Single Grain Whisky

Single Grain Scotch Whisky has only recently become more commercially available, although, despite the endorsement of Mr. Beckham, at present it seems unlikely that it will ever become commonplace. Nothing other than rising prices is predictable in the Scotch industry, but the nature and...

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Single Grain Scotch Whisky has only recently become more commercially available, although, despite the endorsement of Mr. Beckham, at present it seems unlikely that it will ever become commonplace. Nothing other than rising prices is predictable in the Scotch industry, but the nature and function of this particular type of whisky would seem to ensure that - for the short to medium term, at least - it is likely to remain a curiosity, a rather specialist niche within the Scotch whisky scene.

Single grain whisky began from humble origins and has, over the nearly 200 years of its history, remained as very much the poor relation in the whisky family. Nevertheless, this often-dismissed whisky today has a growing number of adherents.

For grain whisky zealots - and grain whisky fans are all zealots - finding a new bottling of a high quality single grain scotch whisky represents a triumph akin to an astronomer locating an obscure star that flickers only occasionally in the firmament. The rest of us may know that this star exists, but we can’t always see it, and most folk may well decide that it’s not worth hunting for it when so many shinier stars are more easily available to enjoy.

The reasons for grain whisky’s historical unpopularity are easily discernible. What’s less easy to understand is why so little interest exists nowadays in a type of whisky that provides the bulk of all Scotch whisky produced and consumed. 

In the rarefied atmosphere of single malt, at the top of the whisky tree, it’s sometimes easy to forget that grain whisky makes up 80-90% of the content of almost all the whiskies on the market.  As an aside, those hard-of-thinking malt whisky fans who turn their noses up when the subject of grain whisky arises would do well to remember that most malt whisky distilleries could not survive without blended Scotch.

The below is a brief table outlining the main differences between single malt and single grain whisky.



Single Malt Whisky

Single Grain Whisky

Ingredients

100% malted barley

Malted barley & other grains such as wheat, corn, rye etc

Type of still used

Pot still only

Almost all column still but may also be made on pot still or lomond still

Spirit strength at distillation

Usually maximum 70%

Up to 94.8%

Bottling

Must be bottled in Scotland

May be bottled anywhere


These differences are significant, of course, but overall it’s a pretty short list.  The processes and the principles are the same: grains are ground up and their starches converted into sugar, the sugars are extracted into a wort, yeast is added to make a beer, the beer is then distilled into a spirit and aged in oak casks. 

When we put it in these terms, all whisky is grain whisky - only the ingredients and the equipment vary. Single malt whisky is just made with a specific type of grain on a specific still, in the same way that tequila is a type of mezcal and cognac is a brandy.

A deeper explanation of how grain whisky is made can be found on our Scotch Whisky page, so we won’t repeat ourselves.  Instead, let’s examine grain whisky’s history and place within the Scotch industry.

Scotland’s grain distilleries are few but mighty.  This is a result of the industry’s historical consolidations and expansions - whereas malt whisky distilleries have always outnumbered their grain counterparts, the latter have always been significantly larger in capacity due to the efficiencies of the continuous distillation process.

While malt distilleries of the 19th century were mostly independently owned and operated, grain whisky producers moved to form a cartel very soon after large scale commercial distillation and blending became viable.

The first agreements to control the supply of grain whisky to blenders were in place twenty years before they were formalised in 1877 with the creation of Distillers Company Limited (DCL). At that point the arrangement brought together six of the largest grain producers, comprising Cambus, Cameronbridge, Carsebridge, Glenochil, Kirkliston and Port Dundas. 

Together, these six producers were already making over three quarters of all Scotland’s grain whisky, and they were joined soon afterwards by the Caledonian distillery, giving them even greater control of the market.

At the turn of the 20th century, in the aftermath of the Pattison crash, DCL began buying up malt whisky distilleries that had fallen on hard times, in order to shore up and guarantee supplies of single malt whisky for their blends. Thus began a period of voracious acquisition that continued well into the inter-war period.

Initially the separate partners to the DCL agreement each ran their own distilleries and blending operations independently, but within fifty years all of them came under one administrative roof. In the 1920s, after Haig, Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker and then White Horse were fully assimilated into the DCL fold, the expanded company assumed de facto control of the blended whisky market, making centralised corporate governance essential. Eventually through further consolidations and acquisitions the company we know today as Diageo was born.

