Sunday, September 7, 2014

Four Top World Grain Whiskys Head to Head

A few weeks ago I gave a rave review to Suntory's Chita grain whisky in a blog post about the Hibiki 17 and 21 launch this fall.  I wrote: "Tasted head to head with Nikka Coffey Grain (45%) and Greenore 15 (43%) (the subject of an upcoming post) the Chita was definitely more intense and richly flavored. And while all 3 were delicious, the Chita took the grouping hands down. A really special and very tasty set of flavors."

Coffey Still at Kilbeggan - from the old B. Daly
Distillery at Tullamore. Planned to be restored.
(photo courtesy of wikipedia)
In the intervening period I had my 50th birthday (the celebration of which involved a lovely tasting of whiskies either distilled or bottled in 1964 - the subject of a future post, no doubt).  One of the bottles opened was a nice 1964 Invergordon from Scott's Selection which made it into the follow-up tasting for this formal review. It seemed right to have a Scottish grain on board.  

Grain whisky is malt whisky's less respected but more widely consumed little sister.  Much of the grain whisky produced ends up as the major component of blended Scotch whisky.  It's not often been sold by itself outside the UK until recently.  Even in the UK until recently there were only a handful of single grains widely available, such as Cameron Brig.  Some blended grains have been around in recent years, such as the Snow Grouse version of Famous Grouse.  John Glaser opened a lot of whisky enthusiast's eyes with his Compass Box Hedonism product.  Recently a number of other single grain have begun to trickle in, like the trio photographed above (granted the Invergordon is a UK bottling, others like it are available in the US, and the Chita is completely unavailable outside of Japan).  Irish grain whisky for decades meant Midleton, which sold it to Bushmills for Bush White and used it in its own blends.  Single grain Irish is a new thing.  Japan has also only recently come to selling single grain whisky - and it's apparent that they excel at it.  Bain's Cape Mountain grain whisky in South Africa is well regarded (and will be reviewed soon).  This is a major growth area recently and it's full of promise.

Unlike malt whisky the grain in grain whisky isn't sprouted (or malted) to release sugars.  It's made from a variety of grains, usually whatever is cheapest - which is usually corn.  Wheat is common too.  Grain whisky is distilled differently from malt too - in column stills which use fractional distillation to achieve much higher proof than malt whisky - or Bourbon, by the way, which shares the column still for the "beer still" phase but usually uses a pot still doubler or "thumper" for a second phase of distillation.  Like industrial alcohol plants, grain whisky distilleries can distill all the way to vodka levels in a single column, although hold back from 1-3% below vodka levels in practice to leave just enough flavor compounds to read as whisky.  Aneaas Coffey's original column was a two column affair, with linked beer and spirit columns, like the ones seen here at Kilbeggan distillery (where the Greenore grain whiskey reviewed here is produced, BTW).  David Havelin of the fascinating blog "Liquid Irish" had a lot of fascinating things to say about these stills at Kilbeggan:

"These columns came from the old B. Daly distillery in Tullamore, whose distilling assets Cooley bought. The big news is that Cooley has firm plans to get them running again.

Cooley already has a column still in Louth pumping out grain spirit. The raw material there is about 90% maize, 10% malted barley. The Kilbeggan grain spirit will be all barley, with a high percentage of malt. I assume some will be blended with Kilbeggan's pot still-produced whiskey but I'd put money on a new standalone grain whiskey to complement the existing Greenore, if the results are at all palatable.

Cooley has investigated the history of this Coffey still. Nothing is certain, but it was likely made by John Dore & Co in London in 1910. Destined for India, the still was commandeered by the British government for making fuel during World War I. Things get a little hazy at this point. The still might have spent the inter-war years in Czechoslovakia but by 1940 or 1941 it had fetched up in Tullamore.

It's not known for sure if it was used there. In fact its presence was kept rather quiet, perhaps because of the stigma attached to the use of the non-traditional Coffey still in Ireland.

