On the up

On the up

Is grain whisky on the verge of an exciting new era? Ian Wisniewski finds out.

Production | 28 Nov 2008 | Issue 76 | By Ian Wisniewski

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It seems a perfect formula for success.As the selection of grain whiskies continues to grow, the level of interest and sales will naturally follow suit, encouraging further bottlings,which in turn perpetuates the process.And with more grain whiskies now coming onto the market, can this formula really be that straightforward ?“Absolutely. I think that follows,”says John Glaser of Compass Box, whose portfolio includes two grain whiskies, Hedonism and the Hedonism Maximus.Although the choice of grain whiskies is growing, it remains relatively limited.But at least grain whisky is getting the right response.“We’ve launched our very old grains to great acclaim, received many awards and people are talking about them.Wherever we promote grain whisky there’s growth,”says Euan Shand of Duncan Taylor.Fred Laing of Douglas Laing concurs:“We launched our aged grain whiskies three to four years ago,and we believe they are every bit as specialised as single cask malts.At any one time we have six to seven under the Clan Denny label, and they sell through regularly.” And even though knowledge of grain whiskies is not generally as advanced as malts, everyone can appreciate the flavour.“It’s a more delicate, lighter style so can be very approachable compared to malt,”says John Glaser.While it’s independent bottlers rather than proprietary brands that provide the broadest range of choice, this ratio is changing with a significant new addition,The Snow Grouse, recently launched by the Edrington Group.Bottlings such as The Snow Grouse and Hedonism raise the question of utilising a brand name, and a concept, as opposed to focusing on the distillery provenance.“The Snow Grouse is a member of the grouse family, and people get the idea very quickly, as everything stacks up for them. It’s a real bird with a large plumage of white feathers that lives high up in the mountains of Scotland.And The Snow Grouse is a member of the Scotch whisky family alongside The Famous Grouse and The Black Grouse, but with a different character. It is a sweet light whisky designed to be served “seriously chilled,”says Edrington’s Derek Brown.And in the case of Hedonism the brand name plays a primary role by conveying what to expect from the whisky.“A whisky of this style is a truly hedonistic experience. I like the idea of proprietary names,we’re not a distiller or necessarily have longterm access to a distillery.“I want a style that’s created from components of different distilleries, and not linked to one distillery,”says John Glaser.So,how important is the distillery provenance really?“Distillery provenance plays a key role when it is a single malt or single grain whisky.However, when it comes to a blend, it is not the source, nor age, nor quantity of whiskies, it’s all about the quality of the whiskies,” says Derek Brown.One reason why blending may still be undervalued is because it’s not fully appreciated.Rather than being a pragmatic process it’s a highly skilled role.“At The Famous Grouse Experience we use the analogy of instruments in an orchestra to explain the art of blending.Each instrument can be superb in its own right, but put together it’s greater than the sum of all its parts,a symphony!”says Brown.The quality of grain whisky depends of course on various factors, not least of which is maturation and cask selection.“I think they come into their own after 20 years, but it depends on the cask.“If it’s a first fill American oak it can get overdone and just too rich with vanilla,”says Euan Shand.Fred Laing adds:“They pick up some wonderful characteristics at 40 to 45 years of age.” While grain whiskies are typically aged in bourbon barrels, anything more unusual is always going to attract attention.“We released Port Dundas in a sherry cask and it sold out very quickly, it’s a limited edition so just went out to specialist retailers. I don’t know if this was a first, but it was the first I’ve heard of. We used a second fill sherry cask, the balance was perfect, fruitcake, hint of vanilla, spices, if it had been a first fill it would have been overpowering.We’ve had people coming back asking us to get the next one,”says Shand.How the category continues to develop depends on a number of factors, not least of which is how readily stock can be acquired.“A year ago it was easier to source grain whisky than malt, but not anymore.Older blended Scotch demand is growing incredibly, so blenders also need aged grains,”says Sukhinder Singh of The Whisky Exchange.Of course one safeguard for independent bottlers is laying down their own stock.“We fill grain whisky into casks from different distilleries at different stages,and we continue to buy grain and new malt to lay down.The filling programme is ongoing for our blends and of course we must also set aside stock for this speciality,”says Fred Laing.Euan Shand continues:“It’s always been our policy to buy new make spirit. It’s very hard to get new grain whisky, prices have hiked up because the demand is there, but we still get it.” So,what can we expect to see over the next few years ?“Certainly grain whisky has long term potential, I think there’s a role for it, I know from travelling round the world that people love it,when it comes out of good barrels.“If you put a good quality grain whisky in the market that gets all the plaudits from enthusiasts, then any self-respecting retailer or bar will want a representative of grain whisky on their shelves,”says John Glaser.Meanwhile, with stock becoming more challenging to source, pricing is one fundamental aspect to consider.“There’s a good choice of grain whiskies from independents, which are quite reasonably priced so a lot of consumers are willing try them. I think prices will go up as interest grows, and prices will creep up to a fraction of a difference between grain and malts,”says Sukhinder Singh.
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