Most grain whisky is made from imported maize and distilled in industrial, continuous stills, with the resulting spirit blended into big brands. As a result, many whisky buffs have traditionally favoured malts. Produced in pot stills in smaller batches, malts are thought by many to have more complexity.
With sufficient ageing and care, though, grain whisky can take on serious depth and character and provides a lighter, more elegant alternative to malt. Ignore it at your peril, says a small but growing group of fans.
One such fan is John Glaser, founder of whisky blender Compass Box, which specialises in sourcing whisky from Scottish distilleries and creating its own signature, small-batch, blends.
Glaser says he set up his company after having a moment of enlightenment while working as global marketing director for Johnnie Walker. He was tasting bourbon cask-aged grain whiskies destined for blending and telling other executives how delicious they were, but the y were sceptical about how well they would sell.
The first whisky Glaser released under the Compass Box label was Hedonism, a vatted (blended) grain whisky which is sold at specialists.
Glaser says: "The reason was that good grain whisky can taste absolutely delicious. It's as simple as that."
The whiskies used in Hedonism are between 12 and 29 years old, with most over 20, matured in first-fill American oak.
The key to blending a successful grain whisky, says Glaser, is to pick good-quality casks and mature the spirit properly. "When grain whisky gets put into good quality first-fill ex-bourbon it can taste absolutely fantastic. When it starts to get around 20 years old it becomes richer and sweeter with notes of vanilla and toffee.
"In some ways, good grain whisky is like a much more elegant, feminine and refined version of bourbon."
Well-matured grain whisky works well as a traditional digestif, Glaser says, adding that it's also good in cocktails because it's an approachable style.
Glaser has just created Hedonism Maximus - a reserve version of the original vatted grain. Just 390 bottles were produced and are currently only available in France through La Maison du Whisky (whisky.fr).
The whisky is a blend of 42-year-old Invergordon (70 per cent) and 29-year-old Carsebridge (30 per cent), aged in first-fill American oak ex-bourbon barrels. It's described as having "deep, sweet, complex flavours of caramel, burnt toffee, vanilla, coconut and baking spices" and is "tremendously long on the finish", according to the tasting notes provided by the company.
Glaser believes there's a growing interest in grain among whisky fans, and that it is under-exploited. "I'm confident there's an opportunity in the marketplace for one company to establish a grain whisky brand. I'd like to do that and we're talking at several people at the moment," he adds.
Lack of education
Euan Shand, managing director of independent bottler Duncan Taylor, says his company's efforts to push single grain whisky have paid off. Education is the biggest problem facing sales of single grain, he says. "The problem, as with anything that people don't understand, is they don't know the first thing about it.
"Grain whisky isn't something that's readily available. Grain whiskies can seem so different to malts and blends that people haven't acquired a taste for them. But when you educate people about them they absolutely love them. We've converted so many people to grain."
Duncan Taylor has focused on top-end aged single grains, which take on depth and complexity after 20 to 40 years in ex-bourbon casks. The resulting whisky often has sweet, vanilla flavours from the cask. "It can be like a very mild bourbon, but so much smoother," he says.
For this reason, Duncan Taylor's exports to countries where high bourbon consumption is growing as bourbon fans try aged grain whisky as an alternative. Shand also says grain whiskies seem more popular among women. "Whenever we do any shows there's always a good proportion of female drinkers, and we can't tell whether it's the grain whisky or the kilts."
Shand predicts more interest in, and activity around, grain whisky in the future. "Things are definitely picking up," he concludes.
More to offer
Specialist whisky retailers too believe grain whiskies are worth getting to know better.
Malcolm Mullin, of the Vintage House in Soho, London, says malt whiskies get all the glory because they are made to a batch method rather than a continuous process. "It's more glamorous and it tends to have more depth of flavour," he says.
Grain whisky, however, has more to offer than many people think, says Mullin. "Most people consider grain is only suitable for blending, which is a little unfair."
