Graining Momentum

Graining Momentum

Because blended grains make finer whisky

Production | 17 Jul 2015 | Issue 129 | By Alwynne Gwilt

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Over the past year, the number of consumers who have learned about grain whisky has inevitably soared globally. With his dazzling smile and international presence, David Beckham's backing of Diageo's grain whisky, Haig Club, has put this style of whisky in the limelight.

Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo, says whether you love or loath the idea of Haig, it has got the masses talking.

"I'm celebrating 25 years in the Scotch whisky industry and I have never seen so much discussion and talk around whisky as I have since Haig launched. The energy and comment it brought into the whisky category has been astonishing," he says. It's hard to argue with that. Having such a high profile celebrity behind a whisky brand has raised its profile and will inevitably help attract a wider audience to a spirit still often branded an 'old man's drink.'

But grain whisky has done its fair part in the whisky world for a much longer time than Mr Golden Balls has. It's the workhorse, the base of every blended whisky out there, the lighter cousin to malt whisky that creates what many blenders term the 'canvas' on which they can create a final bottled masterpiece. Combined with malt whisky, it makes famous blends like Teacher's, Johnnie Walker, Famous Grouse and Ballantine's. And with over 90 per cent of the global whisky consumption coming from blends, this style of whisky - made on a continuous still and, in the UK, usually from wheat - has been enjoyed in some way by consumers more often than they may have realised pre-Beckham.

However, showing off grain whisky's merits on its own is relatively recent. Single grain or blended grain bottlings are few and far between.

One early pioneer was John Glaser, who founded Compass Box after working for many years with Diageo. The company - which buys in casks from Scottish distilleries and blends them together to make unique whiskies - was started with a goal of making the Scotch world a more interesting place. As such, the Compass Box's first release 15 years ago was a blended grain whisky called Hedonism. It captured the imagination of malt whisky lovers due to its rich, unique flavour profile, and that of bartenders for its approachable, arty packaging.

His launched with a grain whisky out of a belief it was a key type of whisky the main market was missing out on, something he realised while working at Diageo.

"I was at Cardhu distillery with the Johnnie Walker brand team, tasting through some of the components of Johnnie Walker Black. One was a sample of 12 Years Old grain whisky matured in a first fill American oak cask from Cameronbridge. It was so sexy and delicious and approachable and I thought someone should bottle this stuff," he comments.

But at the time, Scotch was 'in the doldrums' and getting a large company to experiment with a new category was not so feasible.

"I took the whisky to the team dinner and said, 'Why don't we bottle this stuff?' And the response was, 'No one knows what it is.' I just thought, if no one tells them about grain whisky, we ought to be the first people to turn that point around but no one really got it," he says.

Fast forward and it was whisky from that same distillery that John first loved - Cameronbridge - that is being used for Haig, although the Beckham backed release is a far lighter style than things like Hedonism.

Around the same time John was lamenting the lack of experimentation and deigning to go out on his own in the Scotch world, another figure in a very different whisky market was also seeing the possibilities of this style. Andy Watts, distillery manager at the James Sedgwick distillery in South Africa, first came up with a plan to start bottling grain whisky in 1999.

"We saw changes in the demographic of the whisky consumer in South Africa after 1994 and that led us to believe a lighter styled whisky with exceptional wood selection would give us the end product we were looking for," he explains.

The result was Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky. Aged for around five years, it first hit shelves in 2009 and has since won numerous awards globally.

But while he and John were out in left field along with the likes of Irish distiller Cooley (which makes Greenore single grain) and a few independent bottlers, it is the entrance of big global players like Diageo and also William Grant & Sons (with its Girvan brand, made at the distillery of the same name) that suggests the tide is shifting.

"The industry, in the past, has always seen grain as the 'filler' for blends with the romance still lying behind single malts. The release of very high profile grain whiskies tells me this particular category has started to be recognised," says Watts.

While that may be the case, the challenge now comes for all in the whisky world to educate the consumer on what makes grain whisky what it is, as Morgan explains.

"I'm not entirely sure how much consumers have bought into the Haig brand and David, and how much they've bought into grain whisky. I think the industry still has a long way to go in terms of educating consumers, both those who think they're informed, and the generality of whisky drinkers," he says.

