If you travelled back a few hundred years, you’d find that many Scottish distillers (particularly those outside of the Highlands) would make whisky from whatever grains they had to hand. It wasn’t all malted barley all of the time – wheat, rye, oats – sometimes raw, sometimes malted – would all be processed and turned into booze. Much of the choice of grains was down to their costs – both the location of grown crops and the taxman’s take made ingredients more expensive depending on where a distillery was located – E.G. malted barley would be more expensive than the unmalted grain available to Lowlands distilleries.
Historically grain had plenty of detractors – quotes from the 19th Century describe its profile as ‘unpalatable’ and ‘unwholesome’, usually with comparisons to ‘far superior’ malt whisky. Several hundred years later and this still sounds broadly familiar. Whilst tales of the stomach aches caused by bygone grain spirits seem thankfully consigned to the dustbin of history, unfavourable contrasts are still commonplace.
Many an article has been written about the dominance and advantages of malted barley over other grains – oft-times highlighting the difference in distilling techniques which result in grain distilleries looking more like petro-chemical plants than the romantic images of babbling brooks and the pretty pagoda roofs associated with pot still distilleries.
Over the last five years several of the larger producers (who each own a handful of grain distilleries to fulfil their blending requirements) have begun to talk about grain whisky as ‘the new malt’, suggesting that single grain and blended grain can, in time, become as popular as single and blended malt. But, there’s a huge perception hurdle to get over before this will become anywhere near a reality. Sales of single grain whiskies are current paltry when compared to those of malts.
Whilst whisky enthusiasts often have a penchant for grain-based spirits, the mass market still sees the liquid as less bulk filler for blends. Indeed so too do some diehard whisky fans. This won’t be easy to overcome. And it won’t happen overnight – it requires a generational shift in sensitivities.
Producers are creating more and more grain-based products, attempting to trade off of its softer, less complex profiles in the hope that the resulting profiles will appeal to a wider range of potential new whisky drinkers – particularly within the rapidly growing Asian market. I guess we’ll just have to see whether single grain becomes more of a respected category in its own right. Perhaps in time, but 200 years of history rarely changes overnight.
Door number 21 of the 2020 Boutique-y Advent calendar provides a well-aged grain whisky in the form of Strathclyde 31 Year Old Batch 4. The bottling is delivered at 45% and was a release of 2,621 bottles. Previous batches of this whisky were sold for far from unreasonable prices (Batch 2 which was a 27 year old was pinned at £58.95). This consignment appeared AWOL when this piece was first posted back in December 2019, but as of updating it this morning, friends over in Germany will find this release for 133.99 Euros - there's a premium for ya.
Nose: Upon opening, acetone and paint brush cleaner – both of which dissipate fairly quickly. Then, into an archetypal grain nose – apple turnovers, shaved coconut, fresh cereals and toasted bread. The wood influence is unsurprisingly quite dominant for three decades of maturation – freshly sawn planking, sawdust and an abundance of vanilla. In the background, more nuanced aromas – banana bread, cashew nuts, touch of white chocolate and spent coffee grounds. Water unlocks aromatic wood – cedar – alongside charred cash heads, wood sugars and gentle pepperiness.
Taste: Soft and creamy grains meet perky spicy wood. Baked apples, corn, grape nuts and coconut milk sit with toasted brioche buns and milk chocolate. Then, pepperiness alongside balsawood, lollypop sticks and brown sugar dusted pastries. In the back-palate, a return to softness once more with toffee and vanilla cream alongside more popped corn. Reduction smooths things out – but there’s not too much ABV to play with given the venerable age, so only a few drops – apple juices and honeycomb alongside Caramac bars.
Finish: Quite long with pepperiness, old tree resin and cookie dough.
Strathclyde 31 year old Batch 4 presents an appealing well-aged grain with few jarring edges. It’s easy going and easy drinking. And that’s also, in part, a criticism here – the profile is so conventionally grain that there are no surprises to be had - everything does exactly what you’d expect it to, nothing more, nothing less. But, objectively, this is well-made, well-judged grain, so it’s scored as such.
For Sorren's grainy day thoughts head over to OCD Whisky.
Review calendar provided by Atom Brands