For part 3 of this series on celebration whiskies, I’m taking a look at a single grain whisky. Now, there are a number of reasons why I picked this particular sample for this series (gifted to me by Paul Gibbs aka bearded whisky, for which I’m very grateful), but THE main reason is that it is a single grain.
Why is it that single grain whiskies seem to still be the ugly ducklings of the whisky landscape? Neither distilleries, nor bottlers – and not even many enthusiasts for that matter, seem to pay much attention to this style of whisky, despite the fact that there are some wonderful expressions available out there. As a category in its own right, it never seems to have gotten proper lift off, despite some efforts by various players on the market. It probably comes as little surprise that one of the first to put the focus of attention to single grain whiskies was Compass Box with their Hedonism expression, first released 20 years ago. It was in fact the first ever whisky they released, which was quite the statement, showcasing their adventurous nature from the get go.
Between then and now, we’ve seen Grant’s releasing official bottlings of Girvan, and Diageo brought out the big guns in 2014 when releasing Haig Club with the (probably not exactly cheap) help of a certain David Beckham, while Loch Lomond release a single grain as well (which is actually a malt whisky distilled in column stills rather than pot stills). But all of these have only seen the light of day in fairly recent times. Probably one of very few, if not the only, grain whisky brand that’s been around for ages, is from Cameronbridge in the form of Cameron Brig. Incidentally, Haig Club is a Cameronbridge product as well.
Our focus on malt whisky is furthermore confirmed by both the industry itself and those telling the story of whisky today. Bloggers and YouTube channels are often ‘suffering’ a bit from tunnel vision (present company included) discussing malt whiskies, and/or are giving it their all to bring you their opinion of the latest Kilkerran or Ardbeg as soon as the latest expression becomes available, and that is of course absolutely valid. While covering single grains with a handful of articles each year, even the most trustworthy of websites (malt-review) divide the category of Scotch into 'single malt' and 'blends'. Ralfy, closing in on 900 (!) reviews has perhaps and at best some 40 to 50 reviews on single grain whisky. Those media less burdened by the release of the day, tell us a similar story. There are dozens of magazines dedicated to malt whisky, and ever so rarely they’ll publish an article about grain whisky. Even the most highly regarded whisky writers rarely give grain whisky much attention. I strongly recommend anyone to read Dave Broom’s ‘The World Atlas of Whisky’ (Just get one if you haven’t already, it’s a must read for anyone interested in whisky). Containing well over 320 pages, exactly 2 are dedicated to single grain whisky. And please, for all that’s dear, don’t think of this as some form of critique on any of these examples mentioned above (I wouldn't dare), I simply meant it as a way of illustrating just how understated grain whisky actually is. To put things in perspective, there are of course only a handful of grain distilleries active in Scotland, so anyone who would wish to solely put the focus on grain whisky would run out of things to write or talk about sooner rather than later. But still there must be some case to be made in favour of grain whisky?!
Taking a closer look, and strolling through Scotland’s rich whisky history, the case of single grain whisky seems to be a story with quite some paradoxes to it. Despite grain whisky being one of two key elements of blended scotch whisky – the backbone on which Scotch whisky was built, it has always been given the Cinderella treatment by the industry, resulting in what nowadays would be described as a ‘it’s complicated’ relationship status. From the early days on, the reputation of ‘Scotch’ was and is firmly that of malt whisky (as illustrated by the stories of all those brave distillers and smugglers of illegal Highland malts), which would bring you the true character of whisky. Indeed, the general consensus was that quality whisky came from pot still distilled spirit, from either the Highlands (including Speyside), Islay or Campbeltown, in contrast to the bland, bulk product of any other grain distillate running from the many column stills in the Lowlands. The status of grain spirit in those pioneering years wasn’t helped much by the fact that a great deal of the spirit was destined to end up south of the border to be made into gin in England, although throughout the 19th century increasing amounts were also purchased by blenders like Dewar’s, Buchanan’s, Usher and a certain company called Walker & Sons.
Towards the end of the 19th century, as Scotch started to conquer the world, cheap grain whisky flooded the market, much to the despair of the malt distilleries who couldn’t compete with the dirt cheap prices of grain, and as there was little to no legal description of what qualified as scotch whisky, it was pretty much anyone’s game. To make matters worse, a lot of even cheaper, mainly German, grain and ready to go spirits were imported by ‘entrepreneurs’ who fancied their piece of the pie, shamelessly putting bottles of ‘Scotch’ whisky on the market. The almost inevitable dispute between malt distilleries and grain distilleries got so ugly that it ended in court as malt distilleries tried to ban who they saw as their competitors from calling their product ‘whisky’, claiming the mass produced grain whiskies were not ‘proper Scotch whisky’, because they were releasing products of far inferior quality and therefore threatening the reputation of Scotch whisky.
