spirit categories

Scotch Whiskies:
Blended whiskies
Grain whiskies <
Single malts
Bastard malts
Vatted malts
World Whiskies:
Other Beverages:
Gin & Jenever

Port Dundas 20yo grain whisky

Because grain whisky is the main ingredient of blended whisky, the vast majority of
the (Scotch) whisky that is consumed all around the world these days is grain whisky.
With every glass of blended whisky, you're drinking a mixture of little malt whisky and
a LOT of grain whisky. So-called 'single grain whisky' really is a small 'niche market'.
After malt whisky was (allegedly) invented in Scotland or Ireland, for a few centuries
copper pot stills were used exclusively for its production. However, that changed after
Aeneas Coffey or Robert Stein invented another type of still in the early 19th century.
The column still (a.k.a patent still or Coffey still) could run continuously and didn't
rely on expensive malted barley. That meant that, from then on, the producers
could use corn and other cheaper grains to produce alcohol. What's more, they
were able to vastly increase production and deliver to new 'whisky' markets.


You've probably drank more grain whisky than you realise...

Blended whisky brands
brands of blended whisky

Cameron Brig
North British
Port Dundas

Interestingly enough, it wasn't until the
early 20th century that a law was passed
which allowed grain whisky to be called
whisky at all. After all, one could argue that
the 'ingredients' and production process
actually have more similarities with vodka
than they do with malt whisky. But whisky
production is a business, so eventually
business sense became common sense...

These days, the discussion about the whisky-ness of the liquid we now call grain whisky
is largely forgotten. And to be fair, some older grain whiskies can be quite spectacular.
But then again, if you distilled smegma and matured it in a good cask for a few decades
it might smell and taste great as well... I'm not sure if anybody actually took the trouble
to experiment with that - but I DO know that most of the grain whisky that's used for
blended whisky has been matured not a day longer than absolutely necessary - and
that most producers use the cheapest casks they can get away with these days.


The more things change, the more they become the same...

The distilleries where the whisky is produced are quite different though...
Grain whisky distilleries resemble big factories and are located primarily in the Lowlands of Scotland. They were never as numerous as malt whisky distilleries, because it's always been easy to scale up the production. Unlike the malt whisky distilleries that still work in a 'batch process' with their pot stills, it's not always necessary to build another grain distillery (or add more stills) if you want to increase production of grain whisky.

As the diagram at the left shows, column stills are very different from the pear-shaped pot stills that are used to make malt whisky. These column stills use a continuous distillation process to turn a mash of cereals into alcohol. This mash always includes a little malted barley, but it is composed mostly of unmalted cereals like corn and/or wheat. As I pointed out, these cereals are considerably cheaper than malted barley, so that makes sense.

So, the production process for grain whisky is very different from that of malt whisky.
Nevertheless, the 'styles' of these drinks are rather similar, especially if they have been matured for a longer period of time. I imagine that's mostly because both have been matured in oak casks under similar conditions. Some older cognacs and rums (made from grapes and sugar cane respectively) show some similarities with whisky as well, and those drinks are matured in oak casks as well. Furthermore, as the whisky industry has grown ever more 'concentrated' in a few large companies over the past century, employees have worked on both grain and malt whisky - and experience was shared between them.

Blended and vatted whisky brands


The Scotch whisky industry
makes a big deal about the
strict rules that apply to Scotch
whisky. However, like in many
other industries, some of the
producers are very creative
when it comes to minimising
their production costs in order
to maximise their profits.
In a way, the introduction of
grain whisky in the 19th century
may have been one of the first
examples of the whisky industry
trying to pull the wool over the
eyes of their customers without
breaking any laws. Grain whisky
uses a very different production
process than malt whisky - and
the ingredients are different too.
In fact, the debate about whether
or not grain whisky was allowed
to be called whisky at all lasted
until the early 20th century.
Another example is the use of
'oak' casks - a legal requirement
for any whisky that wants to call
itself Scotch whisky. So, most
customers assume that all casks
that are used for the maturation
of Scotch whisky are made out
of wood from the well known
'Quercus' trees like Quercus alba
(white American oak) or Quercus
robur (European oak). However,
lumber traders use a much wider
definition of oak than biologists.
That means that casks of wood
like chestnut or walnut may have
been used as well.
Of course, all that really matters
is the quality of the end result.
Nevertheless, it's helpful to keep
in mind that some producers,
marketeers and PR people don't
have to lie if all they have to do
is rely on half truths and faulty
assumptions from customers.

