All whiskey is made from grain and yet not all whiskey is called grain whiskey. In fact, to add insult to injury most whiskeys are not called grain whiskey. They’re called malt whiskey, blended whiskey or after-the-specific-grain-they’re-made-from whiskey. It’s as if grain whiskey has drawn the short straw (Sorry, my joke editor has taken the day off). The question therefore is, what is grain whiskey?
The unhelpful yet most accurate answer is grain whiskey is not malt whiskey.
The more understandable yet not quite complete answer is grain whiskey is whiskey made from any grain or grains other than malted barley.
Of course, grain whiskey also has to comply with all the other rules and regulations for the whiskey making process which vary from country to country.
We’ll look at single grain whiskey and blended grain whiskey as well as grain whiskey’s role in blended whiskey (that’s not a typo. The last two are completely different whiskeys. Honest).
And most importantly, we’ll discuss the different flavors that different grains produce in the final product and compare grain whiskey with malt whiskey to see which is better. Because when it comes to whiskey, having the best flavor is what it’s all about.
What Is Grain Whiskey? A Precise Definition
There are two basic types of whiskey, malt whiskey and grain whiskey.
Malt whiskey is whiskey made from barley that has been malted.
Malting is where grain is soaked in warm water and spread out on the floor of the malting house where it’s left to partially sprout or germinate. When the grain opens the starches can now be accessed. The grain also now secrets the enzyme amylase which in the next stage of the whiskey making process (called mashing) will convert the starches into sugars so that the yeast can then turn the sugars into alcohol.
The germination process is then stopped by spreading the grain on the grids of a kiln to dry with hot air from below.
Barley is the grain that’s most often malted because it’s an abundant grain, with a great flavor and more of the starches-to-sugars-converting enzyme.
In Scotland and Ireland, malt whiskey must be made from 100% malted barley, no other grains can be used. It’s distilled in pot stills and aged for at least three years in new or used oak casks. In America malt whiskey is made from at least 51% malted barley. It does not have to distilled in pot stills but must be aged in new charred oak barrels.
Grain whiskey is whiskey that’s not malt whiskey.
Yes, we’ve already noted that’s not particularly helpful, it’s just how it is. This is presumably because when Scotland, the first country to produce whiskey, did so, they used whatever grain happened to be available which was barley because it thrived better than other grain crops in Scotland’s more challenging growing conditions. It’s only more recently (meaning late 18th century) that distilleries began using other grains.
Therefore, in Scotland and Ireland, any whiskey that contains any amount of grain other than malted barley (even if that other grain is malted) is grain whiskey. In the US grain whiskey is whiskey where 51% of the grain or grains it’s made from is something other than malted barley.
These other grains are not malted, but instead, to access their starches they’re ground into meal in a gristmill and cooked with water. This breaks down the cellulose walls that contain the starch granules.
Typical grains used include but is not limited to, corn, wheat and rye.
Grain whiskeys usually contain some malted barley (and if produced in Scotland or Ireland have to by law) for its above-mentioned starches-to-sugars-converting enzyme amylase.
Other Laws That Help Define Grain Whiskey
While the most important point about grain whiskey is that it’s made from grain or grains other than malted barley there are other laws that it needs to adhere to if it’s to have that label. Some of these laws are general laws that apply to all whiskeys but nonetheless without complying and being made from grains other than malted barley, it cannot be called grain whiskey.
Of course, these laws vary according to country.
Grain whiskey must be made from whole grains.
It’s usually distilled in column stills twice, three times or up to 20 times to a maximum of less than 94.8% ABV.
It must be aged for at least three years in new or used oak casks.
No additives are allowed except water and caramel coloring.
It must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.
It must be made in Scotland.
Pretty much the same as Scotland except for the last point as it must be made in … I’ll let you work it out for yourself.
Grain whiskey must be made from at least 51% of a grain or grains other than malted barley. To be labelled a particular grain whiskey it must be made from at least 51% of that grain. So for example, corn whiskey must be made from at least 51% corn.
It’s usually distilled in column stills. The maximum ABV at distillation is 80%.
With the exception of corn whiskey which does not have to be aged, other grain whiskeys must be aged in new charred oak barrels but there’s no legal minimum aging period. If it’s aged for anything more than two years, it’s designated as straight whiskey. If it’s made from at least 51% of one grain it’s designated as straight whiskey of that particular grain.
It may not contain any added flavoring, coloring or neutral spirits.
It must be bottled at a maximum of 40% ABV.
It must be made in America – just in case you weren’t able to work the Ireland one out for yourself.
What Is Single Grain Whiskey?
This is not whiskey made from a single grain. It can’t be as grain whiskey usually, and in Scotland and Ireland must also contain malted barley. It may also be made from various quantities of several grains.
Single grain whiskey is grain whiskey made at a single distillery.
What Is Blended Grain Whiskey?
This is whiskey made from a blend of two or more single grain whiskeys from different distilleries.
