Single malts might have grabbed all the headlines in recent years, but there’s a growing feeling that there are two whisky categories that have been somewhat neglected but whose time will eventually come. And I’m starting to get the feeling that that time really isn’t that far away at all.
The first is grain whisky. Grain whisky is made in a totally different way to single malt whisky, on continuous stills which extract high strength alcohol by forcing grain beer against pressurised steam in large columns. It is the whisky which is mixed with single malts to make blended whisky, and it has had limited success on its own.
That’s partly because it has unfairly earned a reputation for being bland an uninteresting. But there are many examples where its sweet and vanillery components make for a delightfully refreshing alternative to single malt, and more than that, there are grain whiskies which are world class.
Indeed its biggest weakness can be its biggest strength. On the down side, grain whisky does not have as much flavour as single malt when it is first made. – but the upside of this is that it is a blank canvas and if you put it in a high quality cask and leave it for long enough, all sorts of magic happens. Leave it for in excess of 30 years and it’s capable of developing the bourbony characteristics of the American oak bourbon cask but combining them with distinctly Scottish notes.
I’m fortunate enough to have tried a 50 year old grain whisky, and it is stunning example of what grain can be about. Independent bottler Mahesh Patel is so convinced by grain that two aged grains from the 1960s form part of his four whisky Sirius range..
I think these sort of releases will become more common in the coming months as distillers look to new areas as they try to meet the huge demand for whisky worldwide and people discover the joys of aged grain. Grain also tends in general to be less expensive than single malt whisky, so it provides a great opportunity to taste genuinely old whisky.
The other category which is growing and set to stir the excitement is blended malt whiskies – and there’s an irony in this because blended malts are different to blended whisky because they don’t use grain. In the right hands they offer the opportunity to create something genuinely new taste-wise while moving away from traditional whisky imagery and packaging.
There are some real crackers around. Peat Monster and Spice Tree from Compass Box are blended malts, the Double Barrel range from Douglas Laing bring together malts from just two distilleries, and Clan Denny Islay and Speyside do exactly what they say on the tin, bringing together the best flavours for each region from a range of distilleries. And don’t forget The Big Peat, a surefire winner with Whisky Shop customers for nigh on two years now.
Exciting stuff – and absolute proof that there’s always something new to excite the palate.