Subtle seducers

Subtle seducers

Gavin D Smith reveals the contribution grain has made to the Scotch whisky industry.

Production 16 Jun 2000 | Interviews | By Gavin Smith

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Without grain whisky Scotch would be nothing more than a cottage industry, yet the spirit has traditionally received a less than enthusiastic press. Indeed, it would probably be fairer to say that it has received very little press at all. Grain whisky is widely perceived as nothing more than neutral alcohol, a necessary evil to bulk out the individual, characterful spirit which flows from the ‘proper’ pot stills.Single malts are obviously of great interest to the whisky lover, because of their sheer variety and individuality, but in excess of 95 per cent of all Scotch whisky drunk around the world is blended.Surprisingly, no book dedicated to blended whisky had ever been published until Whisky Magazine’s Jim Murray’s Classic Blended Scotch appeared in 1999, and few writers had ever acknowledged that there are discernible differences in nose and taste between different grain whiskies. At the most basic level, North British and Dumbarton, which are distilled from maize and a portion of malted barley, tend to have a fuller flavour than those made using wheat and malted barley.Ask Whyte & Mackay Master Blender Richard Paterson if he thinks that all grain whiskies are much the same, and you will get a very
instructive response.“From a blending point of view they are most definitely not neutral alcohol, as is often supposed. The grains play a major part in a blend. After all, grain may make up 65 or 70 per cent of the contents of the blend. The grains soften and seduce all the malts, and their style is very important. Although our company owns the Invergordon Distillery, we would never use just the one grain in our blends. Along with Invergordon, we use most of the other grains to add complexity. Port Dundas and Cameronbridge, for example, are heavier than Invergordon. We have a good relationship with UDV, Allied and the other companies, and use grains from their distilleries in our blends.”One of the principal advantages of producing grain whisky in column or ‘patent’ stills, rather than malt whisky in traditional pot stills, is that the former is a continuous rather than a batch process. Much larger quantities of spirit can therefore be produced over any given period of time. The unmalted cereals used in grain whisky production are also appreciably cheaper than malted barley.
Grain whisky is usually made from unmalted maize or wheat in Scotland, along with a proportion of malted barley. The unmalted grain is initially cooked in converters under steam pressure in order to release the starch, and the residue after cooking is transferred into the mash tun, along with the malted barley. The diastase in the malted barley converts the starch into sugar, just as in the mashing process for malt whisky.When it comes to distilling, the wash is pumped into patent stills, which consist of two large, connected and parallel columns, called the analyser and rectifier. In essence, what happens in the patent still is that the wash enters at the top and runs down through a series of perforated copper plates. As it moves through the still it is met by steam, which separates the alcohol from the wash, carrying it into the second column where the process is repeated before condensation into spirit occurs. The spirit is collected at a much higher strength than in pot still distillation, usually around 94 per cent abv.Grain spirit tends to mature quicker than malt, though by law it still has to be bonded for a minimum of three years before it legally becomes whisky. As with malts, grain whiskies mature at different rates. Strathclyde is considered to be at its best after seven or eight years, while 12 years is the optimum for Cameronbridge if it is to be drunk as a single grain whisky.The sheer scale of grain whisky production comes as a surprise to anyone who has previously only looked around a malt whisky distillery. At United Distillers & Vintners’ vast Cameronbridge grain plant at Windygates in Fife the visitor is faced with what appears at first sight to be a modern, medium-sized block of flats. This is actually the stillhouse. At the North British distillery in Edinburgh the Coffey stills are hidden away in more traditional buildings, but each is 40 feet high, and the statistics of production are equally grand. According to the distillery manager Tommy Leigh, the three North British Coffeys can each turn out 3,000 litres of spirit an hour, which equates to a total capacity of something like 500 bottles per minute. The distillery produces around 60 million litres of whisky per year, distilled at 94.5 degrees, whereas The Macallan, an average-sized Speyside malt distillery, annually produces 5.5 million litres.North British is highly regarded in the whisky industry, and is a component of some of the most respected blended whiskies on the market, making an important contribution to the likes of The Famous Grouse, J&B, Lang’s, Cutty Sark, Isle of Skye and Chivas Regal.