A Look at Grain Whisky (vs. Single Malts)

The most overlooked thing in Scotch? Or just filler for blends?

One of my first ever nuggets of advice to anyone who will pay me any attention when it comes to whisky is – never say you ‘don’t like’ something. It’ll probably come back and bite you and you’ll end up loving something you once declared your hate for.

There are often times where the whisky world will ridicule you. It will usually involve a situation where you are feeling like the whisky ‘expert’ in the company of a few friends who know you better. You will be presented with a dram and asked your opinion. Trying to be objective, you realise you’re without a clue and in order to remain as non-committal as possible you will declare your love for it. At which point your ‘friends’ will point out it’s a whisky which you rubbished only a few weeks before.

It’s bad enough that you’re sipping company have just brought your delusions of whisky grandeur back down to earth, but what’s worse is you’re left with another example of how you can’t trust your own palette one day to the next.

This has happened to me many times and for sure it’ll happen again. One of the biggest culprits for me is grain whisky.

You see, grain is fairly well established to be a flatter, blander experience than single malt and is clearly not playing in the same league when it comes to the sport of reverence. It is made in a different way with a different grain. A smoother, sweeter product it lends itself very well to blending. Depending on your goals – flavour or aggressive price point (they are mostly mutually exclusive) – great results can be achieved alongside more expensively made single malts.

But due to this mass-produced, mass-matured perspective they are largely forgotten as a sipping whisky and very rarely sought after for appreciation.

Some producers have taken this to task and released single grains and blended grains both as official and independent bottlings to mixed reception. Some examples of single grains from official producers would be Cameron Brig and Haig club – both from Diageo’s Cameronbridge Grain distillery in Fife. Also, you’ll find a few recent releases of Girvan Single Grain whiskies from Grants in Girvan. While all of these are interesting in their own right, I’m going to be a little broad-brush here and suggest these are not the grains we are looking for. They’re educational, and great as a base for mixologists, but I’ve found them to be not really engaging by the sip, as a whisky moment they can be a little harsh and sickly at the same time. Yet I’m led to believe that by looking a little further there’s more to these spirits than base and filler.

You see, some of the whisky-in-the-know folks are suggesting that there’s a lot of interesting whisky pleasures to be discovered in this style of whisky, especially when it’s been aged well in decent wood. I’m open minded. Grain whisky has taught me to be so.

A few years back I was visiting Arkwrights, a specialist in Highworth in Wiltshire. When the owner asked if I’d tried grain whiskies I replied I had and that it held no interest. While chatting she quietly poured a glass of Hedonism blended grain from Compass Box. I was silenced. It was lovely, sweet, balanced and engaging. It was like a whisky whispering, rather than shouting.

On that particular day I was so spoilt by their malt choice that in the end I didn’t buy a bottle of Hedonism. A few weeks later, though, a friend did. Again, I was offered a glass blind. Same effect. Did I learn my lesson? Of course not.

On two separate tasting events in December I huffed as we were presented with single grains as part of the line up, and on both occasions a fair chunk of the crowd, including myself, had to humbly declare the single grains to be up there with the nicest malts of the night.

Clearly, a little investigative action is required. Compared to single malts of a similar age, single grains can be found at remarkably attractive prices. As an example, let’s compare a single grain to a single malt. I’ve chosen a Cambus – a lowland grain distillery that closed in 1993. Here we have the kudos of the ‘lost distillery’ perspective which you would expect to push prices up a little. So, in order to attempt to keep this as apples for apples as possible, let’s choose Littlemill – a lowland malt distillery that closed in 1992. Of course, we’re not comparing flavour profiles here, only prices.

The Littlemill will set you back anything from £195 to four figures for a 20+year old expression, while the vast majority of the Cambus expressions will be much less than £100 with some as low as £74.

That’s £74 for a 25 year old whisky. I know that you can, if you try really hard, find similarly priced single malts from independents at a similar age – and I ‘m aware that my logic here is somewhat flawed and open to scrutiny – but in the whisky landscape I feel this is something to be looked into further.

If the quality in the bottle is as good as the recent tasters I’ve tried, that will not last very long. If these are good drams, I want a piece before they’re gone.

So an exercise has been undertaken where I’ve selected a few grain whiskies to try. Just for fun, I’ll slot in a couple of random single malts and share with a couple of friends, blind if possible. In order to share the results – I feel the need for a video.

What’s your thoughts on grain whisky?

Slàinte!

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