Alloa Grain 40yo 1964/2004 (42,3%, Jack Wiebers WW Old Train Line, 114 Btl.)
Nose: Rich & velvety. AGED! Sweet. A truly fabulous nose. Vanilla. Roasted peanuts.
Milk powder. Salted butter (?!?). This one is incredibly complex - but hey, it's a 40yo!
Taste: Passion fruit. Coconut. Perfumy - like hyacinth or lavender. Loses some points here.
Score: 85 points - but based on the amazing nose it might have reached the 90's.
Another example of just how great a grain whisky can be...
Cameronbridge 1979/2005 (59.9%, Duncan Taylor, DTC-5/013, Bottled 8/3/05)
Nose: Smells like a very old, light rum at first. Molasses and coconut. Lovely sweetness.
A beautiful profile. Not a lot of complexity or development, though. Hint of smoke? Thai food?
Ten drops of water brought a nuttier side to the foreground. Then some faint otiental spices.
Taste: Very sweet start, followed by a beautiful bold and fruity centre. Liquorice all sorts.
It drops down for just a moment after +/- 15 seconds but makes a short comeback again.
Score: 84 points - recommendable, but not as well composed as some old DT Invergordons.
Cameron Brig NAS (40%, 'Specially Selected Choice Old Scotch Whisky', Bottled +/- 2000)
Nose: Restrained and pretty flat. Sweetish, malty and grainy. Dish soap. Very MOTR.
Taste: Surprisingly sweet and fruity at first. Strong centre. Not bad at all, it seems.
It starts off remarkably pleasant, but drops off quickly. Shallow, superficial finish.
Score: 39 points - It loses points in the finish. It lasts for quite a while but leaves your tongue numb.
Carsebridge 25yo 1979/2005 (56.4%, Ducan Taylor, Cask #32901, 154 Bottles)
Nose: An odd one. Smells like rum. Furniture polish? Sweet. Old coffee? Major improvement over time.
During a second try it started like an old rum again. Sweet. Hot. Very pleasant, opening quickly.
Taste: Soft start, quickly sweetening out. Very smooth - like an Irish whiskey. Lovely mouth feel.
Sweet and smooth on the palate. Big, bourbony centre. Not really my 'type' but very good!
Score: 86 points - although I have to admit this one was hard to score at this point.
Carsebridge 29yo 1979/2008 (56%, Duncan Taylor Rare Auld, C#33032, 175 Bts.)
Nose: Fragrant, but fairly MOTR. More grainy notes over time, sweetening out.
After a lot of breathing the nose had grown sweeter, heavier and altogether more complex.
Taste: Clearly a grain whisky but frankly too bitter for my tastes. Smooth but simple.
Score: 78 points - the harsh, bourbony finish keeps the score in the seventies for me.
Girvan 1989/2004 (60.4%, James McArthur, C# 110636)
(This a grain whisky was distilled at the same distillery that produces the 'Blackbarrel' grain whisky.) 
(This distillery also housed the 'Ladyburn' malt distillery within its walls between 1968 and 1975).
Nose: Herbal, spirity and sweet. Easy on the nose, although it's a little too 'green' for me.
Taste: Not too bad on the palate, but it doesn't have a lot of personality.
Score: 74 points - and that may even be a tad on the generous side...

Girvan 1993/2007 (46%, Jean Boyer 'One Shot', single cask)
Nose: Paint thinner. Light and sparkly, mellowing out. Little complexity. Very faint tobacco?
Opens up a little after half a minute with light fruits. I have to admit this has more character than I expected.
Taste: Smooth start and centre. Bitter centre. Grows grittier towards the dry finish.
Score: 73 points - which isn't a bad score at all for a grain whisky that's still in its teens.

Invergordon 40yo 1964/2005 (48.1%, Dewar Rattray, C#57633, 105 Bts.)
Nose: Starts with sweetness and an acetone attack. Faint tropical fruits. Not a lot of development.
Taste: Chewing gum balls. Hot centre. Strong tannins. Dry, tannic, medium long finish. A tad bitter.
It has an incredibly peppery twist at the end of the finish - like the Absolut Pepper Vodka of the 1980's.
Score: 74 points - but some other malt maniacs put it in the 90's. Well, there's no accounting for poor taste I guess ;-)

Invergordon 1964/2005 (??%, Adelphi, Cask #57637)
Nose: Flat and 'blendy start. Developing sweetness. Coconut. Ah, this opens up nicely. Weird oriental spices.
Vietnamese egg rolls? Organics. Wow, lot's of development in a short period of time - blink and you'll miss it.
A lovely fresh fruit cake sweetness after a few minutes. Raspberries. Coconut? Metallic. This is brilliant!
Taste: Very, very sweet, flattening out quickly. Fruity. Actually, more like imitation fruit. Pleasant, though.
After a few minutes I got some great chewy tannins on the palate. This one makes a great comeback.
Score: 90 points - after a fairly weak start it kept on developing and improving. Quite unique; needs time.

Invergordon 38yo 1965/2004 (51.6%, Peerless, Cask #15537, 254 bottles)
Nose: Big, sweet and polished in the nose. Furniture polish in the start, flattening out. Extremely faint organics.
Glue and spices. It takes a few minutes to open up, but when it does it's extremely pleasant.
Taste: Very sweet and fruity - quite marvelous, actually. Pineapple? Rum? Coconut?
Hey, this is like a high proof version of Malibu! Quite peculiar, to tell you the truth.
I was thinking of a score in the 90's, but this hasn't quite enough 'staying power'. It has some unique features though.
Score: 89 points - the nose takes a while, but the palate is magnificent. Lovely!