Kevin Abrook, William Grant & Sons' global whisky specialist for innovation, agrees saying, "The general public doesn't fully understand grain whisky so it's a long journey."

And while Girvan has taken a slightly different approach to its counterpart Haig with an NAS release (Number 4 Apps) alongside aged variants (25, 28 and 30 Years Old Girvan), Abrook says it is this variation between companies which gives consumers more choice and ultimately helps educate their palates on the subtleties of grain whisky.

"It's great news because it's all providing noise and excitement for this category," he says.

For the early entrants like Glaser, seeing his old colleagues chatting away about a whisky style he's long championed is also good news. It will, he says, create a menu section for grain whisky in bars and restaurants (something that was previously challenging because no one quite knew where it fitted in) and five years from now, he believes the category will be helped overall.

But, as always, Glaser says he's looking further into the future than that.

"If you take a 15 - 20 year perspective we haven't, as an industry, begun to consider what grain whisky can be from a product perspective. Grain whisky is a catch all term for anything from Scotland from a grain mash made through a continuous still and everyone pretty much does it the same way. What if people started looking at using different kinds of grains like rye or oats, running it off at slightly lower strengths for more flavour profile, or filling at lower strengths? Once people wake up to the possibilities I think it could be a sizeable category," he concludes.


Factbox



Grain whisky is made on a column or continuous still, which was first patented by Aeneas Coffey in 1830. This type of distillation differs from the copper pot stills used most often in malt whisky creation, due to the fact the wash is run through the still on a continuous basis, rather than on a batch routine.

The spirit for grain whisky is usually taken off of the still at around 92%, a much higher strength than spirit for malt whisky. The spirit that comes off tends to be lighter and more estery than spirit for malt whisky.

Grain whisky is the key component to blended whiskies, often making up 60 - 70% of what goes into the bottle.

In the UK, most grain whisky is made from wheat, although North British still uses maize, which goes into blends like Famous Grouse.

Scotland has numerous grain distilleries, including Cameronbridge, Girvan, Invergordon, North British, Starlaw and Strathclyde. Loch Lomond also produces spirit for both grain and malt whisky. Cameronbridge has the largest capacity, with the ability to produce 105 million litres per annum. In comparison, the largest malt distilleries like Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet produce around 10-12 million litres.

North British distillery, in Edinburgh, is one of the smaller grain distilleries but still distills 160,000 litres of wash per hour.


Tasting Notes




No Age Statement


Girvan

Patent Still Single Grain 42.9% ABV

Made from a combination of first and refill American oak ex-Bourbon casks.
Nose: A slight dustiness to the nose at first, before a nice bit of vanilla and peach comes through; good floral (yellow flowers) quality came through after some airing too.
Palate: Lots of rich oiliness to the palate, along with notes of waxy, cream and a bit of wood. Well balanced with a good bit of spiciness.


25 Years Old


Girvan

Patent Still Single Grain 42% ABV

Made from a mix of first fill and refill ex-Bourbon casks and a small proportion of ex-sherry butts.
Nose: Warmer and spicier than the NAS with a nice nutty note, along with some vanilla caramels. With water, more fruity notes emerge in the form of a sweet citrus (almost a 7UP or Ginger Beer quality).
Palate: Nice and gently sweet with lots of that sticky grain quality coming through. A bit bitter. With water, some coffee and chocolate notes emerge making for a pleasing dram.


30 Years Old


Girvan

Patent Still Single Grain 42% ABV

For this release, the proportion of first fill ex-Bourbon casks was increased compared to the 25 Years Old and the ex-sherry butts were also included.
Nose: Creamy and warming with a lovely nutmeg spice on the nose. Slight dusty, hay note too and much sweeter than the 25 Years Old.
Palate: Quite drying with loads of vanilla sweetness coming through. Opens up a lot on the palate with water, giving nice ripe peach notes.


No Age Statement


The Haig Club

Single Grain Whisky 40% ABV

Made from a mix of whiskies matured in refill, ex-Bourbon and rejuvenated casks.
Nose: Some liquorice, burnt oranges, zingy and grassy. A slightly herbal note too (possibly tarragon or sage), along with bilberries and butterscotch.
Palate: A bit spicy, with some rich butterscotch notes, before cherries, white sugar and lemons, and finally something earthy and liquorice to finish.
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