“North British is made exclusively from maize, with a high inclusion of green malt, and we do our own malting on site,” says Tommy Leigh. “The maize gives it quite a distinctive character. Every grain distillery produces a spirit with a different character despite the similarity of production methods, depending on the grains they use.”Green malt is germinated barley prior to kiln-drying, and at North British the amount of green malt used is as high as 25 per cent, which certainly adds to the flavour of the finished product. A figure of around 10 per cent is more usual.The North British, or the NB as it is almost universally known, is the last working distillery in Edinburgh, and is located in the Gorgie district, to the west of the city centre. Unlike Cameronbridge, NB looks outwardly much as it did a century and more ago, though it now stands in the shadow of Heart of Midlothian’s modern Tynecastle football stadium.The distillery dates from 1885 and was built by a consortium of independent blenders who were concerned that the Distillers Company Ltd was developing a monopoly on grain whisky production when it added the Caledonian Distillery to its portfolio in 1884. The Distillers Company Ltd, now absorbed by UDV, had been formed in 1877 by six of the leading Lowland grain distillers, including John Haig & Co of Cameronbridge distillery. The NB is currently owned equally by UDV and the Edrington Group.Travelling to the North British from Edinburgh city centre you pass the last remnants of Edinburgh’s penultimate distillery, the Caledonian, close to Haymarket Station. The Caledonian is now little more than a landmark chimney stack and a couple of derelict buildings with listed status on a fast-filling development site. In its heyday, however, the ‘Cally’ was one of the largest grain distilleries in Britain, famous for possessing the biggest patent still in Europe.It closed in 1988 when UDV rationalised its grain whisky operations, also ending production at the historic Cambus plant at Tullibody in Clackmannanshire five years later. The Alloa distillery of Carsebridge had already been shut down in 1983. The company’s grain distilling is now concentrated at Port Dundas in Glasgow and Cameronbridge.In addition to its output of grain whisky, Cameronbridge will also have the distinction of producing Gordon’s Gin later this year, when a new white spirits complex opens at the Fife site to replace the exisiting Gordon’s distillery in Essex. For Scotland it will be a welcome reversal of the usual geographical implications of so-called industry rationalisation. Cameronbridge was the first distillery in the world to produce grain whisky, with a continuous still being installed in 1827. It was designed by Robert Stein, a cousin of the distiller John Haig, and was a forerunner of the more efficient Coffey still. This was patented by Aeneas Coffey, a former Inspector-General of Excise in Ireland, in 1830. The stills which produce grain whisky today are very similar in essence to those developed by Coffey.Robert Stein and Aeneas Coffey can be seen as crucial contributors to the modern whisky industry, though not all advances in distilling were happening in Scotland. Continuous stills were being developed in North America at around the same time, and today whisky is made in them all over the world.While grain whisky production was in its infancy, Scottish malt whisky was widely – and often correctly – regarded as a variable and frequently harsh drink and one certainly not suited to the polite palates of Lowlanders and Englishmen. Indeed, until the early years of the 20th century, Irish whiskey was a far more popular drink in most of Britain than Scotch, principally because the Irish spirit was lighter in character, owing to triple-distillation and the use of both malted and unmalted barley. Legislation of 1860 made it legal for the first time to mix malt and grain whiskies under bond, and once blending pioneers like Andrew Usher began to combine them, Scotland had a new drink to rival the make of Dublin’s finest distilleries.In 1906 one of the earliest bottlings of single grain whisky took place when the Distillers Company Ltd marketed a seven-year-old Cambus Patent Still Scotch Grain Whisky. This was part of their campaign against the pot still malt whisky distillers. They were determined to protect their business by insisting that grain whisky had no right to be called whisky at all. High-profile press advertisements for the new bottling carried the legend ‘Cambus is not a Pot Still Whisky’.The serious implications of the dispute for the burgeoning blending industry were obvious, and a Royal Commission was set up to consider the matter. In 1909 it concluded that “finally, we have received no evidence to show that the form of still has any necessary relation to the wholesomeness of the spirit produced”. Cambus soon reverted to its role as a blending whisky, but the Kerry-born popular novelist and one-time exciseman Maurice Walsh wrote that Cambus distillery “... turned out a palatable drink, maturing in three to five years, and was as near a silent malt whisky as I have ever sampled in a strictly official way”.The blenders had carried the day, and the foundations were laid for what has become one of the UK’s top five export-earning industries. Perhaps it’s time to raise a glass – of single grain – to Robert Stein and Aeneas Coffey. Without whom ...
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