Out of the shadows

Out of the shadows

Grain whisky is stepping into the spotlight after years of being undervalued. Ian Wisniewski finds out more

Production | 10 Nov 2006 | Issue 60 | By Ian Wisniewski

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What a change. Just as it seemed that grain whisky would always be consigned to its traditional, supporting role within blended Scotch, a new era has begun. A growing number of grain whiskies are being released in their own right, and getting a very good reception.“We’ve had phenomenal growth in our grain whisky sales, we launched seven grain whiskies two years ago, each attributed to a particular distillery, and won a lot of awards. At some tastings some people have considered some of our grain whiskies on the same level as top-notch malts,” says Euan Shand of Duncan Taylor.That’s great news. But there’s still plenty to be done in terms of telling the story of grain whisky.Having often been described (and perceived) as the pragmatic element of a blend, with a ‘lighter’ character counter-balancing the complexity of malts, it’s hardly surprising grain whisky is undervalued.“Sadly grain whisky is looked at as a commodity.I’ve come across gorgeous casks of 10-25 year old grain whisky, it’s capable of being beautiful,” says John Glaser of Compass Box. Euan Shand adds, “I think people don’t understand grain, perhaps people think that continuous distillation is a less expensive, more industrial process than pot still, and that grain whisky should be cheaper.” While grain whisky can be less expensive than malts, that doesn’t mean there need be a compromise in terms of flavour delivery. “It’s a revelation that grain whiskies can give such a range of flavours, with a similar rarity as certain malts, but can sell at around 30-40 per cent less than an equivalent malt,” says Shand.Scotland’s seven grain distilleries include Cameronbridge, Girvan, North British, Loch Lomond, Port Dundas, Invergordon and Strathclyde. Grain whisky was traditionally distilled from maize (in conjunction with malted barley), though there was a general move to wheat in the mid-1980s. One reason for this were various benefits from the EU, which helped make the price of wheat more attractive. North British (originally established in 1885, and currently a joint venture between the Edrington Group and Diageo) is a rarity in continuing to distill maize, as well as wheat.While various stages in the production process influence the character of the new make spirit, some aspects are of course more instrumental than others.“In my opinion it is a combination of the cereals used, malt inclusion rate and the fermentation process, by altering any of these variables we can change the character of our whisky,” says Tommy Leigh of North British. “At North British we continue to use a high inclusion rate of malt in our mash recipe ensuring our spirit quality meets our customers’ expectations.” William Grant’s John Ross adds, “What makes our spirit unique is distillation. The stills in grain distilleries are all Coffey stills, or a theme on a Coffey still, and there is slightly less potential for complex reactions within the still compared to malt whisky, as the spirit is purified to a greater extent.Other details are less influential than in a malt whisky distillery.” With various elements influencing the character of the new make spirit, maturation principally reflects cask selection, generally bourbon barrels, and the filling strength (ie. the strength of the spirit when filled into casks). This varies among distilleries, with the spirit maturing differently depending on the filling strength, and is typically higher than the 63.5% ABV filling strength which usually applies to malt whisky.Consequently, various factors help to create an individual ‘distillery character’ for each grain whisky.“There is a difference between the spirit produced from the various grain distilleries but it is much more subtle than the difference between malt distilleries. With grain whisky being distilled at a much higher original strength it looses some of the stronger flavoured congeners producing a cleaner spirit ideal for blending,” says Tommy Leigh.Euan Shand adds, “The differences start to come out more between 16 to 20 to 30 years, a lot of it is the wood, but they do also have unique characteristics.” While there are some proprietary grain whiskies, interest in grain whisky has been driven over the last five years by independents bottling great old casks, and showing people a side of Scotch whisky they hadn’t seen before. “I wanted Compass Box to show right from the start a side of Scotch whisky that most people didn’t know existed,” says John Glaser, who’s first release was a vatted grain whisky, Hedonism, in the year 2000.Meanwhile, Berry Bros released its first grain whisky within the Berry’s Own Selection range earlier this year, a Girvan 1989, 15 year old, promptly followed by a Carsebridge 1965, 41 year old. “We’ve had a very good reaction, and they went down a storm,” says Berry Bros’ Doug McIvor.Acquiring stock needn’t be a problem for independent bottlers, but there are certain parameters. “It’s easier to source grain whisky than malt, there’s less demand for it and more of it is out there, but it’s more difficult to come up with good casks,” says Glaser.Euan Shand adds, “It’s easy to buy new stock and 3-12 years old is reasonably straightforward to find. More than 12 years can be difficult, particularly as my belief is that grain distilleries tend to run exactly to what a distillery will use in a particular period, with only a slight surplus.” But then even sourcing older casks isn’t necessarily a challenge for independent bottlers. “My predecessor laid down a lot of grain whisky as new make spirit, that’s our policy, and now we’ve got grain whiskies up to 45 years old,” says Shand.The extent to which interest in grain whisky develops remains to be seen, with malt whisky connoisseurs the first to start getting into grain whiskies. But if the category continues to depend on this group, then growth will inevitably be contained.However, the appeal of grain whisky has already gone beyond this select group. “The malt guys are getting into grain whiskies, but so are the blended Scotch drinkers, which means there’s no particular consumer group,” says Shand.Doug McIvor adds, “Grain whiskies can be a very good step into Scotch, as they are usually a bit softer than malts. But also for a lot of seasoned whisky drinkers who know all the malts, grain whiskies help complete the picture. Alighter style can attract newcomers, not just connoisseurs.” Meanwhile, rarities within this sector are creating a certain status. “Lost grain distilleries are beginning to generate a fair bit of demand. There’s also a collector’s market for rarities, and I think we were the first to bottle Strathclyde which was totally bought up by collectors. The 1973 and a 1980 were snapped up within weeks,” says Euan Shand.With demand for longer-aged grain whiskies growing, future availability of more senior specimens will also depend on the growth of longer-aged blended Scotch. “There is a definite demand. In general older grain whiskies are bought very quickly by big distilleries for blends,” says Shand.The category is also specialising with Loch Lomond’s single cask organic grain bottling, within the Distillery Select range. “Releases in this range are snapped up as soon as we bottle them, and most pre-sold,” says Gavin Durnin of Loch Lomond, an independent, familyowned distillery.“We’re the only Scottish distillery to have both malt and grain whisky production facilities on the same site, with the grain whisky facility (commissioned in 1994) being the most modern in Scotland. This also enables us to offer a ‘Single Highland Blended Scotch Whisky,’ using malt and grain whisky from the same distillery,” says Gavin Durnin.Grain whisky looks all set to gain a broader following, but this is likely to happen at a certain pace. “I see gradual growth. Existing consumers will have a broader portfolio of grain whiskies from different distilleries which they try, and more people will come in, like bourbon drinkers, as grain whisky is generally aged in bourbon casks, and female drinkers really adore grain whiskies,” says Euan Shand
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