A family affair. PATRICK LECLEZIO spotlights the plight of whisky’s less favoured son.
First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2016 edition).
There are two brothers in the Whisky Family. Malt Whisky, the eldest, is a prodigy of the highest order. It’s clear from the start that he is both outrageously talented and wildly popular, and as a result his potential has been obsessively nurtured, to the virtual exclusion of anything or anyone else. He is lavished with the best that the family has to offer, and, unsurprisingly, his accomplishments have been prodigious. His brother Grain Whisky too shows glimpses of great potential, and he has his own aspirations, but for the most part they’ve been swept aside. He is recognised only for what he can do to contribute to Malt’s success. Ironically it’s as a team that they’ve made the most impact, but whilst Grain does most of the heavy lifting the plaudits always seem to go to Malt. He basks in the glory of the applause, as his brother, unacknowledged, if not downright ignored, is relegated to watching from the wings.
This is the dynamic that plays itself out in Scotch whisky primarily (but also elsewhere), albeit in less pointedly emotive fashion. And as with any family drama worth its salt, each party has their side of the story. Malt typically dominates the whisky conversation, but the less recognised, less understood, less appreciated grain also deserves its chance – and if you have an affinity for whisky (which of course you do!), you’ll be amply rewarded in giving grain some of your attention. I love whisky for a whole variety of reasons, large amongst them being the variety of flavour that it offers. Grain whisky may be related to its malt sibling in their common whisky brotherhood, but it is also a distinct style of its own – and it varies on perhaps the most fundamental possible basis – thereby offering an alternative, refreshing corridor of exploration, which you overlook to your detriment.
The most obvious difference between malt and grain whiskies is the raw ingredient or base from which each is made: malt from malted barley, and grain from any other cereal, although there are some caveats. Malted barley is used in many grain whiskies in small proportions to assist with fermentation, and there are some styles, single pot still comes to mind, that would defy categorisation as either malt or grain. The grain whisky of Scotland is made primarily from wheat, but also from maize. American bourbons (the cousins of our two brothers) are effectively grain whiskies made predominantly from maize (corn in their parlance). This base, being the core of a whisky, imparts significant differences in flavour, and even in mouthfeel, to the final spirit. In wheat based whiskies there is often a biscuity sweetness and an oily mouthfeel , and in maize based whiskies a full buttery chewiness, detectable through the other influences.
Malts and grains are produced by means of two different processes, the former through pot distillation, the latter through column distillation. The conventional wisdom is that pot stills facilitate more flavour through copper “conversation” (contact of the liquid with the copper material from which these stills are usually made) and by distilling a less pure liquid to lower concentrations (with the impurities imparting flavour). Column stills conversely are seen to produce lighter, cleaner spirit to higher alcoholic strengths. It is true that most grain whiskies tend to have lighter characters than malt for this reason, but distillation is a dark art in which many things are possible, and accordingly you should be careful not to paint all grains with the same brush. Anyone who has sampled the Nikka Coffey grain and malt whiskies would be able to testify to the richness and depth of flavour achieveable with a column still.
Perhaps the most striking deviation between the two styles is not so much in their intrinsic constitution – the ingredients and the processes just described – but in the intentions that have guided their creation and importantly their maturation. Scotch grains have been made almost exclusively for blending. As a result they are designed: to be light, to “dilute” the rough edges of young malts; to be cost effective, so perhaps racked in lesser casks, and to be simple and accessible, so that the blend doesn’t detract from character of the malt. These intentions, that have inhibited grain’s ostensible ambitions for the most part, are luckily not ubiquitous. They may be in small numbers but there are grain whiskies that have been and are being produced for their own glory, and that are equivalent in class to the great malts whilst having their own unique charm and flair.
I evaluated two of these recently – Compass Box’s Hedonism (a blended grain), and Bain’s Cape Mountain whisky (a single grain), both brilliant fulfilments of the grain whisky potential. Hedonism is a decadent delight, especially for those of us who value the typical elements of American oak ex-bourbon cask maturation. Vanilla and coconut abound, being given free rein, with some oatmeal and honey also detectable. The advantage of a lighter, purer spirit is that it doesn’t have to fight with its casks – it simply provides the canvas, and lets the painting ensue. Bain’s, whilst still a lighter whisky in an absolute sense, is noticeably more fat and robust, with toffee nibs, a brisk hit of spice, and sweet oak prominent, the latter perhaps a factor of the double maturation, and ripe-ish fruitiness and some vanilla in the background. It strikes with a certain confident aplomb the tenuous balance between interesting and easy.
There is a certain line in the whisky family which is expected to be toed: Malt comes first. This is how it is – and it’s not to be disputed. The extent of his talent and the weight of momentum have created an unstoppable force. It’s exciting though that that there have been the occasional infractions, as Grain has stepped out of line to express his own talent. There’s room I think for lot more of it. May the rivalry endure, and may the dram be with you.