Grain Whiskey: The Gentle Cousin in the Whiskey Family Finally Takes Center Stage
History and Origins
Grain whiskey is one of the least explored yet most fascinating categories in the whiskey world. Often relegated to a secondary role in blends, this spirit has begun to gain notoriety as an entity in its own right. It is considered the “gentle cousin” of the more robust and brash malt whisky, offering an alternative that provides a different yet equally rewarding sensory experience.
Contrary to what you might think, the simplicity of grain whiskey does not equate to a lack of character. It generally has a lighter color than its malt and peat relatives. The aromatic profile is more delicate but incredibly complex, featuring white pulp fruit, vanilla notes, a touch of sweet spices, and, in some labels, hints of honey and flowers.
On the Nose
Upon opening a bottle, the first scent to greet you is sweetness: popcorn, notes of vanilla, cream, and sometimes, a subtle floral or fruity sweetness. It’s not uncommon to find touches of honey, wildflowers, and citrus notes reminiscent of lemon or orange peel. The presence of wheat in the blend often lends a fresh, sweet cereal aroma that serves as a blank canvas for other, more complex and pungent olfactory facets, sometimes resulting in ethereal, lacquered scents.
On the Palate
In the mouth, grain whiskey showcases its elegance and lightness. The texture is typically silky, almost velvety, a sign of its higher alcoholic purity. Sweet notes often evolve into flavors of biscuit, caramel, or toffee, interspersed with hints of sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. However, the essence of this whiskey lies in its freshness and cleanliness, accompanied by a grainy undertone that makes it incredibly drinkable and never heavy.
The finish, or “aftertaste,” is where grain whiskey leaves its unmistakable signature. Although generally shorter than that of other types of whisky, the aftertaste is precise and clean, featuring residual sweetness mixed with earthy or even mineral nuances. This moment offers an opportunity to reflect on the complexities that can be created from a seemingly simple raw material like wheat.
Types: What Is Single Grain?
The term “Single Grain” can be misleading, as it may suggest that the whiskey is made from only one type of grain. In reality, “single” refers to the whiskey originating from a single distillery, while “grain” indicates that it can be made from various grains, including corn, rye, and unmalted barley, in addition to malt. Unlike Single Malts, which must be made from 100% malted barley, Single Grains often result from an intriguing mix of grains.
How It Is Produced
Grain whiskey is generally made from a blend of grains, ranging from 51% to 100%. It’s not uncommon to see additional grains like corn, unmalted barley, and rye, especially in whiskeys produced in North America. These grains contribute to the complexity of the whiskey’s aromatic profile and its structure.
A distinctive element in grain whiskey production is the use of continuous distillation columns, also known as “Coffey columns” or “Patent Still columns.” These allow for more efficient distillation and yield a purer distillate than traditional copper stills. The result is a distillate with an alcohol content that can vary between 94 and 96%, extremely clean and with a lighter and less complex aromatic profile than malt whisky.
As with other types of whiskey, grain whiskey must also be aged in wooden barrels. The most commonly used barrels are made of American oak, but it’s not uncommon to find examples of grain whiskeys matured in barrels that have previously housed Sherry, Port, or even white wines, to enrich the flavor profile of the finished product.
The importance of being Cereals
We’re entering some fascinating territory here. Generally, grain whiskey contains a high percentage of grain in its blend, reaching up to 100%. However, it’s mostly made from corn, wheat, rye, or unmalted barley. Each grain contributes a unique flavor profile. Corn tends to yield a sweeter, smoother spirit, while wheat may offer drier, earthier notes. The key is balance: selecting the right grain can elevate whiskey into an exhilarating experience.
The 9 Grain Whiskeys Not to Be Missed
If you’re looking to delve into the stunning and remarkable world of grain whiskey, here’s a curated list of the 10 best that every enthusiast should savor at least once in their lifetime.
- Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey: A rare example of pure wheat whiskey, featuring caramel notes and a spicy finish.
- Nikka Coffey Grain Whiskey: Hailing from Japan, this grain whiskey surprises with its complexity and notes of exotic fruit.
- Hedonism by Compass Box: A rich Scottish blended grain whiskey, replete with notes of coconut, vanilla, and tropical fruit.
- Bain’s Cape Mountain Whiskey: This South African gem is known for its smoothness and notes of ripe bananas.
- Teeling Single Grain: Crafted in Ireland, this whiskey is aged in Cabernet Sauvignon wine barrels, lending it fruity and spicy notes.
- Girvan Patent Still No. 4 Apps: Another Scotch that impresses with its purity and notes of toffee and citrus.
- Haig Club: Riding on David Beckham’s fame, this is more than just a marketing product. Haig Club offers a balanced flavor profile with butterscotch accents.
- Greenore Single Grain Irish Whiskey: Featuring notes of honey and a cinnamon finish, this Irish whiskey is a revelation.
- Strathclyde 25-Year-Old Single Grain: Ideal for those who appreciate whiskeys with a bit of history, this bottle is aged to perfection and offers an evolved bouquet.