Whisky is by its very nature a forward-looking industry. Spirit distilled today will slumber for years into the future before seeing the light of day. In the meantime, distilleries and their parent companies need to crystal ball a host of variables in an attempt to judge the shape and size of the market in the future. What will the whisky drinker of 10 or even 20 years look like? How much stock needs to be laid down in order to meet current demands, whilst also ensuring a sustainable future? Far from easy questions to answer. This year’s London Whisky show, the 10th such exhibition, attempted to shed some light on not only what the mainstream industry might look like, but also where some leftfield innovations might take us.
Non-alcoholic whisky turned some heads with the very idea of its conception. Likewise, hiding away in the Future Lab zone of the show, Compass Box quietly presented another less than subtle two-fingers (aged Lossie blended with a very small percentage of under 3 year old grain whisky – thus being legally a ‘spirit drink’ and not a whisky) at an industry many see as too straight-laced and oft-times straight-jacketed by antiquated rules from another era in time. Further afield, across a growing number of independent bottlers grain whiskies were well represented. Some young, some positively ancient – all to my mind worthy of exploring. But, there’s still a vein grain snobbery out there…
Grain whisky has not yet fully captured the imagination and palates of mainstream whisky enthusiasts – whilst its appeal is growing, commercialised attempts (such as the risible Haig Club) at introducing it as a true alternative have largely failed. My eyes are firmly on South African brand Bains – who will be introducing a 15 year old in the near future – as one possible shoulder that future giants will build a grain-based future on. But, until the qualities of grain whisky are more widely appreciated, it remains to many as ‘poor man’s malt’. In some ways this is an obvious comparison, in others a rather sorry situation - price escalation since the turn of the Millennium, has left many of us relatively poorer when it comes to the depth and breadth of malt whiskies which the average person is able to purchase.
Whisky Exchange’s Future of Whisky show bottlings (which we’ve covered over the last few days) all present modernity in one form or another. The final bottle in the series hails from Invergordon grain distillery. 246 bottled were produced at £250 a pop. Expensive yes, but substantially cheaper than when compared to a similarly aged malt whisky. Simply titled ‘The Future’, the bottle more than hints at the general direction of travel of the industry – if you want seriously old whisky, you’ll either need deep pockets or consider turning to grain alternatives. To my mind, the industry needs to pivot this viewpoint and start to carve an entirely separate niche for the grain market – it has its own distinct profile, and I believe its merits are far greater than simply being seen as cheaper than malt.
The show bottling Invergordon was drawn from an ex-bourbon hogshead and delivered at 51.6% ABV. Like the others in the series it comes with a snazzy lenticular printed label.
Nose: A heady combination of polystyrene cement, varnish and paint thinners - as woody as you’d expect from a well-aged grain, but still balancing the cask influence against a lively spirit. There are plenty of refined sugars here – demerara, milk chocolate and a whaff of coffee house. Running throughout, delicately peppered spicing, coconut shavings and both vanilla and tonka bean. Water introduces a pleasant grassiness – buttercups, sunflowers and cut reeds – as well as bringing out reduced orange liqueur.
Taste: Oak is forward on the arrival, but nowhere near as brutal as might expect – the tannins are soft and supple – the wood, old, refined, planed and polished. Caramel and peppery spice provide the bulk of a development which transitions pleasantly into apple crumble with vanilla laced custard. In the mid-palate, spicing intensifies with plenty of burnt pan sugars. Both water and, particularly resting have a benefit here – the arrival and development softened, a level of interesting tartness introduced to temper the wood sugars.
Finish: Long, peppery and quite drying.
This 44 year old Invergordon is probably not going to convince those of you who are single grain-adverse – it behaves exactly as you’d expect it to. But, those of you who enjoy well-aged grain whisky will find plenty of pleasure from exactly same thing – there’s harmony here - the flavours and particularly the development once rested properly are extremely well defined, effective and all rather charming. As the price and interest in malt has risen, grain whisky has moved in to the limelight of the present – whether or not its qualities and appeal will broaden to represent the future of whisky remains to be seen. This is however a very solid example of what the category has to offer.