If you’re looking for a special bottle to celebrate Burns Night tonight, chances are you’re looking for a single malt. But you might get yourself an equally interesting dram if you splashed out on a single-grain whisky.
Grain whisky is, of course, the basis of all blends, and as such not traditionally given much respect. It differs from malt in that it can be made from grains other than barley, and is made in a continuous still, which results in a lighter, sweeter and, in most cases, blander spirit.
Recently, however, there has been a revival of interest in grain whisky, kickstarted by the innovative Compass Box Whisky Company, whose fragrant, honeyed, non chill-filtered Hedonism (£53.95, online from thewhiskyexchange.com; 43% abv) proved that grain whiskies could have real character.
“We have some fanatics who can’t wait for the new grain releases, especially single-grain whiskies from closed distilleries, which have become eminently collectible but still haven’t hit the heights of rare malt prices,” says Joe McGirr of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which features up to 20 different grain “expressions” at any one time in its London and Edinburgh tasting rooms. “Distilleries have been realising they don’t have enough to meet demand,” McGirr adds.
I tried some of the society’s bottlings from five different grain distilleries, which varied fascinatingly, the most appealing being G1.9 (£54.70 to members; 62.8% abv), a lively 21-year-old from the North British distillery, of which only 209 bottles were made. If you join the SMWS, which seems a good move for any whisky lover (membership costs £122), you can either sample its most recent releases at the members’ rooms or order them to drink at home.
The SMWS is not the only institution to do its own bottling. St James’s wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd also bottles its own. I was blown away by a 1988 cask of Berrys’ Invergordon Single Grain Whisky (46% abv) in which I could find a myriad complex flavours from light muscovado sugar to mace. At £70, it’s clearly very much a special-occasion purchase, but you can pick up the 2000 for a comparatively reasonable £36.
Obviously none of these options is readily available, so what should you buy for tonight from the high street? Most supermarkets have offers on the household names, but the best-value deal I found was, surprisingly, from Lidl: a warming, spicy, five-year-old blended malt called Glen Orchy for just £13.49. Ironically, that’s cheaper even than a grain.