The Truth of Grain
Scotland produces far more grain whisky than single malt whisky, but this alter-ego form of Scotch is overlooked by many. Like single malt before it, though, single grain whisky feels like it is slowly being given more recognition – bolstered by undeniable technical achievements and through genuinely being a very nice drink. Read on to find out why you might consider grain whisky – by the bottle or by the cask – as a worthy addition to your collection.
How Grain Whisky Came to Be
If you’re already passingly acquainted with grain whisky, then the name ‘Aeneas Coffey’ may well mean something to you – he of ‘Coffey still’ fame.
The French-born Irish former gauger, later distiller, has left an indelible mark on the history of distillation in Scotland. The story goes that Mr. Coffey, after a long career travelling around 19th century Ireland and taxing the distilleries there, had learned enough about distilling to patent his very own design of continuous still. Spurned in Ireland for producing whisky that was far too light, Coffey’s design was joyously adopted in Scotland over the next few years, and the light grain whisky produced from it fueled the whisky blending boom that engulfed first Scotland, and then the world.
Coffey’s still goes by many names; sometimes, it is the ‘column still’, describing its shape. Other times, it is the ‘continuous still’, naming its advantage over traditional batch production. To some, it is the ‘patent still’, reflecting its innovative and technical design. But it is still frequently known simply as the ‘Coffey still’, in honour of the man who created it. Over the course of this article, I’ll be freely and disorientatingly switching between these different names.
Before we fall, starry-eyed in fandom, for this ‘great man’ version of history, we ought to take a moment to reflect on those who set Mr. Coffey up to print his name on our spirits. Though it’s difficult to fully trace the origins of ingenuity, and who was inspired by whom – there’s a whole line of clever innovators tweaking existing technology to become more efficient and useful. If Aeneas Coffey had seen further than other men, it may be because he’d stood upon the shoulders of Robert Stein. Stein may have been balancing on Saintmarc, who in turn was perched on top of Adam, Fournier and Blumenthal. At the foundation of this pyramid of bemused Georgian gentlemen lies a very sturdy piece of laboratory glassware – a Woulfe Flask.
Each experimenter played their part in improving an aspect of continuous fractional distillation, and Aeneas Coffey swept in with the coup de grace – finally perfecting a design that became commercially viable and internationally popular.
A Case of the Pot Still Calling the Column Still Brash
I’ve alluded to the fact that continuous distillation didn’t initially catch on in 19th century Ireland, perhaps because the triple-distillation tradition ensured that Irish pot still whisky was already plenty light and refined. In Scotland, though, malt whisky was typically heavier and more impactful than Irish – which may have limited its wider appeal. When Coffey’s stills hit the scene, the clean and fresh stylings of continuously distilled whisky didn’t bewitch people as they were, but the blending of punchy Scottish pot still whisky with smooth Coffey still whisky proved to be exactly the sensation that people were after. It’s a combination that’s still going strong a century and a half later. Blended whisky still accounts for about three quarters of Scotch whisky’s profitability worldwide – over £3bn per year.
Assuming, as whisky enthusiasts, you’re already familiar with the batch distillation process used to make single malt whisky; picture the classic set up: a wash still sending its refined vapours to the spirit still, which in some cases may then feed into a third still (see: Auchentoshan, Springbank’s Hazelburn, or almost anywhere in Ireland. Mortlach is still far too confusing). Each successive still purifies alcoholic vapours further, making a lighter final whisky. Triple distilled whisky is lighter than double distilled whisky.
Now imagine this process made vertical, with tens of tiny stills sitting one on top of the other, each feeding the next with steam-blasted vapours that get purer and boozier each time they ascend. This is the process within the columns of a continuous still – a beautiful steampunk interplay of copper pipes, sturdy bolts, rushing superheated steam and perforated plates, all working in series to make the purest alcohol they can from a continual stream of fermented wash.
A patent still is a gorgeous example of Victorian engineering, and the design has changed very little up to the present day. I would have to concede, though, that some beauty has been sacrificed on the altar of efficiency among modern column stills.
The final product that is drawn off from the still is above 90% abv – almost pure alcohol, with a few remaining congeners that give a subtly soft flavour to the spirit. To achieve the status of whisky, a three year oak cask maturation is required. Sounds familiar?
As a side note, the younger Bourbon industry in the USA has further innovated, and you’ll often find a hybrid setup of pot AND column still linked together there. It may look a touch untraditional to Scottish or Irish eyes, but the level of control it affords the distiller is exemplary. Craft distilling in the US is taking full advantage of this and being rewarded for their efforts.
