Every year on the fourth of July I watch my British husband become as giddy as a five year old in anticipation of The Big Night. He claims he isn’t, insisting the holiday has no meaning for him apart from the painful reminder that we Americans have wreaked havoc with this country and he is simply here to reclaim the colonies and become King of America.
You can find him at the end of the old fishing dock on the lake where my parents live—and where we spend a chunk of the summer—with two sparklers in his hands, singing the lyrics to “God Save the Queen” at the top of his lungs across the water to most of the Old Dominion. For the month leading up to that moment, you can find him continually visiting the front hall coat closet where he keeps his freshly purchased supply of amateur fireworks. It’s also where we store our recycling bins, so he claims he’s simply making trips there with a plastic container or empty wine bottle. But I know him. That gleam in his eye is not a reflection of his hunger to save the planet, but rather to strike a match. He’s about as green as our front lawn come August, although he tries with that one too.
Everybody likes fireworks. Except maybe PETA, the organization that would have God ban thunder if it could manage to picket the pearly gates in support of protecting the eardrums of forest animals. Still, for a guy who’s awfully sore about being on the losing side of the battle, he sure doesn’t mind celebrating with the winners. And yet, with the many years of practice he now has under his belt, and even watching the careful instruction he has put into practice over the last few years teaching our son the basic safety procedures, I still stand teetering many yards back. Half of me wants to spring over and yank them back to safety, admonishing them for playing with explosives, and the other half watches with wide-eyed anticipation. It’s not that I have a beef with bottle rockets and Roman candles, it’s that I have a basic knowledge of combustion. And a strong fear of it.
I was expecting the final two to be something apocalyptic, something ungodly that only Wiccans would have access to on a full moon in October. But I was wrong. When learning how to operate the 1913 “Boby” mill at a distillery I visited, my teacher explained in no uncertain terms that grinding was a risky affair and not everyone could live to tell of it. With a grizzled face that looked as if it had been through the rollers itself, he narrowed his cloudy eyes and raised three gnarled fingers. “Tis not much of a thing if you’ve only the fire triangle: dust, air and stones, but if ye have the fearsome five-” he stopped to tsk at me, “-best say your prayers before work.”
Father Fun continued on, piercing a finger into the air. “If that dust can be suspended in the air and that cloud be confined, then ye have the makings of an explosion the likes of which none ye have seen.” Apparently, he’s not been privy to any Bruce Willis movies—or maybe the cinema in general.
Milling is a fairly simple procedure, with a keen eye kept on the moisture content of the malted barley. Too high and you’ve got gunk on the rollers, too little and you’re making barley flour. Neither is appealing.
The malt first passes through a revolving drum with a wire mesh—a dresser. The dresser catches any straw or small stones present and often times the malt also makes a pass by a series of magnets which help the “de-stoning” process.
The first set of rollers (one of usually four, but sometimes six) pinch the grain, spitting them right out their husks. The grains are then ground and the remnants—the grist— pass through three screens. Ultimately, you’re hoping for a specific balance in your grist makeup. Husks are somewhere around 20%, grits or middles are 70%, and the flours or fines are the last 10%. Every distillery has their magic numbers, but at least you get the general gist of the grist.
Regardless of my one experience with the prediction of the day of reckoning, the process of milling in distilleries sports a safer track record today , but the gloom and doom prophecies still excite the tourists and the thought that someone risked their lives to bring you that sip of nectar makes the taste that much sweeter.