It's quite a historical piece of industrial equipment because John Dore & Co is the direct successor to Aeneas Coffey's original company. John Dore worked for Coffey & Sons and took over operations in 1872. Happily, John Dore & Co is still in business and has cast its eye over the Kilbeggan stills. They found the original Indian order for the still in their records. The company will make replacements for some copper parts pilfered after Tullamore closed."

Havelin had indicated that Cooley planned to restore those stills and get them back into operation.  However, Cooley sold out to Beam.  Camper English of Alcademics visited Kilbeggan in February of 2014 and the Coffey Stills are still outside with the old giant pot stills.  So, obviously the plans to restore them have been put on hold.
Nikka puts a graphic of their old  traditional style Coffey still on the back label of their Nikka Coffey Grain whisky product's bottle which states it was imported from Scotland in 1963.

The graphic on the Nikka back label looks a lot like this old etching which appears to be from from the 19th century which appeared on  Teemu Strengell's great blog post about the history and science of fractional distillation and the development of the column still (highly recommended reading).  The post is called "History of the Column Still"   Teemu Strengell's history mentions the antecedents and the technical aspects of the column still's distillery, as well as some details about early adoption:

"The column still was much more efficient compared to the traditional pot still, producing higher proof (usually 86-95% ABV) spirit about ten times more in volume compared to medium sized pot still distillery. Since the malting, heating and maintenance costs were a fraction of those of a malt distillery, the column still grain spirit cost about 50-70% less compared to pot still malt whisky, even if the set-up costs were included. The northern Britons were not used to the light column still whisky and at the beginning large quantities were sold to rectifiers and gin distillers, who spiced the spirit and sold it as gin or imitation brandy or cognac. As shown in the figure below, the English rectifiers and distillers quickly adopted the Coffey still, but the more traditionalist Irish and Scots remained loyal to the pot still at least to some extent."

The other day Billy Abbot wrote a lovely blog post about Haig Club Single Grain Whisky on The Whisky Exchange Blog.  That interesting exercise in branding is made at Cameronbridge.  He made a number of good observations which apply to grain whisky in general.

"Grain distilleries are not the romantic, picture-postcard sites you often find in Scotland. They are very much industrial plants, and while some, myself included, may find such things beautiful, they are often not considered to be anything but factories. This is slightly unfair, as they produce a lot of whisky, and consistency of quality is of paramount importance." 
"After fermentation, the now alcoholic liquid is pumped through to the stills and distilled to 93.8%, described as ‘very low strength’ compared to the legal maximum of 94.8%. This keeps some of the grain’s flavour rather than pushing it to be a neutral spirit. The spirit itself is a lot more flavoursome than you’d expect from tales of new-make grain spirit, with a distinctive character."

The high proof output of grain whisky's column still production, rather like the triple distillation used in Irish and Lowland Scottish whisky, produces a spirit with a different character - so light and gentle that it was originally sold for gin.  This lightness is apparent in the high end products tasted below.
Chita Single Grain Whisky from Suntory
When you look up Chita Single Grain whisky on Google, one of the first hits is a fantastic guest post by a mysterious Japanese woman named Momoco on Draper Price's excellent Whiskey Detectives blog.  In the post  Momoco pays the distillery a visit (impressive, as it is not open to the public), and takes photographs of the incredibly industrial looking facility.
The Whiskey Detectives piece also offers many more photographs, tasting notes, and a discussion of the Japanese water & whisky drink mizuwari.  I'm grateful for the peek into the Sungrain Chita Distillery complex.

So, the purpose of this look was to confirm my earlier assessment that Chita is really something special.  It's also a further orientation into the nature of grain whisky with its properties of lightness, sweetness, density of mouth feel and herbal notes.

Chita Grain - 17 years old 55% abv 

This sample from the Suntory Hibiki launch - the special version only available at Yamazaki distillery tour bar - sporting extra age and higher proof.  "Chita Whisky is made by the Chita Distillery in the Sun Grain complex, a division of Suntory Brands. Located in Port Nagoya in a seaside industrial zone"

Availability only in Japan.

