The hidden gem

The hidden gem

We look at the backbone of the blending world

Production | 07 Sep 2018 | Issue 154 | By Rob Allanson

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When I started writing about whisky a while ago, blending – particularly grain – whisky would more often than not divide people.

There were always the comments of: ‘I would never drink a blend as they are cheap rubbish and harsh’; ‘grain is a simple bulk liquid’; ‘a single malt is much better than a blend’.

Unfortunately these opinions are still out there. At a recent Whisky Live the looks on people’s faces when they found out they had been drinking Johnnie Walker Gold in a masterclass said it all.

Despite being the biggest category in the whisky world, when you say to people that you enjoy blends, it’s like admitting to being a member of a select club – I feel somewhat like it must have been back in the day before single malts had found their kudos.

However, it’s time to change these opinions and explore a world of grain and blending. The old adage of grain being a blank canvas that a blender uses to paint single malts onto is long gone. We are coming to an understanding, as blenders explain more of their art, that grain is a very active element in creating a blend.

So I decided to ask several high profile blenders for their opinions on the matter. Best to get the answer from the creator’s mouth.

Why do we need grain?

Richard Paterson (Whyte and Mackay): Grain whisky helps to bring out those wonderful flavours of single malts but it can also bring a degree of softness, fresh fleshy fruit flavours such as apple, pear and grape pulp, with cinnamon honey notes along with oven baked bread. These kind of attributes will of course vary from one blended whisky to another, but you should bear in mind that the general make-up to a standard blend will be a ratio of 70 to 80 per cent grain, to 20 to 30 per cent malts; the premium and aged blends will of course be much higher – around 40 per cent.

Sam Simmons (Atom Brands): Grain whisky is not a blank canvas. No more than white is neutral. Blending must not be seen as a dilution of malt into some inferior solution. It’s more about clever lighting, illumination.

The ingredients in a blend must be seen as complementing and enhancing one another, and without grain the conversation can get very crowded, with no room for shadows. You have to leave room, space, cracks even.

Billy Leighton (Irish Distillers): Grain is certainly a very versatile style of whiskey. It can start out with quite a neutral flavour, which makes it more influenced by cask contribution and thus grain distillate can be perceived to mature more quickly than malt or pot still whiskeys. But that doesn’t mean that grain whiskeys are necessarily used while still relatively young – indeed grain distillate left to mature for many years can take on great complexity and make a valuable contribution to super-premium blended whiskeys, or even as single cask offerings.

Grain whisky is not a blank canvas. No more than white is neutral. Blending must not be seen as a dilution of malt into some inferior solution. It’s more about clever lighting, illumination

Is younger grain better or just cheaper?

Richard Paterson: This will greatly depend on how these grain whiskies are being allocated in a blend. Obviously after they have attained the legal age of three years many are used in the lighter style blends as opposed to the premium blends this will vary from three to six years old. Once again the proportions must be carefully constructed to the style you desire.

Brian Kinsman (William Grant and Sons): They are different. A key part of blending that can be easily overlooked but without it Scotch whisky would be a very different category.

Sam Simmons: Older grains are all about texture for me, and used in blends they act as the binding between diverse malts (floral or meaty or smoky). Every malt and every grain has their own personality, and naturally many blenders vat their malts and grains separately, and it’s my opinion that too much malt in a blend with ancient grain will crowd the conversation, so yes, at times younger is best.

Billy Leighton: The age statement argument can be controversial and has been well-documented over the past five years. It is clear that there are financial advantages to using younger whiskeys, but no blender would put their reputation on the line by compromising on quality. For me, being a good blender is about creating a consistent flavour profile – so age is important, but it is not a simple case as the older the better, it is more about being able to select the right whiskey at the right time to create the desired flavour profile.

I love grain whisky and what it contributes to a great blended scotch whisky – whether it is Invergordon or Cameronbridge, each one has its own particular style

In conclusion?

Sam Simmons: I think young Canadian corn or South African maize grain whiskies allow delicate and complex malts to shine when added in small amounts. 8-12 year old bourbon cask wheat-based Scotch grain whiskies take drops of ancient Islay, for example, and spread it across the palate in a way blending malts alone simply cannot.

For this reason I currently find myself challenging the inherited wisdom around “malt content”, that more malts make a better blend. No, better malts make a better blend, and the best malts spread across carefully chosen grains make the most satisfactory drinking blends in my sample room so far.

Billy Leighton: Grain whiskey is a very valuable component to a blender for various reasons. Although we can produce a range of styles of grain at the Midleton Distillery, in general grain distillate tends to be lighter and more neutral in character, compared with heavier and more flavourful pot still distillates. This has a number of advantages: the inclusion of grain in a blend can make the whiskey more approachable for some consumers, including those who choose to drink their whiskey with a mixer; due to the relative neutrality of grain distillate, it tends to be easily influenced by cask contribution during the maturation process; and the lighter style of grain distillate allows the blender to extend the spectrum of flavours available for the creation of new whiskeys.

Richard Paterson: In my capacity as Master Blender, I love grain whisky and what it contributes to a great blended scotch whisky – whether it is Invergordon or Cameronbridge, each one has its own particular style. There are presently seven grain distilleries in production in Scotland and when blended meticulously can bring an exceptional ‘charm’ to the final blend.

Brian Kinsman: I don’t think I would call it a blank canvas but it is certainly a beautiful base upon which to build flavours. When I think of Girvan grain, it gives me a naturally sweet, lightly fruity, rounded whisky where I can build nuances of flavour in any direction. The grain adds greatly to the overall flavour of the blend and in many ways defines the blend. It is integral to the final product.
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