The only problem with large companies that own a lot of distilleries is that they are vulnerable to shifts in the market and, in hard times particularly, will always be seeking to cut costs. Distilleries themselves need to be modernised periodically - a highly expensive process - and economies of scale are a compelling financial motivation.

As grain distilleries got larger and larger through the 20th century, the process of modernising and expanding them became progressively more expensive.  Consequently, in the 1970s and 1980s when whisky went out of fashion and demand fell, the larger companies had to prioritise which distilleries to invest in. 

Grain whisky is essentially an almost neutral base for blended whiskies, so considerations of character and flavour are basically irrelevant from a commercial point of view. The costs of modernising a large grain distillery were significant enough that if you owned several it made more sense to choose one or two to focus on and increase their capacity rather than modernise all of them.

At DCL and its descendant companies that eventually morphed into Diageo, these stark realities led to the loss of the Carsebridge distillery in 1983, followed by Caledonian distillery in 1988 and then Cambus in 1993, and finally the Port Dundas distillery in 2010.

This process brought us to the inevitable point where today Diageo, the world’s largest drinks company, only owns one grain distillery outright (Cameronbridge, home of Haig), as well as having a share in North British distillery, which it shares with Edrington.  Cameronbridge produces in excess of 135 million litres of alcohol per year, a capacity almost ten times greater than the largest malt whisky distillery.

Other non-DCL grain distilleries that closed in the latter part of the 20th century included Dumbarton, North of Scotland, Garnheath and Lochside. Ben Nevis also used to produce grain whisky but ceased production in 1984.

The survivors are few.  After Cameronbridge and North British, they include William Grant’s Girvan distillery, Whyte & Mackay’s Invergordon distillery, Pernod Ricard’s Strathclyde, the independent malt and grain whisky distillery Loch Lomond and the Starlaw distillery owned by La Martiniquaise which was completed in 2010. New independent distilleries including The Borders distillery and Brewdog also have the capability of making grain whisky, as do the proposed Reivers and Mossburn distilleries.

These green shoots of craft grain whisky distillation give us grounds for hope that the single grain category will continue to develop. Certainly, there’s no question that interest in grain whisky has never been higher, although that is from an admittedly very low base.

The current trend for single grain whisky was begun, as with most trends and market innovations in the whisky industry, by Scotland’s independent whisky bottlers. Soon after the turn of the millennium, as the popularity of single malt whisky surged and independent bottlers became increasingly important to the developing market, casks of aged grain whisky began to appear. A legion of curious, adventurous whisky fans soon found out that grain whisky was capable of being more than just the flour for the blended whisky cake.

The timing was perfect, and grain whisky was and remains terrific value for money when compared to malt whisky, particularly for the long-aged examples.  Coupled with this, the extinction of Cambus, Caledonian and the other lost grain distilleries adds layers of scarcity and poignant nostalgia to the grain whisky proposition, and plays well to the modern whisky buyer’s fear of missing out.

None of these factors would matter if the whisky wasn’t worth drinking, but the good news is that many of the long-aged grain whiskies are of outstanding quality. However, this long maturation is of extra importance to single grain whisky because the new make grain spirit is of exceptionally high strength and purity, and therefore contains fewer of the flavour-giving congeners than pot-distilled single malt spirit.  

Long years of ageing and oxidation, which most grain spirit does not get, have proven to be of immense value for grain whisky, but it does rely heavily on the cask.  A young single grain whisky may well be a pleasant dram, but the spirit generally needs a long time to develop the complexity of flavour that we find with single malt whisky.

Thankfully, for many years it has been standard practice within the industry to fill grain whisky into fresh bourbon casks in order to get as much benefit as possible from the typically short maturation that most of it receives before being tipped into a blending vat. 

This means that those casks that do find their way to the independent bottlers usually have the benefit of fresh, characterful maturation vessels, and have a better chance of turning into an interesting whisky after the requisite decades have passed.

Nowadays, the supply of grain whisky to the retail market is improving year on year, with leading independent bottlers such as Douglas Laing, Hunter Laing, Signatory and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society all releasing very high quality long-aged single grains on a regular basis each year.

Sadly, stocks from the DCL distilleries that closed in the 1980s and 1990s - Cambus, Caledonian and Carsebridge - are already getting rarer and can be expected to dry up in the next few years. It is to be hoped that the major producers, despite the failure of their own attempts to drum up interest in officially-bottled single grain whisky, will continue in the years to come to allow trusted independent bottlers to source and bottle casks of high quality long-aged single grain Scotch whisky from the distilleries that remain.

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