Mullin says customers are introduced to grain whisky in one of two ways. Either they have read or heard about grain whisky - normally from Fife's Cameron Brig which attracts a loyal band of supporters - and ask about it, or one of the shop staff will suggest that whisky newcomers try it as a gentle introduction to Scotch.
Mullin praises Compass Box's Glaser in particular for taking a handcrafted approach to whisky. "His trick has been to create whiskies that are consistently very good value with real depth of character," Mullin says.
He adds that many grain whiskies make good matches with pudding, and they are particularly suited to being heavily chilled.
Another trick they pass on to customers is to put half an inch of "decent, still mineral water" into solid, thick-based snifter glasses and put them in the freezer until frozen, before pouring whisky into the glass. "You've got to be really careful and choose the right glasses or they will break," he warns.
"You get the whisky sitting on top of a layer of ice. There's less surface area in contact with the whisky than with ice cubes, so it's less diluted," Mullin adds.
Light, elegant, approachable and very versatile, it seems that grain whisky is gathering a growing number of fans.
If you're looking for a simple way to add interest to your spirits range this autumn, why not stock a couple?
Festive plans for malts, blends and single grains
Maxxium UK is rolling out a limited edition bottle of The Famous Grouse exclusively in the off-trade. The shrinkwrapped bottle will feature alternative serving suggestions, such as Grouse & Appletiser and The Ginger Grouse - a mix of whisky and ginger ale with a wedge of lime.
Diageo is ploughing £1 million into a press ad campaign for Bell's. Johnnie Walker has been updated with a revamped carton, and Talisker will be available in a gift box.
First Drinks has invested in a revamped pack design and marketing campaign for Glenfiddich. Ads will screen on digital and terrestrial TV channels from Nov 19, and press ads will run in consumer magazines. The ads will continue the whisky brand's Every Year Counts theme. Gift packaging featuring a triangular tube and updated label will be rolled out in November. The latest in the Glenfiddich single cask Vintage Reserve series has also been unveiled. A total of 550 bottles of the 1976 sherry barrel single malt have been released. Only 33 bottles are available in the UK, each with a price tag of £299.
Compass Box has launched three limited-release whiskies for autumn/winter 2007. Flaming Heart is a "very big, rich, peaty" Scotch malt sourced from distilleries in Islay and Brora and aged in new French oak. Four hundred cases of grain whisky Hedonism, sourced from Cameron Bridge and Cambus and matured in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels, are available. The whiskies have been bottled in dark glass to differentiate them from the Compass Box core whiskies. It has also launched the Canto Cask range, 16 cask-strength Scotch malts with a range of oak types and toasts available. Call 0208 995 0899 for further details.
Teacher's Create Your Space promotion - which offered consumers the chance to win a shed this year - will carry on into 2008. The brand will continue to "drive value through price leadership", according to managing director Drew Munro.
Grant's will be working with Classic FM across its media portfolio, targeting more than 6 million listeners in the 40-plus age group in the lead up to Christmas. The activity comprises sponsorship of a Christmas CD on December's Classic FM Magazine, on-air advertising and a promotion on classicfm.com. The brand's Fresh Perspectives photography competition will also launch in the run-up to Christmas. Grant's Family Reserve will be available in gift boxes, supported with in-store activity and POS.
Whyte & Mackay will sponsor the Earls Court Boat Show, which runs from Dec 1 to 9. As part of the sponsorship, W&M will conduct a consumer drive including poster sites around London and a national press campaign with the Telegraph Media Group. "As Christmas is a key gifting time we will also be reintroducing our gift cartons and gift tins, both of which provide great on-shelf stand out. To encourage customer trial of our Jura malt we will also be introducing an on-pack miniature with purchase of Whyte & Mackay 1-litre," says off-trade sales director Simon Oldham.
Where to get your grain whisky
Black Barrel, William Grant (0208 332 1188)
Cameron Brig, Diageo (0207 927 5200)
Invergordon, Whyte & Mackay (0141 248 5771)
Loch Lomond (01389 752781)
North British, Lothian Distillers
Port Dundas, Diageo
Whiskies from closed distilleries available through independent bottlers. A directory can be found at scotchwhisky.net.