Grain whiskies often seem to divide enthusiasts. Whether it be their reputation as blend-filler, or the simple fact that grain distillers are about as picturesque as petrochemical plants, I know very few folks who don’t have a pre-formed view on grain – be that informed or otherwise. I’ve always been relatively agnostic myself – I’ve tasted some tremendous examples (usually very well-aged), but I’ve also experienced casks which to my mind had no right being bottled as a single cask or even a vetting. That said, in many ways, the same could be said of single cask malts – you win some you lose some. But, I’ve noticed over the past two years that bottlers have started to try to pitch grain expressions as an increasingly ‘special’ product – often without the quality of liquid to back up the marketing.
Grain whisky has always been cheaper then malt. Cheaper to produce and cheaper to purchase. This price differential has, I’m sure, added to the reputation of the spirit as being ‘poor man’s malt whisky’. Perhaps unfairly. But, with the price of single malt whiskies soaring to levels where folks are starting to get left behind, rather than promoting grain as an affordable alternative – and alongside this trying to improve education around what grain is, and what it is not, I’m seeing some bottlers – particularly independent ones attempting to mark grain whiskies out as being exceptional. And they’re doing this based on price, not necessarily quality.
Whisky ‘educators’ spent decades beating the drum of the importance of the age-statement. Whilst now they’re somewhat back-peddling (“NAS is perfectly normal, it allows for innovation” etc) – this in imbued mind-set is not as easy to rewind. As with ABVs and PPMs, the average whisky consumer seems near obsessed with numbers – and bigger always equals better. The single grain producers and retailers have long recognised that the type and style of these whiskies tend to lend themselves to longer maturation periods – young grain rarely being plat de jour for most drinkers. But now, as the prices of single malts hit the stratosphere, grain is being given a heavy push in terms of its pricing.
It’s far from consistent. You’ll still find well-aged grain whiskies at around £100. So it seems confusing when bottlers are now releasing similarly aged expressions but asking £300-£400 for them. There’s little explanation as to why these particularly grain whiskies might be exceptional (In many cases they’re not)…..it’s just a large age-statement and an associated large asking price. In essence trying to make grain whiskies a Veblen good – where higher demand is driven by higher prices because of a feeling of ‘luxury’ that a big price provides. It sounds counterintuitive, but no, really – some folks just seem to get off on being ripped off. It’s a strange world.
But, a two-tiered grain market seems decidedly odd – and I truly wonder how these ultra-premium grain whiskies will perform when there’s plenty of other alternatives available at a fraction of the price. I suspect there’s a market correction needed here – either all producers up their prices to match – and argue “well it’s still cheaper than malt at this age”, or, the tiny niche of highly prices grain whiskies won’t survive all that long. Time will tell. But to my mind, if the market for supposed ultra-premium grain is to thrive than there needs to be considerably more education about the category.
Independent bottler Murray McDavid have released two Lomond 96’ grain whiskies. The first release in 2015 saw three ‘standard’ ex-bourbon hogsheads vatted together at 18 years of age. The second would be derived from the same spirit, but with an additional finishing period in six 30 gallon (#60010 – #600015) ex-bourbon barrels from Chicago’s Koval distillery.
Koval’s bourbon stands out from several reasons – it’s both organic and kosher, but it also forgoes the usual additions of rye and wheat in its mashbill in favour of a rather different grain – millet. Widely grown around the world – but particularly in India and Nigeria, millet has historically been used for the production of alcohol in the form of rakshi – a spirit often described as having characteristics of sake and often made homebrew style in Nepal and Tibet. Millet’s use within whisky or whiskey production seems, to date to have only been adopted by Koval. Their millet is sourced locally from an organic farming collective.
Murray McDavid’s bottling is delivered at 19 years of age and 46% ABV. Originally available from retailers for £58 you’ll still find bottles knocking around – though expect to pay closer to £63 (inflation and all that).
Nose: Buttered toast and charred cask ends are joined by oven-warmed croissants, Honey Nut Loop cereal and toasted almonds. The bourbon casks provide sweetness in the form of icing sugar and white chocolate, whilst the grain expresses popped corn, and nail polish. Freshly sawn wood and white pepper develop in the glass, as does a background moist earthiness. Reduction adds latte coffee and burnt cream alongside savoury baking – cereal bread and muffins.
Taste: The arrival is soft and sweet – icing sugars, dusted scones and hard toffee are joined by charred wood and burnt parchment whilst shredded coconut and cobnuts sit with popcorn and toast. The wood influence is relatively high – PVA glue, shaved oak beams and lollypop sticks with an unexpected mineralistic/salty tang that develops in to the back-palate – near charcoal. Water brings out both a herbal side (sage scattered over baked buns) as well as highlighting the cask influence further with drying planed oak and sawdust.
Finish: Quite long, bready, doughy with pepperiness and drying earth.
On the surface, this Loch Lomond grain is quite archetypal for both its age and its ex-bourbon maturation. But, the utilisation of ex-Koval casks has led to some gradation of aromas and flavours. Peppery spice, powerful wood char and particularly an unanticipated salinity – all of which offer some uniqueness which help this bottling stand out from the crowd of ex-bourbon casked grain whiskies. That said, the maturation is more heavy-handed than I’d ideally like – the wood is the lead singing in this band – and even some time in the glass or a few drops of dilution can’t move us away from what feels like a bit of a stuck record.