Although single malts have been enjoyed for centuries, they’ve played second fiddle to blended Scotch whisky for over 150 years. Consumed since time immemorial in the Highlands, it has only been in the last 55 years that distilleries have been promoting them more widely. Even then the move began with a trickle, and only started to catch its stride around 25 years ago. The wide variety of single malts available around the world today is still just a drop in the bucket when compared to the volume of blended Scotch produced. Blends still account for nearly 90 per cent of sales, and yet single malt whisky has become iconic. Fifty years from now might we be looking at grain whisky the same way?
Single grain Scotch whisky is the little-known heavy-lifter of the Scotch whisky industry. Grain whisky is typically produced from corn or wheat, but malt can be used too in a pinch. Distillers will use which ever grain gives them the best yield of alcohol for the lowest cost. Produced in column or continuous stills, the resulting spirit is lighter, cleaner and much cheaper to make than malt whisky. Malt whiskies are distilled in less efficient copper pot stills, which distill to a lower proof than grain stills and leave more character imbuing impurities behind. It is these impurities, in part, which give each malt distillery its own unique character and profile. Because they are distilled to a much higher proof, grain whiskies have fewer impurities and therefore less character. They are much more difficult to differentiate from one another, with only very subtle nuances.
It is this clean style, and low cost which have made them into the Scotch whisky industry’s workhorse. Most blends rely on between 60 and 90 per cent grain whisky, with the remainder of the balance made up with malt whisky. Grain whisky is the body of the blend, to which malt whisky is added giving character, complexity and texture. Grain whisky is not without its merits, good older grains add softness and the oak character they’ve absorbed while maturing. This is one of the reasons why single grain whisky may be starting to come into its own, it is soft, clean and can be very pleasant to drink. The other is the tightness of malt supplies, particularly older single malts.
We first started seeing single grain whiskies a little over a decade ago. At first they were typically very old, rather inexpensive and merely curiosities. You could easily get a 40-plus aged grain whisky for less than $200. They were pleasant enough to drink, but mainly attractive for the price to age ratio. They’ve been popping up with greater frequently in the last few years, especially as older malts become more rare and expensive. Independent bottlers have been turning to them to fill holes in their portfolios and to broaden their ranges. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, the world’s largest whisky club has been a leader in identifying and bottling interesting and exceptional single grains, as have some other independents like WM Cadenhead and Duncan Taylor, to name just a few.
Grain whiskies are beginning to catch on with consumers, as they broaden their horizons and welcome new whisky styles. Some related products are also doing well, like Compass Box’s Hedonism, the world’s only regularly available blended grain whisky. And the Scots aren’t the only ones bottling grain whisky. Ireland’s Cooley Distillery has been selling single grain whisky for years under the Greenore label. A rival Irish brand, the Teeling Whisky Co. won “Grain Whisky of the Year” at the 2014 World Whisky Awards with its Teeling Single Grain. Even the Japanese are bottling some exceptional grain whiskies like Nikka’s Coffey Grain and Suntory Single Grain, the latter of which is sadly not available in Canada.
Grain whiskies have a long way to go before they’ll begin rivaling the interest in single malts and blends. There are fewer distilleries and there is less to differentiate them from each other. But the style is gaining acceptance and momentum, and a couple of decades from now we may be talking about more than just single malts and blends.
By Andrew Ferguson