Ah, David Beckham. What a fine figure of a man. And now one who’s set to join the whisky industry as the face of Haig Club single grain whisky (from Cameronbridge distillery) as well as becoming actively involved in the marketing of the brand along with his manager Simon ‘Spice Girls’ Fuller. A couple of stories here then – massive celebrity endorsement of a Scotch whisky, and the planned launch of another single grain following William Grant & Sons’ Girvan Patent Still.
You may have seen the Girvan range launch at the end of last year – it’s the first single grain from William Grant, or the first official bottling from Girvan, or the first bottling “under the emblem” of the Girvan still... or something.
This never happened.
The interesting thing about these releases is not that they’re the first distillery bottlings of single grain – indeed half of Scotland’s operating grain distilleries have released those previously (Cameronbridge have had Cameron Brig for decades, Girvan had Black Barrel and Invergordon used to have a 10 year old Whyte & Mackay bottling, and another one back in 1960s) – but that a concerted effort is actually being made to make grain whisky ‘a thing’ alongside malts and blends.
And yes, Edrington also brought us serve-from-the-freezer Snow Grouse* blended grain whisky back in 2008
Now, if you’re reading this, you’re probably well aware that there have been plenty of great independent options for some time when it comes to picking up some genuinely delicious grain whiskies. As well as celebrated ranges such as the Douglas Laing Clan Denny grains, which are often incredibly well aged, and bottlings from the likes of Berry Brothers & Rudd, we have also bottled a number of our own single casks (as old as 41 years) such as our North British 18 Year Old 1994 and a number of Boutique-y releases including a Loch Lomond and a second batch of Invergordon. One of the very best independent grains around, meanwhile, isn’t a single grain at all – I’m talking, of course, about Compass Box’s simply stunning Hedonism.
An award-winning illustration of a Coffee Still.
What William Grant and now Diageo (who own the Haig brand) are trying to achieve, however, is a level of mainstream success with grain whiskies that will also require plenty of education. These are official bottlings aimed at a wider audience than the relative few ‘in the know’. For William Grant this has taken the form of marketing their Girvan parallel to their single malts by using the distillery name (albeit with the appended “Patent Still” to try and emphasise their own unique set up) and by pricing them in line with their malts (i.e. Glenfiddich and The Balvenie).
“Grains priced alongside malts?” I hear you cry. This could either be because you remain unconvinced by the merits of grain or precisely because you’re actually a big grain fan and you’ve rather enjoyed picking up some relatively bargainous bottles over the years. Of course, there will always be those who also say that continuous stills are cheaper to operate than pot stills... And that would be because it’s a fact.
Given that blended whiskies account for around 92% of whisky sales worldwide though, and that grain whisky is a vital constituent part of these blends, perhaps it does make more sense to market a single grain whisky more like a blend in order to really break into the mainstream globally, including those all important emerging markets. You could use the name of an existing blended whisky brand that’s been around forever (an “authentic, heritage brand”), but then package it in a zany new way to throw off any ‘Scotch is an old man’s drink’ baggage. That could work. Then it would simply be a case of getting the most recognisable and affable Britishm’n in the world to advertise it. Something like that. Probably.
Something like this.
It was John Haig who founded the original distillery at Cameron Bridge, of course, installing one of Robert Stein’s (his uncle's) continuous stills back in 1828, two years before Aeneas Coffey would receive a patent for his own, more efficient version. The Haig dynasty and brand are therefore intimately linked to grain whisky production as well as the Cameronbridge distillery in particular. Brand Beckham, meanwhile, has made it front page news (something we haven’t seen since Michael Fish took on the Talisker Storm***) long before release, with the bottle looking very much like his latest fragrance. We’ve heard some positive reports about the liquid – but what whisky fans are wondering is what the mystery RRP will be. £25? £40? More?!
The Girvan Patent Still no age statement bottling, meanwhile, will carry a hefty RRP of around £75, whilst the launch edition 25 Year Old weighs in at considerably more, just under the £250 mark. Naturally, you should expect much for this price – you could get nearly 3x Glenfiddich Age of Discovery 19 Year Old, or almost exactly 2x The Balvenie 21 Year Old PortWood Finish from William Grant for the same dough. As an official bottling, they’ve been able to control production and maturation, with free choice of casks to create a final, consistent flavour profile they want – so, is this the ultimate grain whisky to end all grain whiskies?
The Girvan Patent Still Single Grain 25 Year Old Launch Edition – 42%
In a word, no. (And that's probably why I didn't get around to writing about it a few months back.)
Tasting note for The Girvan Patent Still Single Grain 25 Year Old Launch Edition
Nose: Vanilla fudge, Werther's Original, touch of lemon and lime zest. Peppercorns, banana and honey.
Palate: Pleasant mouthfeel with more some more vanilla and a little apricot.
Finish: Woody, sparkling water.
Overall: It’s a big step up from the NAS, which is much more about bubblegum/cherry lips/foam bananas/icing sugar but would I buy this with my own money? I can’t say that I would.
If you want to dip your toe into the world of grain whisky – as well as the independent options already mentioned above – why not have a look further afield. There are some great options from Ireland (see Greenore and Teeling), Japan (Nikka Coffey) and even South Africa (Bain's Cape) for a fraction of the price of the Girvan that are arguably better. Easier still, why not pick up a Grain Whisky Tasting Set for a little selection? Job done.
Looking forward, however, if grain whisky is to become an established Scotch whisky category alongside malts and blends one day, it will take the concerted efforts of those teams who have access to both the stock and the marketing clout to get it out there into the hands and the conciousness of people around the world. And signing David Beckham has never done any team any harm.
* It has a ptarmigan on it, also known as a snow grouse, a snow pigeon in the US, or – get this – a thunder bird in Japan**.
** But the Japanese is actually etymologically linked to 'Raichu', rather than than the Japanese name for Zapdos, in case you were wondering. (Looking at you Sam Smith.)
*** Okay, maybe it’s been bigger news than that.