Color: gold

Nose: sunflower, honey, dust, vanilla, creamy custard, and some distant notes of red bean and sawn oak..

Palate:  lush sweet vanilla cream opening with creme broulle custard.  Light and elegant mouth feel.  Butter and creme broulle with some herbal aspects of sunflower and gorse.  The sweetness becomes incense-intense on expansion, waxing in buttery Scotch-malt highland flavors which open into rich malty and white oak.  The finish is moderately long and lightly herbal.  Just beautiful grain whisky - stunning and intense and as fully flavored as any grain whiskies under 30 years I've tried.

91  *****

Chita Grain 12 years old 43% 

I was able to put this head to head with a small sample (a "drample" in Suntory US West Coast brand ambassador Neyah White's parlance) received from the voluble and elegant Mr. White.  The sample was too small to formally review, but a number of comments can be made.  While the stock 43% Chita has less vivid intensity, the signature flavors of buttered popcorn, salted caramel, and creme broulle were clearly in evidence.  This stuff is just absolutely freakin' delicious.

89 *****

Nikka Coffey Grain 45% abv

"With the purchase in 1963 of its two Coffey stills, Nikka can now offer in addition to its single grain a whisky with an atypical profile: theNikka Coffey Malt, a malt whisky distilled in column stills."a non-aged single grain mainly composed of corn and distilled with two "Coffey stills" transferred in 1999 from Nishinomiya to Miyagikyo."

Color - slightly richer darker gold
Nose:  gently sweet, honeyed with a bit of creaminess and vanilla floral but also slightly herbal with a hint of nettles and distant mint.  
Palate: light and gentle with honey and pale malt, creamy vanilla bean custard sauce on the opening.  Darker caramel flavors come in with rich oak and honey cakes on the expansion.  A moderately long finish with oak and lingering caramel sweetness growing increasingly herbal as it tails off.  Air turns it more mellow and custardy.  There's some oil on the mouth feel.  Lovely, beautiful, tasty stuff.

87  ****

Greenore 15 Year Old Single Grain 43% abv.

Greenore is Cooley/Beam's single grain whiskey brand.  The standard expression is an 8 year old.  I tried that at an Astoria Whiskey Society tasting and felt it was a little light for my tastes.  I chose the limited edition 15 year old version when I came across it at Shopper's Vineyard because I figured it would have more intense flavors.  It does to a small extent.

Grain used: corn
Color - slightly paler yellow gold
Nose: gentle floral honey, slight whisps of modeling clay, distant dried flowers.  Soft, elegant, sweet and lightly floral.  
Palate: Sweet and floral on the opening with vanilla, herbal cut flowers, a gentle phenolic quality that is hard to pin down.  A faint vinyl bandaid note.   The mouth feel is unexpectedly firm and oily up front.  The expansion brings in honey cakes and some lumberyard oak.  There is squeaky tannin in the mouth feel towards the finish which is lingeringly sweet and in the end whisper soft and gentle with plenty of spicy oak tannins and that phenolic quality riding to the finish.  With air a beguiling sweetness emerges and some lovely minty notes.  As it progresses through the leisurely dram it becomes downright delicious.

86 ****

Invergordon Scott's Selection 1964-2012 (48 yo) 42.3% natural cask strength. 

Invergordon is a modern industrial alcohol production facility in the far northern Scottish Highlands.  Built in 1960, it is now owned by White and Mackay.  A smaller column still there produces grain whisky for White and Mackay's blends and, apparently, some barrels make it out to independent bottlers like Scott's.

