On the Trail

Grain Whisky Revival

David Driscoll

Single malt whisky, as many of you probably know, is made from 100% malted barley and distilled in copper pot stills much like the ones pictured above. This is a photo I took this past year at Japan's Miyagikyo distillery owned by the Nikka Company. The room was beautiful, the shining domes impressive and awe-inspiring. Single malt spirit is distilled in two batches—first on a wash still, then on a spirits still—before the final whisky is achieved. The first distillation produces a low wine of around 30%, the second run gets it up between 60-70%. I think most drinkers understand the process at this point, but there's another category of whisky out there known as grain whisky that seems to have a number of people confused. Let's break down exactly that that is, shall we? Seeing that we have a number of new grain whisky casks arriving imminently from Scotland, we want all the facts to be crystal clear!

While far less romantic in nature and much less attractive to the eye, the column still is a vital piece of equipment to the whisky industry. Unlike a pot still which must be emptied and cleaned after each batch of liquid has been exhausted, these multi-storied monstrosities known as column or Coffey stills (after inventor Arenas Coffey) can run endlessly—continuously pumping liquid through its series of plates, ultimately producing a high-proof spirit in much higher volumes and with much more velocity. The photo above is also from my visit to Miyagikyo distillery in Japan and it's where Nikka produces its Coffey Grain whiskey—one of the surprise hits of the last few years at K&L. Column stills are able to achieve a spirit of 60% or more in one continual process, resulting in a more cost-efficient endeavor. While few people seem to understand exactly what grain whisky is, almost everyone we've tasted with at K&L seems to adore it. But why is the production of grain whisky such a mysterious process? There's a reason. Perhaps you've noticed that we're wearing hard hats in the above photo. Grain distilleries are industrial production zones, not user-friendly tourist attractions.

Grain whisky distilled from unmalted grains like corn, wheat, and rye has long been used to cut single malt whisky into larger volumes—the way a drug dealer might add baking powder to his pure cocaine in order to stretch that inventory just a bit further (pardon the crude analogy). Because of that reputation as an inferior, mass-produced, less-flavorful version of Scotch, along with a rather industrial means of production (a stark contrast to the perfectly-polished copper pot stills you'll see in most single malt distillery tours), grain whisky has always remained in the shadows. Most grain distilleries in Scotland don't even allow visitors (hence why I was so interested in visiting the grain production center on my trip to Japan). The photo above was taken during last year's trip to Scotland when I hopped the fence into the abandoned Dumbarton facility—the former Glasgow grain whisky distillery no longer in production (obviously). As you can see, the size and scale of these operations leave little room for boutique romanticism. But does that less-wholesome reputation mean that the whiskies are any less delicious?

You may not know it, but American Bourbon and rye whiskies are distilled on column stills as well, albeit to a lower proof that most grain whiskies. I took the above photo at Heaven Hill's Bernheim distillery this past Fall when we finally got a chance to tour the facility. Their main column still is absolutely massive and extends several floors deep into the bowels of what looked to be pure metal machinery. Bernheim distillery is not open to the public. We were able to visit due to our business relationship with Heaven Hill, but you can see why most column still operations aren't conducting publicity tours. There's nothing beautiful about the way that grain whisky and many Bourbons are produced. In fact, it's all rather industrial and almost Orwellian in appearance. Flavor geeks will argue, however, that whereas Bourbon is often distilled to 62% alcohol—still allowing room for the flavor of the corn itself—grain whiskies are often distilled to upwards of 90%, to the extent that the whisky is stripped of any inherent character, leaving the spirit just about neutral. At that point, the liquid is nothing more than a vehicle for the oak and an uninteresting additive to blended whisky—at least that's been the long-standing belief. But all that is starting to change.  

A few years back, after getting a taste for Nikka's Coffey Grain whiskey, we decided to search out some grain whiskies of our own in Scotland. While distilleries like Dumbarton (from the previous photo) and Cambus have long been closed, their whiskies still exist in the barrel and we were able to track down a few remaining selections on behalf of K&L. Other grain whisky producers like Invergorden and North British are still operational and continue to provide the blended Scotch industry with most of its supply. We were able to nab a few of their whisky casks as well. Under the Sovereign label provided to us by the Hunter Laing Whisky Company, we've been able to move far beyond the basic ten year old Nikka Coffey Grain whisky and provide our customers with ancient grain whiskies between twenty-five and fifty years of age—all at prices that reflect the current demand (which is practically nothing). While grain whisky may be rather neutral and insignificant in its youth, several decades in wood completely transform these much-maligned spirits into something quite wonderful and utterly drinkable. The wood does take center stage, but these are not one trick ponies. They beam with cereal notes, buttery biscuit flavors, and round, fruity characters. They also drink incredibly well with ice, helping us to re-introduce the more practical "Scotch on the rocks" mentality that seems to have been lost in the current era's fascination with pureness. 

Grain whisky is making a comeback. But, of course, when you can sell a fifty year old Scotch whisky for less than $300, people are going to take notice. We think we've got a few in store for you this week that should continue to turn some heads.

-David Driscoll