I’ve complained (bitterly and often) about the hated specter of GRAIN WHISKY and the ruinous effect that it has on our lovely, pure single malt when blended by greedy profit-seeking conglomerates in their quest to dull the palates and wash the brains of innocent bar-goers the world round. *cough* Turns out that’s only half-true.
Grain whisky is a distilled spirit made from corn, wheat, or unmalted barley. Like all distillates, ‘grain whisky’, when it emerges from the stills, is a rough and largely flavorless clear spirit of very high ABV (upwards of 70% to 80%, depending on the type of distillation). It’s effectively vodka, and tastes like it. The only difference at this point between malt whisky double-distilled in a copper pot still, and grain whisky distilled in a column (or Coffey) still is that the malt whisky has reacted chemically with the copper in the still (and undergone reflux due to the shape of the still) to produce volatile compounds and esters which render it more subtly flavored. It’s not until these spirits spend a period of time in oak barrels that they begin to take on the properties that we associate with the brown spirit: whisky. In the case of malt, a bare three years will render it light and flavorful and only a little bit “raw” or “young”-tasting. Twelve years will make it robust and flavorful, and eighteen or more years will make it sublime.
The case is more or less the same with grain whisky, with one difference: It takes a lot longer in an oak barrel to make the stuff palatable! Respected bloggers and writers have set this age around 17 years. Around that point, the grain whisky becomes ethereal and sweet, and is able to balance malt in a blend to the benefit of both components and the enrichment of the whole. Herein lies the misconception. When you order a blended scotch whisky at a bar, you are not getting 17 year-old grain blended expertly with malt. You are getting a three year-old grain blended (to maximize profit) with a six to ten year-old malt. The blend has been carefully calculated to both save money on expensive malt whisky and to standardize the taste of ‘scotch whisky’ – not too light, not too sweet, and not too smoky. Not too interesting, either.
I ordered a sample of single-grain whisky from Master of Malt, an awesome UK retailer/bottler that bottles tons of 30ml samples of just about everything they sell – making it an excellent resource for someone who just wants to try a bunch of whiskies before committing to full bottle purchases. Here’s what I thought of the 12 year-old North British single-grain scotch whisky from Signatory (distilled in 1997, bottled at 45% ABV in 2009):
Nose: Pine needles and pine sap. Eucalyptus. Underneath is a layer of marshmallow and fresh hay. Very light and herbal.
Palate: Creamy! Very milky texture. Little mouth burn. Flavors emerge of spun sugar, freshly-mown grass, homemade marshmallow, and malted milk.
Finish: Medium-long. Sugary, like blue cotton candy melting on your tongue. Somewhat one-dimensional.
Overall: For twelve years of age, there isn’t much complexity. The exceptionally creamy mouthfeel was a plus, as was the interesting herbal note on the nose (which never reasserted itself in the mouth). Flavor-wise, there isn’t much going on beyond sugary sweetness. A very interesting experience, though, to see what single-grain is all about.
Grain whisky (aged 12 years and carefully selected, in this case) smells herbal and floral, is very creamy/milky in texture, and tastes like various kinds of processed sugar. This makes sense when compared to some of the better blended whiskies I’ve had, which always had an unmistakable creamy texture, and were generally sweeter than equivalent malts. The lesson here is clear: that we shouldn’t turn our noses up at a blended whisky if and only if its grain component has been aged sufficiently to remove rough traces of paint-thinner and vodka. If you’re paying less than $40 a bottle, you’re asking for the cheap stuff.
Note: As pointed out by a reader in the comments, the term ‘grain whisky’ is very misleading. In the Scotch Whisky industry, the term (as defined by the SWA – Scotch Whisky Association) means a whisky (aged in oak) distilled from any combination of cereal grains. If only malted barley is used, then it can be referred to as ‘malt whisky’. A ‘blended whisky’ contains both, in any proportion.