Although I have a fine palette honed from years in the food writing world I am at the very beginning of applying it to whisky. I had imagined that there are blends, the ‘High Street’ whiskies, and then single malts of various pedigrees which all come from malted barley. What I have discovered very rapidly is that blends are not ‘just blends’ and that the unexpected and rapidly rising stars of the whisky world are not from malted barley at all, but from wheat or corn: grain whiskies have arrived.
Grain whiskies have been the also-rans: the base of many a blend, the fillers, the margarine instead of butter of the whisky world. All that is set to change, and not least because of the hype Diageo have created by launching Haig Club, a single grain whisky, in association with David Beckham. It is very easy to drink, slightly cereal and sweet but still fresh and herbaceous: it is rather like a Spanish olive oil with grassy, citrussy and slightly herbal notes followed by the faintest liquorice after-taste, rather than the more usual whisky (and olive oil) pepper. The stunning slim, square blue bottle will make this a trophy whisky to have on show, although that doesn’t lead to easy pouring with arthritic thumbs (it’s not aimed at me then!). At around £45 this is going to be a big seller for non-traditionalists.
I started to explore grain whiskies after reviewing Asyla from Compass Box and discovering how much of the elegance of that boutique blend came from non-barley spirit. My next purchases were Snow Grouse and 1997 North British, a single grain from Signatory. These two bottles are from opposite ends of the trade spectrum: Snow Grouse from The Famous Grouse is part of the Edrington Group who also own Highland Park, and other labels and distilleries, whilst Signatory are independent bottlers, usually of small quantities of special whiskies from larger companies which are no longer available in commercial quantities, thus becoming collectors editions. Signatory do, however, own Edradour, Scotland's smallest and supposedly most picturesque distillery (although I have heard that it has big expansion plans).
The Snow Grouse (to be served well chilled) has languished in my freezer until now. Why?! Yes, the texture does become slightly thick at -18°C, but it is just the same on the palette as oily whiskies such as Jura. I find this a good sign as it usually means the whisky will stand well with food. Without ice, The Snow Grouse is curiously warming (OK, I am writing this in October with the fire burning). It has a big mouthfeel with peppery, spicy after-notes: it is cold so it is harder to hold it in the mouth to explore the flavour, but it is quite sweet and easy to drink, as you would expect from a blended whisky from The Famous Grouse. With ice it is fascinating: fabulous with Thai curries, spicy tapas, sweet rich sheep's milk cheeses or spicy toasted almonds. Indeed, with anything that you would eat with Fino sherry - but this would also be great in a pub with a packet of crisps as it lacks the mouth-puckering dryness of the sherry. At around £20 it is a great addition to the Whisky Wardrobe, for any weather!
The 1997 Northern British single grain whisky does not say it is to be chilled and delivers a greater depth of flavour with more honeyed and toffee notes. Also sweet, indeed the follow through is all about sweetness for me with only a lingering nod to any sort of peppery spice. Yes, it is more elegant - it is a single grain and not a blend - and yes, it has more cachet, but it is less fun then The Snow Grouse! It too is oily in the mouth and was perfect with a winter classic of pasta with roasted squash, Stilton and capers: it would have taken peppery sage too. This dish is rich and, once opened up with a little water, the whisky delivered greater depth and complexity as well as more pepper. A sip between mouthfuls was palette cleansing from the sweet richness of the squash. A perfect match? You decide! It's just under £30 a bottle.
Cooking with squash is always interesting - and it is a great ingredient for October! Matched with either of these grain whiskies there are endless possibilities for proper meals and snacks. Try my Squash humus and maybe my American Hot Pizza before the month is out! (recipes coming soon)
We also need to explore Hedonism and Girvan Grain together - there's lots more fun to have against the (perceived) whisky grain!