdich he was mashing for.
Back in the Mash House, things get even more complicated. Here is the same process from a number of different distilleries with different setups.
The mega updated and technologically advanced one. To my surprise, working at Glenlivet Distillery was like playing a video game. Everything could be run from one central console. It was as if every valve and door could be open and closed at the touch of a button. Their mash tun is the largest looking one in the industry. It was installed with a very wide design, but also a very shallow design. This allows Glenlivet to drain their new mash tun extremely efficiently. This is a distillery geared up to make a huge amount of Single Malt Whisky. However, our Mashman still needs to adjust for his barley types, and add the correct temperatures of water, it just so happens that the monitor tells him exactly how hot the added water is. He still needs the skills of the other Mashmen, as well as a great engineering intuition, it’s not like he can just turn his Mash Tun off and back on at the wall when something on the screen freezes…
The mashing console here was like many others in the industry, It tracked your water temperatures and volumes, but any decision to add something to the mash tun was made by a human, and had to be executed by hand. When I was shadowing at Ardbeg, Alastair had to set the mash tun with hot water, essentially warming the pot to ensure little heat loss as the water at a precise temperature was added. He then had to close that water valve and open the water valve for the tank at 63.5C which he introduced through his mashing machine with the grist. His mash tun was a Lauter tun. This is a stainless steel vessel with mechanical arms inside which mix and agitate the mash saving alot of hard labour. If anything were to go wrong at Ardbeg, Alastair can’t blame a computer.
Bruichladdich are still using a Victorian mash tun. Iron with a mechanical arm. This was state of the art in the 19th Century, and it still works perfectly today. This beautiful open top mash tun is not the only one in the industry, Royal Lochnagar still boast one, as does Edradour and a few other original tuns have been kept, however many have been covered over with a copper top like at Bunnahabhain. Because of the open top, Bruichladdich need to add 4 waters. The water being added is also closer to 65C as heat is lost as the mixture is added to the tun. The beauty of this set up is the raw mechanical engineering. Bruichladdich measures volumes in inches, as in inches left in their tanks, and these are visually represented by balances and floats on the wall and in the tanks. Simple engineering that will never break. The other point of note here, is that the mash tun is upstairs. This allows it to be drained by gravity. The Victorians thought of everything.
I had to go to Glenturret 4 times before I could take a tour. I managed to get round last month, and I was astounded by what I saw. Glenturret claims to be the oldest distillery in Scotland, a claim that can’t really be conclusively argued, but what I can argue, is that they have the most wonderful mashing process I have seen to date. I turned up in the Mash House to what can only be described as the smallest mash tun in the industry. It was like a jacuzzi! They mash batches of 700kg (Glenkinchie does 9.4 tonnes) and each mashing is irritated and stirred by hand with paddles. Magical!
After mashing, the Mashman then has the hard task of draining the wort efficiently. He has an Underback or Balancing tank to achieve this. Drain too quickly and you can clog your false bottom, as well as draining through solids. This can have an effect on your fermentation. The drainage has to be conducted perfectly to ensure your worts are worthy.
After drainage of the wort, a final water is added to remove any final sugars in the mash, this is generally recycled as the first water for the next batch.
Now the mash tun needs emptied. Luckily these days, most mash tuns are emptied through holes in the bottom of the vessel, a task which can be done mechanically. Gone are the days when the Mashmen got in and shovelled the Draff out. This solid Draff is normally used for cattle feed by local farmers.
That’s not to say there is no manual labour these days. While working at Bruichladdich, I was given the job of adding yeast to the worts to allow fermentation to begin. This involved carrying 25kg bags into the Tun Room and manually breaking them up and pouring them into the wort.
What I learned from the whole experience shadowing at Bruichladdich and Ardbeg, and from the various conversations I’ve had at the 40 or so distilleries I have visited, is the fact that a Mashman has to take great pride in his work. His part of the process can make or break each batch of whisky. Without him, no alcohol would be present, and no milling would get done. The Mashman needs to know exactly how each strain of barley will react in each environment. He must mash and agitate according to his ingredients and his batch. If he messes up water temperatures he can lose thousands of pounds of whisky later on as his yields dwindle away. He must ensure safe passage through the distillery for each grain of barley, taking huge interest in the milling, the mashing and being so proud of his wort, he also makes sure that it is him adding the yeast to this precious mixture of water and sugar.
So the next time you’re in the kitchen, making a bowl of porridge, pour a wee dram over the top and remember the Mashman who’s porridge is more important than most people will ever know…
p.s. Everyone should have a favourite mash tun, my favourite mash tun is at Ardmore