Let me present you one the last unsolved mysteries of Scotch whisky.
We all know that distilleries in Scotland produce malt whisky and grain whisky. Single malt whisky is generally regarded as being the higher quality product while grain whisky is supposedly distilled only to be able to sell mass market blended whisky as cheaply as possible. Of course this is a very coarse generalization. But as “entry level” blends make up the bulk of global Scotch whisky sales, there is more than just a grain of truth to this.
These mass market blends are very young whiskies, usually barely legal with an age of three years. They are supposed to be the cash cows for the whisky industry, so they are sold as soon as they can be legally called whisky. The young grain whisky gives a distinctive rough edge to the blends, and it is no real surprise that it is not sold in pure form.
What is often overlooked is that this nasty roughness of young grain whisky fades away with increasing age. In blends that are 18 years or older we can notice that it has completely gone. Now the flavours of the grain whisky really blend with the malt to become a homogeneous entity.
And every now and then there are bottlings of single grain whisky, usually from independent bottlers and usually aged 25 years or older. These are casks that somehow have escaped their doomed fate of being poured into one of the huge vats of the blend producers. They are from distilleries unknown to most casual whisky drinkers: Invergordon, Cameronbrigde or North British to name just a few.
But despite their relative obscurity most of these old single grains are cracking drams indeed. They are decidedly different from single malts, though, which is mainly due to the fact that they are usually distilled from maize because this is the cheapest readily available cereal, but any other kind of grain may be used as well. Smooth fruity and syrupy flavours dominate here like peach, apricot and honey. And the ratings given to old single grain whiskies by reviewers are entirely on eye level with single malts of comparable age.
An Industrial Product
Do you know how these grain whiskies are produced? The grain distillieries are huge industrial complexes that rather resemble an oil refinery than a traditional whisky distillery. Grain whisky is not made in traditional pot stills but in big column stills running day and night in stillhouses that almost look like skyscrapers.
But nonetheless, if you give this fully industrialized product enough time to mature, it will taste just as fine as the malt whisky from those romantic ivy-covered distilleries in the remote glens of the Highlands.
A Look at Ireland
The traditional type of Irish whiskey is called Pot Still (“Pure Pot Still” until recently, now renamed to “Single Pot Still”). It is made from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley, historically used to soften the burden of the taxes which were based on the use of malted barley only.
The most prominent example of Irish Pot Sill whiskey today is Redbreast, and it is highly lauded by many commentators as being the quintessential Irish whiskey. Even at the rather young age of 12 years it receives amazingly high marks.
If this type of whisky was made in Scotland, it had to be called grain whisky because it is not made from 100 percent malted barley as it is clearly stated in the Scotch whisky regulations.
Why No Grain In Scottish Pot Stills?
The Irish demonstrate that it is possible to make excellent whisky in a pot still even if it is no single malt. Distilling an Irish-style pot still whisky in Scotland should be perfectly doable. But nobody does it. The Irish are less shy, they shamelessly distill single malt as well.
And hands up anybody who believes that making grain whisky in traditional pot stills is inferior to the industrial way of producing it in a column still. But has anybody in Scotland tried it yet?
I honestly don’t know the answer to the question. Is it really just malt snobbery on behalf of the Scottish distilleries? They are constantly looking for interesting new expressions to put on the market. They experiment with casks and peating levels. But they shy away from changing their mashbill, as if single malt whisky were the only liquid worthy to fill the Holy Grail of distillation.
Followup (came into my mind after publishing the original):
Even though malt whisky is the traditional Scottish spirit if you look back to the very beginning of whisky history, the focus from the mid 19th to the late 20th century was entirely on the production of blended whisky. Even with the increasing popularity of single malts nowadays, grain whisky still makes up the bulk of the Scotch whisky production.
But yet it looks like grain whisky is something the Scots are ashamed of, even though it can taste so bloody good if properly matured. It actually makes me rather sad that so far nobody seems to have tried to make the best possible non-industrial grain whisky.