North British 1978/2005 (55.1%, Duncan Taylor, DTC-5/015, Bottled 6/4/05)
Nose: Again, it reminded me a bit of an old rum - Jamaican? Smooth and sweet. Hint of dust.
Once again I like the profile, but there's little development over time to keep me interested. Nuttier after adding some water.
Taste: Sweet, soft start. A big, round sweetness fills your mouth. A tad dry in the finish.
In many malts the sweetness is a 'bonus' on top of certain specific fruity or vanilla notes.
Here the sweetness stands on its own. And it keeps standing on its own; no development.
Score: 77 points - a very decent grain whisky, but not quite as special as some other very old grain whiskies.

North British 21yo ????/2000 (57.8%, Cadenhead's Authentic Collection, Bourbon Hogshead, Bottled September 2000, 228 Bottles).
Nose: Polished with a lot of fruits. Fairly light and accessible, but it doesn't show much complexity or development.
Taste: It started out sweet on the palate - nice and chewy. Easily drinkable
The sweetness vanishes much too quickly, but makes a low profile comeback after a little while.
Score: 64 points - which isn't too impressive considering this grain whisky spent over two decades in a cask.

North British 18yo 1979/1997 (43%, Signatory Vintage, Single Grain)
Nose: Ah, sherry and furniture polish. We have some good stuff now!
Sweet and woody. The wood grows stronger - almost seems like a cognac or armagnac after some breathing.
Aaah, this opens up very nicely. Even sweeter with time. Whiff of menthol, followed by organics.
Taste: Woody with a subdued fruitiness at first. Dry. Wood remains the dominant factor.
It took me some time to really start liking it. Maybe too woody for some. Smoke perhaps?
Score: 82 points - just a tad too woody and gritty on the palate to reach the upper 80's.

North British 25yo 1964/1990 (46%, Signatory Vintage, C#10451-10454, 1300 Bts., 75cl)
Nose: Clearly grain whisky, like the Greenore - but more metallic. medicinal - not in a good way.
Sourish - something must have gone wrong here... Like an old wet dirty cloth. Well, at least it has character...
Taste: Very weird start. Metallic again. Dust. Aspirin bitterness. Yuck! This drained all my sympathy quickly.
Score: 30 points - the only reason I rank this above the Johnnie Walker Red is the (sort of) interesting nose.
One of the skeletons in Andrew Symington's closet I guess ;-)

North British 45yo 1962/2007 (59.9%, The Prestonfield, C#46556, 235 bottles)
Nose: Very smooth. Old, dark fruits - but only briefly. Turns flat after that - with perhaps a hint of rubber or glue?
Taste: Powerful yet smooth - but hard to describe. Weird sweetness. Menthol? Pinch of peat?
Interesting but not really my cup of tea. Grain whiskies often have a smooth but superficial mouth feel.
Score: 82 points - impressive for a grain whisky, but then again this whisky has had 45 years to prepare...

Port Dundas 1973/2005 (59.3%, Duncan Taylor, DTC-5/0044-45, Bottled 6/4/2005)
Nose: Wow! Just like the colour suggests, this has lots of character. Woody and sherried notes.
Coffee and roasted nuts. Organics. Not very 'specific, but a lovely profile. Not unlike a rich, dark Demarara rum.
Wait - after fifteen minutes it had grown even more complex. Lard. Sorrel. Oriental spices.
Taste: Oy... There's a hint of soap in the start. Once you get past that, it's really lovely.
Rich and sweet with a decent burn. Raspberries? Roasted coffee beans. Some nice tannins.
Score: 89 points - hightly recommendable! This one really earned a few more points with time.

Port Dundas 10yo (60.2%, Cadenhead's Authentic Collection, Bottled +/- 2000, 318 Bottles)
(The label doesn't specify a distillation or bottling date; I imagine this was bottled around 2000.)
Nose: Starts out very sharp with lots of the 'evil' side of grain - paint thinner and chemical overtones.
Harsh. Maybe a little herbal ? More citrus with time, more 'veggy' notes with water.
Taste: Starts with a quick flash of olive oil followed by chemical fruits. It drops off quickly and has a bitter finish.
It grows a little sweeter with time, until you add water. This is too harsh at cask strength, but it doesn't suffer water gladly.
Score: 40 points - which seems to prove my theory that most grain whiskies need at least two decades in a cask. 

Tasting Notes for a few grain whiskies

A few grain whiskies
Laphroaig 1974
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Grain whisky (produced in column stills)

Deviant Drams
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This 'Deviant Drams' section is a mere diversion from the main focus of the Malt Madness website: single malt (Scotch) whisky.
My knowledge of and experience with world whiskies and other alcoholic beverages is relatively limited, but I have plenty to say
about single malt Scotch whisky. For example, there's a Beginner's Guide to Single Malts with 10 pages filled with lots of useful
information for (relative) beginners and the 'Distillery Data' section has profiles for over a hundred malt whisky distilleries.
Clicking on one of the links below will take you directly to the distillery profile of that particular whisky distillery in Scotland.
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