Why Is There No Pot Still Scotch Grain Whisky?

by Oliver Klimek on March 10, 2011

Let me present you one the last unsolved mysteries of Scotch whisky.

Grain Basics

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.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Eddie Ludlow March 10, 2011 at 6:25 pm

I think you have answered your own question Oliver.
Why would the Scots go the lengths to make this product when they would then have to give it a less attractive designation. I also assume there is no tradition in Scotland to make this very Irish style of whisky and remember, a lot of what is done is done because of tradition, even with the ‘innovations’ we have seen over the last few years.
I love this style of whisky and would love to see more of it available, but I would like to see it come from Ireland. Can’t tell you why, it is just one of those things. Might have something to do with my wife being Irish I suppose…

Cheers!
Eddie

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Oliver Klimek March 10, 2011 at 6:30 pm

I understand the argument, but I used the Irish pot still just as an example. And regarding the attractiveness of the designation, this indeed points to “malt snobbery” ;)

I would honestly wish for a proud Scotch grain whisky, manufactured by distillery workers with the same love as they have making malt whisky.

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Eddie Ludlow March 10, 2011 at 7:32 pm

I meant, and should have said, perceived attractiveness Oliver – I agree that ‘malt snobbery’ is a pointless and unfulfilling pursuit.
I think the whisky drinking public in the main would be confused and therefore shy of investing in a product that requires a level of knowledge perhaps beyond most. I can see one of the ‘indies’ trying it as an experiment but it makes no real financial sense, and at the end of the day, every whisky-making company needs to make money for it’s shareholders, etc.

To your other point, I don’t understand what would interest ‘distillery workers’ into making such a whisky? As you know, it is not the distillery workers who make the decisions, so the initiative and passion would have to come from the owners. Most owners and distilling companies would base this decision purely based on finances as mentioned above.

I think it is an interesting question, and I too would like to try the result, but I’m just being devil’s advocate. ;-)

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Oliver Klimek March 10, 2011 at 7:45 pm

The reason why I mentioned the distillery workers (I mean the ones in a traditional distillery) is the passion that most if not all have for their product despite the high grade of automatization nowadays. I am conviced that this also shows in the final product regardless if the general directions are given by white collar manangers. I may be wrong (hopefully!), but this seems to have got lost in the industrialized grain whisky complexes

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sku March 10, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Is the question really why they don’t make grain whiskey in a pot still or why they don’t put their efforts into making high quality grain whiskey for use outside of blends.

As any American will tell you, you can make excellent, high quality, grain whiskey in a column still. Buffalo Trace, Old Forester, Four Roses, Elijah Craig, even George T. Stagg and virtually every other Bourbon (minus a portion of Woodford Reserve and a few microdistilled products) are corn based whiskeys made in a column still.

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Oliver Klimek March 10, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Of course you can argue if it all only boils down to the still technology. I have never visited an American distillery. But from the pictures I have seen, even the Jack Daniel’s stillhouse looks pretty romantic compared to Cameronbridge or Girvan. But then again I also wonder if pot still bourbon wouldn’t taste even better.

And now a controversial question:

Are the traditional Scottish pot still distilleries only kept for folkoristic reasons? If you really could make whisky without quality loss in column stills, why haven’t the industry giants long replaced the pot stills?

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sku March 10, 2011 at 8:57 pm

I assume a lot of it is tradition, which is not codified; SWA requires malt whisky to be made in pot stills. I don’t know enough about Scotch production, but do distilleries ever use rectifiers (mini-column stills) on their pot stills?

American whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery looked at the issue of pot vs. column still production on his blog last year:

http://chuckcowdery.blogspot.com/2010/03/bourbon-versus-scotch.html

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Oliver Klimek March 10, 2011 at 9:23 pm

There is the Lomond still which is basiaclly a pot still with a rectifier, but it is hardly used. Bruichladdich bought one, but the first thing they made with it was gin ;)

It should be noted that the pot still requirement for malt whisky was only added in the 2009 version of the SWA regulations. Loch Lomond distilled at least part of their malt in column stills.

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Eddie Ludlow March 10, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Sku,
Your point is taken but forms another conversation altogether. Why would you make grain whisky in a pot still? I would say that the quality of the grain whisky from the Scottish grain distilleries would in the main be as good as anywhere else, but the fact is that it never develops (and is allowed to develop) beyond anything other than a ‘filler’ for blending. Even the single grains I have tried (and I have been told have been outstanding) for me pale in comparison to either good single malts, good blends or good Bourbons. Again, this partly comes down to tradition – do you see any many single malts produced in Kentucky?..

I don’t think you could make malt whisky, in the way that we know it, in a column still. This would just be a rather expensive – and pointless – exercise as the flavour ‘bandwidth’ is minimised with every micro-distillation that takes place in the column, regardless of what grain you put in. Let’s not forget that malted barley is still a grain… The point of making malt whisky in a copper pot still is that you are combining the most complex grain with the process that retains and encourages the most flavour.

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Oliver Klimek March 10, 2011 at 9:29 pm

I partly disagree because I don’t think grain whisky is inherently inferior to malt whisky. When it’s young it’s nasty, agreed. But at 25+ years it can be as delicious as a single malt of the same age. But of course in addition to the differences in grain and still type, there is also a large “matter of taste” factor involved

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sku March 10, 2011 at 11:49 pm

Eddie, good points.

Actually there is now a malt whiskey being made in Kentucky….in pot stills from Scotland.

http://www.lyonsspirits.com/pearselyonsreserve/Pages/SmoothStill.aspx

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Eddie Ludlow March 10, 2011 at 9:42 pm

Oliver,

Just to clarify, I don’t think (and never said) that grain whisky is ‘inherently inferior’ to malt whisky.
I recognise it’s qualities and ‘Raison d’être’ – I just don’t enjoy it as much. It is just a personal thing and I know that I am missing out! Even though I have tried some allegedly amazing stuff I still haven’t found one to rock my world, but perhaps there is one out there for me…
Nearest I have come to is an older Greenore from Cooley.

My point about it being pointless is purely technical and nothing to do with quality.

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Eddie Ludlow March 10, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Just read Chuck’s article – very interesting.
I can sympathise with his frustration at people making certain assumptions regarding column vs pot-still and I agree that the question about which is better is irrelevant.
I have a couple of questions for him on reading it but will ask them there – if somebody hasn’t already asked them. I’ll have a read of the comments.

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