What Is Blended Whiskey
This a mixture of one or more single grain whiskeys with one or more single malt whiskeys (malt whiskey made at one distillery). This is real whisky blending where sometimes even 50 different whiskeys are combined in precise, formulaic and highly secret proportions so that a brand can produce a whiskey of definite and recognizable character and taste. Most whiskeys are blended.
How the Grain Affects a Whiskeys Flavor
Although most of a whiskey’s flavor (80%) comes from being aged in barrels, there’s still room for the grain to play an important part in the final flavor (20% room mathematically speaking). Obviously, different grains have different flavors, but when you know which grains are used to make a whiskey, you’ll also know what flavors to expect.
Here are some of the grains used to make whiskey and their flavors.
Malted barley has a great flavor. It’s sweet with lots of caramel, toffee and brown sugar notes. It will have a nutty, smoky, chocolatey flavor. This is why it’s used to make malt whiskey. The amount used in grain whiskey varies and can be minimal, which will obviously affect the level of these flavors present.
Unmalted barley enhances the qualities of the grain the whiskey is made from. It also has light, sharp, sour and fruity notes.
Corn is also very sweet. It has a syrupy taste, with white sugar, cotton candy, vanilla and maple syrup. In the US which produces a lot of whiskey made from corn but has no legal minimum aging period, you can really taste the corn if the whiskey has spent little time in the barrel.
I’m sure you can easily guess which is America’s most abundant grain.
Rye makes a whiskey more spicy with pepper and cinnamon flavors. The more rye the spicier the whiskey will be. It imparts a dryness in the mouthfeel and can enhance clove and nutmeg flavors from the barrel.
This will make a whiskey that tastes of wheat bread and honey. It can introduce a gentleness to the whiskey making it smooth and enhance flavors from the other grains and the barrel.
Grain Whiskeys Alone and as the Bulk of Whiskey in Blends
In the past grain whiskeys were not something you would see bottled and sold. They were and perhaps still are primarily used to create blended whiskeys, although this is changing.
The reason for this is that grain whiskey is quicker and cheaper to make than malt whiskey and has less flavor.
Malt whiskey is distilled in pot stills, so it’s produced in batches. This means it’s less scalable than grain whiskey but being distilled only two or three times it retains its flavor. Grain whiskey on the other hand, is usually distilled on an industrial scale in continuous column stills sometimes even 20 times. This means that the resultant spirit will have a higher percentage of alcohol by volume but, with more congeners removed it will have less flavor.
This means that grain whiskey will have a lower price but also a more accessible flavor profile than malt whiskey which has a very strong flavor that not everyone one likes. Being light-bodied with a delicate, sweet and fruity taste, grain whiskeys have a wider appeal.
That’s why they’re usually not bottled by themselves but are blended with malt whiskey. The lightness and more neutral flavor of the grain whiskey smooths out the harsher characteristics of the single malt. The grain whiskey gives more body to blends and lowers their price, while the malt provides the more complex flavors.
The ratio of grain whiskey to malt whiskey in a blend varies from bottle to bottle. Typically, you’ll find 70% grain whiskey and 30% malt whiskey, but it could be more – either way. The price maybe a good indication of how much malt whiskey a blend contains.
Despite all this, in recent years more and more high-quality single grain and blended grain whiskey is being produced. A 50-year-old bottle of single grain whiskey may not be as expensive as a single malt of the same age, but it could be just as delicious.
Grain Whiskey vs Malt Whiskey
Malt whiskeys have the reputation of being the best whiskeys in the world. This impression may come from the fact that as mentioned, grain whiskeys are quicker and cheaper to produce and have less flavor. This is especially true if they’re made to be blended. Since they’re not needed for their own flavor per se but to be part of a blend and balance multiple, diverse flavors, they’re not aged for as long as malt whiskeys.
But many people like grain and blended whiskeys as much or more than malt whiskeys. The proof is that blended whiskeys comprise 90% of whiskey sold.
However, the reputation of single malt whiskey does have some legitimacy. Single malt whiskeys are made to achieve the very distinctive flavors and characteristics that exemplify a particular distillery’s style. They are aged for longer so they will have more of that unique and distinct flavor.
So whereas single grain whiskeys have a lighter flavor and blended whiskeys have more diverse flavors, single malts have more of a given flavor. Each have their place of course, but we can see why single malts are special.
So what is grain whiskey? It’s whiskey that’s made from any grain or grains other than malted barley – and in compliance with other whiskey making laws. While there are plenty of high-quality single grain whiskeys and blended grain whiskeys, many grain whiskeys are used as the bulk of a blend.
And while malt whiskey may have more of a given flavor, the lighter bodied grain whiskeys that make up the bulk of blended whiskeys make them more diverse and give them a more accessible flavor. This is not just in theory. The above mentioned 90%-of-whiskeys-sold-are-blends statistic means it’s true in practice too.