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Think of Scotch whisky just now.

Think of where it comes from and the imagery around it. The current ads for leading brands are shot in dark, moody tones, featuring waves crashing onto rocks and rain lashing grim, hunkered-down stone buildings. The copy talks about being rugged and remote, desolate and inaccessible.

This is the strong, brooding image that’s working for many leading single malt brands. But the reality for much of Scotland’s distilling industry – and more importantly, the barley growing and malting industry that serves it – is a bit more varied and complex. A bit more… mellow.



The Moray coast in the North East of Scotland is much drier and sunnier than the average for Scotland, and even has less rainfall than the average for England. The climate is so pleasant, the region was a popular Victorian holiday destination. Today, this climate plus the quality of the soil provides excellent conditions for growing malting barley.

Barley is Scotland’s main cereal crop, and Scotland accounts for more than a quarter of the UK’s total barley crop. Much of Scotland’s barley goes for animal feed, but 35% of it is used for malting.

This wasn’t always the case. Until the arrival of Golden Promise in the late 1960s, there wasn’t really a good spring barley that worked in this climate.

Most of the barley used in the whisky industry actually came from East Anglia, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the whisky industry was really powering up, you used to have hundreds of thousands of tonnes of Maris Otter coming from East Anglia, all the way up by rail to Dufftown, and then be distributed from there. Now, huge areas of Morayshire and Aberdeenshire are dominated by malting barley.

says Colin Johnston, Crisp’s Sales and Marketing Director.

Two men observe crops being harvested near to the Portgordon Maltings in Scotland


Crisp’s Portgordon Maltings sits in the heart of this perfect malting barley region. From this sunny, pleasant base, they provide the malt that makes many of those supposedly rugged, desolate single malts.

“There aren’t many big producers we don’t supply,” says Richard Lake, the production manager at Portgordon Maltings. “Everything we do goes for whisky distilling.”

Whisky begins with brewing. The malted barley is mashed to make an unhopped beer known as the “wash”, which is then fermented into spirit. But the requirements of a whisky distiller are quite different from those of a beer brewer.

“When you’re brewing, there’s flavour to consider. But in distilling the grain doesn’t really have an impact on the final flavour,” says Richard. “It’s all about achieving the highest possible yield.”

“Since the 1960s, it’s been all about yield,” says Colin. “It’s about the maximum amount of grain out of a field, and the right amount of nitrogen in that grain. The more protein you haven’t the less starch. Just 0.2% to 0.3% can make a difference of 15 litres per ton of raw alcohol. So it’s about getting the right variety of grain, that gives you that maximum yield, and about keeping that yield consistent.”


The specific barley variety is, obviously, also of huge importance. Today, a staggering 90% of what Crisp Malt uses is a variety called Laureate.

Barley entering the Portgordon Maltings, man checks the malt in a lorry on the weigh bridge. Just a few years ago, Optic was all the rage, but malt varieties are constantly being upgraded, with newly approved varieties launching regularly onto the market like new iPhone models. Laureate performs well in all malt-growing regions, likes all soil types, is resistant to disease, and has that all-important high yield. It was the most widely grown spring malting barley in the 2022 harvest. Good for both brewing and distilling, it just needs to be grown in fields with a lower nitrogen content if it’s to be used for distilling rather than for brewing.

In theory, any farmer in Aberdeenshire with the right soil type can plant Laureate then. But Colin is passionate about how that need for consistency and high yield doesn’t just depend on the growing of the crop, but the entire supply chain before it gets to the distiller.

Germination and kilning is absolutely key,” he explains. “Too hot and you’ll kill the enzymes, which reduce fermentability and reduce spirit yield.  But go too cold, and you’ll have too much residual moistures, which distillers don’t like either, because you’re selling them water. There’s the testing and grading of it. All these aspects have a contribution to that ultimate spirit yield.”

But that’s not all. The link between growers, maltsters and distillers is hauliers. Everyone else in the chain needs to know that they can be depended on to be there at just the right time to deliver the grain. These relationships between people at every part of the process are as important as any other aspect of growing and kilning quality distilling malt.


Richard Lake has been at Portgordon Maltings since 2003. He knows everyone from farmer to distiller.

We have quite close links with our customers. We’ve been working with some farmers for decades. They know that they can produce the highest quality malting barley and that we will buy it. It’s a close-knit community. We have regular review meetings. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing. And people move around quite a lot within the industry.

he says modestly.

Colin sheds some more light on what those relationships can mean:

In the early days, Richard was having real problems with a local haulier, getting some malt taken down to Grant’s at Girvan. There was a farmer. Ian Green, who had one truck that they used for barley movement to and from the farm. Richard was desperate. He phoned up Ian Green and asked him if there was any chance they could do this haul. The guy was there within half an hour. Took it down. Came back up. Had a debrief, and Richard asked him if he could do the next load tomorrow. Now the guy has his own transport company that’s grown up with us at Crisp, and they’ve got 32 wagons on the road.

This is typical of an industry of how every aspect of the chain matters, in an industry where, at its peak, Crisp Malt could be delivering 600 tonnes every week, from Speyside to the south of Scotland. The logistics are mind-boggling.

It’s a community, distillers, merchants, maltsters and farmers, and barrel suppliers, and engineers, still-makers and tradesmen – there’s a whole ecosystem of distilling. It’s amazing how it all meshes together, and how laid back it can seem. It’s based on trust, and decades of experience, on personal relationships.

says Colin.

In the middle of June, at the height of the growing season, when the Portgordon Maltings and the surrounding barley fields enjoy up to eighteen hours of sunlight a day, this friendly, close-knit feels like an intriguing contrast with rugged, desolate, lonely terroir of the whisky ads.

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