Welcome the underdog

Welcome the underdog

In the latest in his series looking at the whisky glossary, Dominic Roskrow turns to the letter ‘G' and to grain whisky

Production | 01 Jun 2007 | Issue 64 | By Dominic Roskrow

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Pity poor grain whisky. While malted barley is the golden boy in the shiny new uniform, grain whisky is forced to stand in the corner, resentfully tolerated and rarely loved.More than that, grain whisky has continued to receive a limited or bad press. In one feature in Whisky Magazine some 10 years ago, the writer managed to fill four pages on the subject without actually saying what a grain whisky was.But this Mr Nasty and Mr Nice act isn’t how it should be. Truth is, grain and malt are whisky partners that need each other.And while some very distinguished writers indeed have tried to restore some balance and focus on the positives of this style of whisky, the message still hasn’t got through.So what exactly are we talking about here?Grain whisky refers to whisky made with maize (corn) or wheat. A proportion of malted barley is used in the distillation process because it is the malting process that releases the enzymes and sugars required to make alcohol.Unlike the ‘batch’ method of making malt whisky, grain whisky is made in a continuous process invented by Robert Stein and improved by Aeneas Coffey. The grain solution, which is more like soggy cornflakes in a warm milk solution than the zesty unripe apple fruitiness of the malt equivalent, is poured through column stills, where it comes in to contact with steam under intense pressure and at very high temperatures. This produces alcohol that is of a very high strength (much higher than twice distilled malt whisky) but which is lighter and has less distinctive flavours, so much so that it is often described as ‘neutral grain spirit.’ So alien was this process to malt distillers that 100 years ago they fought tooth and nail to ban the spirit from using the word whisky at all only softening their stance when they realised the commercial possibilities that the grain style offered.When mixed with malt to make a blended whisky, the grain spirit will round and soften the flavour of the malt whisky, and it is this factor that makes it so popular – remember, nearly 19 out of 20 glasses of Scotch whisky consumed contain grain spirit.So does grain deserve such vitriol?The simple answer is no. Although rare, single grain bottlings have shown that there can be considerable variety between different grain distilleries and those using different grain styles.It has been argued that maize-based grain whiskies have more flavour than wheat-based ones. And after a few years in cask grains take on some distinctive bourbon characteristics.Try an Invergordon aged more than 30 years and tell me it’s not the drink industry’s answer to Billy Connolly doing an impression of Colonel Sanders.Grain as a distinctive style is just starting to be readdressed, whisky enthusiasts are finding out what the blenders have long told them – that grain whisky can be outstanding, rewarding and satisfying. Often a fraction of the price of an aged single malt too.GLOSSARY GAUGER
Old name given to the excisemen whose job it was to stop illegal distilling and who were paid mainly from the proceeds made from the capture of illegal stills and whisky, effectively making them bounty hunters and the sworn enemy of whisky makers throughout Scotland GREEN MALT
The name given to barley once water has been added to start it germinating but before it has been dried as malted barley GRIST
When the grain has been dried it is ground in to a rough flour known as grist. Grist is combined with water to form the dark nonalcoholic solution that is known as mash

Did you know?
Andrew Wilson was hanged for stealing equipment from the Collector of Customs to the value of £200. His execution in Edinburgh prompted the Porteus riots, named after the officer of the guard who presided over the hanging. In the ensuing riots he drew his gun and shot several protestors dead, and was in turn sentenced to death.When his subsequent execution was delayed the public rioted and strung him up themselves
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