Whilst every single year is proclaimed to be “the year of rum” (and then never truly is), I think it’s probably a safe bet to assume that no year will ever be the year of grain whisky. Whilst the category has undoubtedly developed traction over the past few decades - and some grain distilleries have established their own fan bases – there’ll always likely be a deficiency in the admiration for grain when compared to its malty cousin.
The production of grain whisky at sites that look more akin to petrochemical plants stands in stark contrast to the quixotic notion of malt distilleries as quaint, picturesque, diminutive booze factories. Which is a true representation at least some of the time. And this perception makes a world of difference.
Whilst many whisky fanatics would love to visit a grain distillery (Midleton’s plant in Ireland is as behemothic as you’d expect – and was a wonderful and eye-opening use of a few hours of my time), most casual whisky drinkers and even some more hardened maltheads will struggle to associate the spaghetti junction of steel pipework and sheer industrialness of grain plans with their pre-established ideal of romantic whisky production. Similarly, the spec of grain whisky and its lower costs of processing means that its far easier to churn out. And that too leaves a negative impression on whisky drinkers – it’s cheaper, therefore it’s cheaper.
Whilst I dare say that grain will never hit the highs of malt in terms of its perception and its desirousness – I still believe that as a category, it is well worth whisky enthusiasts exploring. From a flavour and production point of view and also, frankly because it’s cheaper. I possess several bottles of grain whisky from the year I was born. And their acquisition was a whole lot easier and a whole lot less costly than the malt equivalents I managed to painfully acquire. Granted, whilst tasty, these bottles don’t offer anywhere near the depth or complexity of their malt equivalents – but nevertheless I have and do find them pleasurable.
To my mind, the one thing standing in the way of grain whisky garnering a few more fans (whilst recognising that it’ll never topple the malt throne) is actually not the negative perceptions - it’s the producers and bottlers themselves. Grain is cheaper – and so it needs to be offered to the customer cheaper. Foisting bottles into heavy wooden boxes with snazzy branding and more synonyms for “limited” than you can shake a stick at does nothing for grain whisky when price points are set beyond the monthly food spend of the average family unit. It damages the future of the category when producers and bottlers try to artificially inflate grain into the same price brackets of malt whisky - when the composition, cost and perception is fundamentally different. And watching this trend closely over the last 5 years – thankfully, I don’t believe it has worked – there’s still countless older grain whiskies sitting on shelves gathering dust at prices which wholly justify the neglect.
As malt whiskies continue to rise in popularity and price – having a cheaper alternative is a requirement for the wider market. There must always be both entry points and exploration points – and grain is in my view an exploration point. Grain is a category not marked out by its diversity or complexity but it is one which needs to inherently possess accessibility.
Door 5 of the 2021 Boutique-y Advent calendar offer up Cambus 28 year old Batch 11. The last time this dram appeared in the line-up it was oddly reserved for the finale of the 2019 calendar – here its inclusion feels far more appropriate as a nicely grain diversion after four days of malt. The release of just 435 bottles comes at an ABV of 47% and at a cost of £114.95 each from Master of Malt.
For alternative views on this whisky, once you’re done here do head over to visit Sorren at OCD Whisky and Brian at Brian's Malt Musings.
Nose: Toffee brittle dipped apples, café latte and vanilla custard sit with creamy fudge, buttered melba toast and baked apple strudel. Running throughout, chopped walnuts, croissants, brioche and a firm vein of grain-like sawdust. Reduction adds salted popcorn, sunflower seeds and a side bowl of whipped cream.
Taste: Pear and apple Tarte Tatin alongside vanilla custard, toasted cereals, desiccated coconut and cinema popcorn. The mid-palate adds some shaved chocolate, pain aux chocolate and notes of honey – then we’re into some nail polish and older dried oakiness, before heading towards earthiness, ginger and white pepper. The addition of water adds more prominent apples with a dusting of icing sugar, balsawood and spent coffee grounds.
Finish: Quite long with split vanilla pods, golden cereals and gentle tang of steely minerality.
Well-composed, well-balanced, well-aged grain whisky – indeed for the most part a down the line archetypal grain, until the finish which introduces some welcome, but unexpected cutting steeliness. A solid dram that feels much better in the mix of an Advent calendar as opposed to closing out proceedings.
This piece was originally posted on 25th December 2019. Other than the tasting note it has been completely re-written.