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Issue 98 - Give Grain a Chance

Whisky Magazine Issue 98
September 2011


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Give Grain a Chance

Ian Wisniewski asks how do different stages of the production process influence the character of grain whisky?

Grain whiskies are frequently dismissed as a light, even neutral spirit, resulting from an entirely automated, ‘identikit' process, which contrasts with the perception of malt whiskies as lovingly crafted. Distilling grain whisky actually requires significant skill, and with each distillery having a production regime, the new make spirit also has an individual distillery character.

Grain whisky was traditionally distilled from maize (together with malted barley), maize having been the least expensive grain, while also offering the highest level of starch (more starch means a higher yield of alcohol). However, most distillers changed to wheat in the 1980s, when EU benefits made wheat less expensive than maize, with wheat's slightly cheaper price compensating for a slightly lower yield of alcohol. Wheat divides into two types, hard and soft.

Distillers use soft wheat as it contains more starch than hard wheat (from which pasta is made).

Meanwhile, maize is still used by North British, which also reflects certain practicalities.

“The starch content of grain is influenced by annual weather patterns; therefore any variability in starch levels requires fine tuning to the process. Maize starch content is far more consistent year on year as it is less affected by weather than wheat; as a result each new harvest has little impact on the standard production regime when using maize,” says Tommy Leigh, production director, North British Distillery.

The obvious question is whet...

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