You may recall that a couple of issues back I rambled on about the rye revival, but it is just one element within a recalibration of whisky which is underway thanks to the global nature of the spirit's production. Distillers should always ask questions of themselves, of the spirit they make, of what it can be. The starting point is no longer make a Scotch or Bourbon variant, but arises from a deeper questioning of what whisky is.
Some distillers claim that their exploration of different areas is because they believe they are not as restricted in regulatory terms as Scotch, although it's not that Scotland can't be as radical: Scottish distillers could make whisky from oats or rye, use different yeasts, they just choose not to (or fail to comprehend that they can). That isn't the case around the world.
Here we see a brewing mentality being applied through the use of different roasts of barley and ale yeasts; an understanding of native cereals in the use of spelt, wheat and rye; an investigation into traditional food smoking techniques which sees anything from wood to nettles to sheep dung being used; there's attention being given to oak types (Swiss v American), old beer casks, different woods such as chestnut. All of them are asking these questions in order to make a whisky which is true to their place and in doing so they're widening the opportunities for whisky.
Scotland's latest contribution to this cornucopia of styles appears to be grain whisky. Some of we greybeards have been banging on about grain for years. I remember Invergordon trying it in the early '90s but blowing the opportunity by patronisingly calling it 'the whisky for women'. There was the (excellent) Black Barrel from Grant's, before people's minds were blown by the triple whammy of Hedonism, and Nikka's Coffey Malt and Grain. In more recent times we've seen Greenore, the well-priced (now there's a sensible move) Snow Grouse, and the range of single casks from independent bottlers - hats off to Clan Denny and SMWS.
Now we have Grant's Girvan range and Haig Club, both helping to build momentum in what is now a whisky category in its own right.
Whatever people may think, the future of Scotch whisky will not be built by single malt alone. Having a third whisky type out there makes sense commercially and in terms of flavour. Not that grain is new. Cambus grain was sold as an alternative to pot still back at the turn of the 20th century during the "what is whisky?" debate. Uncanny…
For some reason - it could be the celebrity endorsement or the Blue Stratos style bottle - the reaction to Haig Club has been to dismiss it as whisky/vodka hybrid, as ignorant a comment as I've heard for some time.
Grain whisky is not vodka. Grain gives flavour to blends, it adds texture, it binds, but of course I forget there are those out there who don't believe that blends are whisky.
Maybe the antipathy comes from the fact that Haig Club says it will be eminently mixable. Well, it will be. It will be a versatile whisky, but of course I forget that whisky isn't allowed to be versatile. It is something to be taken alone (neat) with like-minded members of a self-perpetuating politburo whose diktats declare what whisky is.
Heaven help anyone who suggests they can enjoy whisky. I speak from experience. The response from some when I suggested that they might like to add soda to a Great King Street at Whisky Live said it all. It was at that point I knew I'd be lynched when I suggested trying some cola in their Lagavulin.
Why this resistance? Maybe it is a loss of control, perhaps it's a fear that they won't be allowed to enjoy whisky in the way they want, which is certainly not the case. The point is that the days of these rules are over, that if you want to drink it neat do so, if you want to mix do so, if you want to smoke over nettles do so, if you want to use different yeasts or roasts or grains or woods, then do so.
What is whisky? A cereal-based, wood-aged, non-neutral spirit which is there for you to enjoy in whatever way you want.