Why call it Grain Whisky?
To be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure how this name stuck. It’s true that while malt whisky HAS to be made entirely from malted barley, Grain whisky’s grain regulations are more open. Grain whisky could be made from barley, corn, wheat – even rice if the fancy took. In Scotland it’s typically a majority of corn or wheat, with about 10% malted barley mixed in as a starter of the malting process in the other grains. If you want, though, you’re free to make a grain whisky entirely from malted barley (see: Loch Lomond) and it’ll still be classified as a grain whisky. The only difference between this and a single malt is the method of distillation – continuous vs batch. The maturation process is completely identical in all cases.
Note that the rules for single grain are the same as for single malt – a single grain whisky is the product of just one distillery. If you start mixing them together, you get a blended grain whisky.
Why Grain Whisky Shouldn’t be Overlooked
The modern version of Scottish grain whisky has turned an already highly refined 19th Century innovation into a technical masterpiece. The international whisky market is larger than ever, and blended whisky still makes up a huge share of it. The lion’s share of a blended whisky is always going to be grain whisky, so the capacity of Scotland’s top tier grain distilleries to produce spirit is eye-watering. If the top two grain distilleries (Cameron Bridge and Girvan) were to run at capacity, they could each produce over 100 million litres of alcohol per year. That’s over 40 Olympic swimming pools of booze. That’s a tower block where each floor contains an Olympic size swimming pool, and it’s 40 stories high.
To contrast with that – Scotland’s most productive malt distillery, Glenlivet, can produce 21 million litres of alcohol per year. Macallan’s next, at 15 million – merely a large town house of Olympic swimming pools. It’s not small scale by any means.
With this large a capacity, a perception comes across that grain whisky is something of a lesser product that single malt Scotch. A perception that I judge to be largely unfair – 15 million annual litres at Macallan hasn’t cast a shadow over their perceived level of quality. 15 million litres is easily enough to float ⅓ of the Titanic, or three fully-laden Sheffield class missile destroyers. Yeah, I looked it up.
In defence, then, of grain whisky. If Irish whisky is often fêted for its purity and clean flavour due to triple distillation, then grain whisky can very much present itself in those terms. Instead of triple distilling, the multiple rounds of separation and condensation that occur within a column still do so much work to produce a spirit that is light and clean. So clean, in fact, that one has to be very careful about the wood chosen to mature a grain whisky in.
With far fewer strident characteristics remaining in a grain spirit when it’s fresh off the still, the oak cask that matures the spirit will give a proportionally far greater share of its flavour to a grain spirit than it would to a single malt.
If you mature a grain whisky in an ex-bourbon cask, then you can expect those sweet vanilla and oaky notes to come through strongly. Give the grain a sherry cask, and the plum-pudding spicy notes will be unmistakable. Grain whisky is a great canvas on which to show off your mastery of the wood.
The Rise of the Grain Whisky
There was a time when people scoffed at the idea that drinking single malt whisky would ever be as sophisticated as drinking a blend. It took many years, but that situation has come to pass, leaving the folks who liked and collected malt ‘before it was cool’ feeling very smug, and in some select cases, very rich.
Smelling a possible trend, I hereby plant my flag on the hill of grain whisky. As a product, it has a long history, it relies on top quality ingredients, it uses elaborately intricate machinery to produce an exceptionally pure spirit, and it is legally required to mature as long and carefully as single malt whisky does.
This is even before I remember the joys brought to my palate by Loch Lomond’s 100% barley whisky, distilled on a classic Coffey still; the complex pleasure of the Border’s 50/50 wheat/barley bourbon/sherry alcohol/not alcohol grain whisky; the effortlessly indulgent languor of Girvan or the reverential treatment I gave to a wonderfully textured North British from the 1970s.
Grain whisky is, in short, very nice to drink – easily as nice as single malt whisky. It may have been made on a more efficient apparatus, but that shouldn’t detract from its quality as a tasty drink. As more people begin to see its potential, its status may slowly creep up, granting equality in the face of fine malts and rare blends. There are exceptionally old grain whiskies on the market, as well as expressions from ghost distilleries like the Caledonian or Port Dundas. This alone should get that glimmer into collectors’ eyes. Owning a cask of single grain whisky can be an excellent way to get a hold of some exceptionally old Scotch, for a price that won’t destroy the bank. Perhaps this is a trend that is worth getting ahead of.