The first whisky tasting I ever went to was run by a woman. It was a Laphroaig tasting, and the wonderful Patsy Christie from Maxxium came (you’ll find her doing a lot of stuff for the Macallan these days) and gave an amazing presentation that single-handedly put the distillery in my good books. So the vague status quo tag that whisky is a man’s drink – one I come across more often than I’d like – is one that’s never held water (or whisky) for me. The history of whisky is littered with women like Elizabeth Cumming and Bessie Williamson, who take most of the credit for making Cardhu and Laphroaig, respectively, what they are now. Nowadays people like Kirsteen Campbell and Rachel Barrie are driving the Scotch industry, and Liza Weisstuch and Alwynne Gwilt are doing all the writing. The women who are foremost in the industry are doing a fantastic job of overcoming the inertia of the past, and equality in female drinkers is much closer than equality in female poker players, my other hobby. Which is great, because modern poker basically involves spending hours on end staring at a computer. So much for a dinner jacket and martini…
This wasn’t actually meant to be about women in whisky. I started writing about grain whisky, and it suddenly occurred to me how deep the parallels run. Grain whiskies may not be as widespread as their malty counterparts, and they may not have the same flamboyant extremes (is there a female equivalent of Richard Paterson? If there is, I’d love to meet her), but there’s just as much packed into each dram.
A quick lowdown on grain whisky – while malt whisky is made purely from malted barley, grain whisky uses primarily other grains. Scotch whisky must always contain some malted barley, but corn, wheat, maybe rye and some unmalted barley will make up the rest. Secondly, grain whisky tends to be distilled to a higher proof, in a column still rather than a pot still, creating a distillate that is more neutral. In the past, this has been used in blends to soften the edges of malt whisky, but with good cask selection, people are starting to realise that grain whisky can stand on its own two feet.
You’ll tend to find that, because of the more neutral distillate, grain whisky will showcase the cask more than it will the grain mash (my metaphor is pretty much shot to pieces by now). But as Richard Paterson says, cask is king, and whilst there might not be the same depth, there’s still enough flavour and complexity in a good grain whisky to satisfy anyone.
I’ve had some lovely grain whiskies recently – I’ve mentioned the Hedonism from Compass Box before, and got to try a fantastic 17yo Invergordon from Hunter Laing. But the latest one to find its way onto my shelves is the Girvan No.4 Apps.
It takes its name from the apparatus (not application) used to distil the whisky, which uses vacuum distillation (a favourite from my chemistry days) removing the need for high temperatures. As is often the case with grain distilleries, Girvan has been running on a large scale for a long time (well, since 1963, which in whisky parlance isn’t that long at all), but hasn’t really put its own name to anything. The release of their 25yo in 2013 marked their first distillery bottling, and the No.4 Apps in 2014 gave consumers a slightly more affordable option.
The nose is a big hit of banana milkshake, with some pear drops but also a touch of acetone. It’s an unusual one, and I can’t quite decide whether I like it or not. The banana milkshake is there on the palate as well (I looked it up, and apparently that flavour is isoamyl acetate), but it fades to the background as the whisky rests, letting vanilla and white chocolate seep through. The finish is slightly short but leaves you with a very pleasant cinnamon warmth. One thing that keeps coming back to me is the texture of the whisky – it’s quite a light one, but every now and then a mouthful will feel really thick and chewy. All in all, it’s probably not the best grain whisky I’ve had recently, but there’s definitely hidden depths to it. And that’s really all I’m trying to say. Distilleries are really making an effort to bring out grain whiskies that appeal to malt drinkers. If they didn’t think they could make something that was just as pleasant, just as complex, they wouldn’t be trying. And as far as I’m concerned, they’re having some success.