As a life-long lover of malt whisky, I find myself in an unexpected situation. You see while my appreciation for malt has not diminished, there is another style that has recently won my attention and in turn, my heart. It’s a style that I’ve largely ignored over the years but now find myself gravitating toward more and more. That style is single grain Scotch whisky. What is single grain whisky and what can Society members come to expect when venturing into the grain renaissance for the first time? Let’s have a look…
Historically, the majority of grain whisky distilled in Scotland has been produced for blended Scotch. The opportunities to experience the whisky as a stand-alone spirit have been few and far between. Recently, however, all of that is beginning to change. The style of grain whisky known as “single grain whisky” is beginning to earn attention from whisky lovers around the world. As time has progressed and stocks of grain whisky continue to age well into two or three decades, single grain whisky – especially in single cask form - has evolved to a point where it is now embraced alongside malt whisky as a fantastic stand-alone spirit.
1.) The Grain
The primary difference between malt whisky and grain whisky is, you guessed it, the type of grain the distillery is using to produce the spirit. While malt whisky must be made from 100% malted barley, grain whisky is often made from a variety of grains that include malted barley, corn and wheat. Distilleries have a major advantage in that they can experiment with an endless variety of mash bills (recipes), yielding a wider variety of flavours that malt could never achieve on its own.
2.) The Stills
Another primary difference between malt whisky and grain whisky is the type of still used to produce it. Traditionally, malt whisky is distilled in a copper pot still. Pot stills function as a large kettle, producing spirit on a batch-to-batch basis. Column stills, shaped just as they are named, run continuously. They are mostly made from copper but in some instances, can include parts made of stainless steel. A unique characteristic with column distillation is that they can produce spirit exceeding 95% ABV! This means that after several decades of maturation, single grain whisky will evolve into a highly complex spirit while still retaining a high level of intensity. And given the cost of production, today single grain whisky presents an incredible opportunity to experience very old liquid at a very reasonable cost. Though given the growing interest from malt enthusiasts such as myself, all of that could change very soon.
3.) The Result
So what happens when you switch up the variety of grains used in the mashbill and the method of distillation? Unsurprisingly, the results are very diverse. Taking for instance Cask G8.11 ‘Sweet remedy’. This is a 30-year-old single grain whisky from the Lowland region of Scotland. It was matured in a single refill hogshead and bottled at a whopping 61.2% ABV. The result is a wild and complex spirit with a spectacular balance between heat with tranquility. In a word, it is many things in one and I love the bright, tropical notes of guava, passionfruit and a hint of banana above the traditional undertones of vanilla and toasted caramel.
Cask G4.19 ‘Could solve any problem!’, a timely name considering the global “problem” we are facing, is a rare 40-year-old single grain matured for 37 years in an ex-bourbon cask and a final 3 years in a first-fill American oak Pedro Ximenez sherry hogshead. What’s not to love about an old whisky in a real sherry cask? Overwhelming complexity, worn leather, buttery toffee, hazelnut and toasted marshmallow. It’s one of the more complex whiskies I’ve enjoyed in a while and I love that it’s familiar to an old malt whisky but unique in its own way.
No, I know what you’re thinking. My newfound interest in single grain whisky has been brought on by two of the finest examples likely created. Yes, I am spoiled but that’s the point, isn’t it? If you haven’t had a chance to try single grain whisky or if you’re like me and struggled to find a great expression over the years, now might be the time to give it a shot. Not only has it opened my eyes to a fantastic new style, it’s deepened my love and appreciation for whisky as a whole.