Color:  light amber.
Nose:  cream caramel, old books, dried black figs, dried pressed flowers, an old cabinet drawer
Palate: lightly sweet on entry with treacle and rapeseed oil and caramel corn flavors.  The mouth feel is thin and light.  The expansion brings some dilute old sherry and some far off herbal bitters.  At the turn there are are some squeaky tannin on the palate, but surprisingly little oak flavor.  This must have been a tired refill sherry butt, or was managed through one.  Water does very little for or against this one.  Perfectly pleasant sipping, but a bit tired and faded compared to my expectations.  However in head to head tasting, the darker sherry flavors bring a depth and richness to this grain whiskey which stand up well.  It might not be outstanding compared to other hyper-mature grains I've had recently, but it doesn't suffer the comparison here at all.

87 ****

As an aside, and to defend Scottish honor, let me share an informal tasting that Malt Maniac Peter Silver did with me a little while back.  He had a small sample shared with him by Krishna Nukala at a recent visit.

Girvan 1964-2012 The Whisky Agency 49.5% 

487 bottles from a sherry butt. 

Color: dark amber
Nose: rich sherry and oak with some vegetal (artichoke) notes.
Palate:  rich sherry, fig, black raisin, and rancio.  Delicato cornflower sweetness on opening.  Oak comes on strong on the turn.  Tannins and spice on the finish - but an astonishingly lack of oakiness for the age (rather like the Invergordon).  
(not scored - but clearly in the 90s).  This shows that mature Scottish grain whiskies can be utterly exquisite.  

The Girvan 45 yo 1965 The Clan Denny (Douglas Liang) 47.3% I tasted back in August 2012 was also absolutely stunning and memorable (hmmm... Girvan, perhaps).  The point is that Scottish grain can operate at the highest levels with the right bottling.


On the topic of my earlier infatuation with Chita, my scores speak eloquently of how much I enjoy Chita's grain whisky, even in the face of still competition.  It's my sincere hope that Suntory will choose to produce some for the US market some day.  It took the field in this tasting.  It's also a confirmation that the simple presence of "grain whisky" isn't what makes a blended whisky good or bad or better than a single malt or not.  It's the quality of that grain whisky.   Single grain whiskies clearly have a different flavor signature from malt whiskies (or other column distilled grain whiskies like Bourbon).  Light, sweet, delicate while sometimes dense and oily, with herbal notes and surprising aspects.  They take aging well.  Definitely an area worth further exploration.

This is the diagram of a Coffey still that everyone uses...


  1. Nice article Josh! I too have occasionally sought out various grain whiskies and just recently received the Bain's from South Africa to try which I look forward to trying soon. In addition to the 8 and 15yo Greenore I have been fortunate enough to acquire the rare 18yo Greenore which I enjoy even more than the 15 (and I agree the 8yo does tend to be rather light). I will have to add the Chita to my growing list of white whales!

    1. Ooooh - Greenore 18. I'll be on the lookout for that. I wasn't aware it existed. I'm looking forward to cracking my sample of Bain's. Chita gave me a lot of hope for the segment.

  2. In an interesting bit of coincidence, Serge reviewed several (somewhat) younger Invergordons today, and he, too, was underwhelmed in comparison to other grain distilleries. I wonder if there's something about their distilling process that leaves less flavor compounds or if they use worn-out casks more frequently.

    1. I just read that! Quite a coincidence. I need more experience with Scottish grains before I can make any generalization, but Invergordon is the only real disappointment for me so far. That says something.

    2. Oh - and Serge said something else on point: there are oceans of that grain stuff up there, and less and less malt. We better learn to find grains we like! Didn't like the sound of that - but there's sense to it too. The value equation is quite different between malt and grain.

  3. p.s. Thanks for the (again) very informative post!

  4. Fascinating post! Glad you found some information from the WD post useful. That's why we enjoy putting stuff out there, so we can all become better informed. I'd forgotten about Greenore, being a pretty big Irish fan, I'll have to consider that for a future purchase. Grain whisky can hopefully shed it's stigma with some after posts like these.

  5. Do you know what grains Chita uses specifically? I'm Interested in finding more information about the hibiki products.

    1. I don't know Chita's specific mash bill. I've just asked Gardner Dunn - a brand ambassador for Suntory.