They lost, much to the relieve of blenders like Walker & Sons, but one side result of this might well have been that we saw what was probably the first ever release of a single grain whisky in 1906, when Cambus , owned by a young company called DCL, countered the claim of grain whisky being inferior by putting a single grain whisky out on the market to prove the quality of their product. While this might have been quite the publicity stunt at the time, it clearly indicates that it’s just that: a stunt, as no one seemed to follow up on the idea of releasing single grain whisky as a category in its own right. In fairness, the concept of releasing single malt whiskies remained untouched territory as well until the 1960’ies. The reason being quite simple: distilleries first and foremost were producers of whisky, not branders or retailers. They produced for and supplied to the companies who did own the brands. And while the world since then has firmly come to grips with the concept of a single malt whisky as a premium quality, well-crafted alcoholic drink, the old prejudices of the cheap, mass produced and lesser quality grain whisky seem to still stand, even a century later.
The issue at hand: not all of it is untrue. Grain whiskies ARE cheaper and ‘easier’ to make compared to single malt whisky (and please forgive me for cutting some corners here – getting to understand how a column still works and getting good results from it, takes a lot of time and effort). Both the base ingredients and the production method (due to the possibility of continuous distilling in column stills) are considerably less costly and far more ‘efficient’ compared to expensive, time consuming, batch produced malt whisky. Cameronbridge again being the prime example here, as on its own it’s producing some 100 million litres of new make spirit each year - almost 1/3 of all grain whisky produced at the handful of large scale grain whisky distilleries in Scotland, and no less than roughly double the capacity of the 3 biggest malt distilleries combined!
So both the raw materials as the production method have a serious impact on cost. But, and probably more important, it also impacts flavour. You can’t deny the fact that whisky from pot still distilled malted barley brings things to the table a lot of grain whisky would struggle to live up to. And again, this has everything to do with both the base ingredients as with the production method. There are, again generally speaking here, less flavours to be distracted from grains like wheat and maize or even rye, and due to the distillation in column stills, the new make is almost always of a ‘cleaner’ profile compared to a spirit running from a pot still. Copper pot stills are designed to give a spirit character, depth, complexity, while you might argue that column stills are meant to do exactly the opposite – hence why the second of the column stills is called ‘a rectifier’. As so often, the clue’s in the name. So, again, where are the redeeming features for grain whisky, if any are to be found at all?
For starters, there‘s the not completely irrelevant matter of price. Even if they are still vastly outnumbered by the sheer endless expressions of malt whiskies, both official and independent releases of single grain whiskies are popping up on shelves of specialised retailers in recent times. I know of at least (or should I say: only) 3 official releases of 20 yo single grain whisky (alas also all of them bottled at 40% ABV and coloured), all costing around €35 or less. There is not one single malt whisky of a similar age on this planet coming even close to competing with that price. If anything, a bottle of these will always come in handy for that one person who will otherwise shamelessly take your bottle of 18 year old Bunnahabhain to drown it in a coke. Which brings me to the important bit. If you fancy grabbing a bottle of old, cask strength whisky, why not look at single grains? More and more independent bottlers are offering single grain whiskies with a high age statement of 25, 30 and even 40 years, naturally presented and at cask strength for – relatively speaking- very affordable prices. Much like the blended malt from last week, single grains are definitely much friendlier to your bankroll here.
Another argument for the case of the single grain is closely related to this as well. Most, if not all grain whisky is matured in refill or first fill bourbon casks. When given enough time (and we’re talking decades here, rather than years), the marriage between the spirit and the wood can lead to absolutely stunning whiskies (whether this is the case for this particular sample I’ll be reviewing today, we’re soon to find out). To fully blossom, the ‘cleaner’ character of the spirit indeed needs more time in a cask compared to its malted barley siblings, and here the combination of a ’quieter’ single grain spirit laid to rest in an equally quiet refill cask, allowing each other some proverbial space rather than fighting for dominance, can make for wonderfully balanced, layered and very inviting whiskies.
Let’s find out if this sample we’ve got here fits the bill… This Cameronbridge from North Star is a 1982 vintage bottled in 2019 and spent all of its 37 years in an ex bourbon barrel. There are only 198 bottles of this out there, and should you still find one, it retails around €200. Again, not cheap, but look at that age statement! I ‘m willing to bet that you’ll struggle to find a single malt of similar age that will not be at least triple that price.
On the nose it comes in soft and gentle. We’re talking breakfast cereals here. Honey, preserved fruit (apricot) and even fruit liqueur. Marzipan and almonds, definitely, and some vanilla and icing sugar and milk chocolate. The funny thing is, all that sweetness never becomes overly sugary sweet, overall there’s more of a floral sweetness going on, in fact.
The palate is noticeably more driven by spices – nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, sitting on top on those cereal and marzipan notes. It’s medium full on the mouth, and again the sweetness is a bit of a ‘fille rouge’ throughout, but like on the nose, it comes across as a natural sweetness from almonds or vanilla.
This continues on the finish: long and dry, and softly fading out on sugared almonds.
Perhaps a bit sweet for some, but this is a lovely whisky, very clean and very elegant. It’s not the most complex whisky I’ve ever tried, but it’s a wonderful example of how spirit and wood can work together to create something very, very pleasant. The golden rule here, is to try and avoid the obvious comparison with malt whisky, for it is an unfair one. We often talk about malternatives, and almost always we’ll think about Cognac, Armagnac, Mescal, Rum,… So why not Single Grain? it’s not malt, but it is absolutely definitely positively totally a valid alternative!