So, Scotch grain whisky starts out with sub-standard ingredients before being distilled
in sub-standard equipment. But good wood and enough time could still save it, right?
Most grain whisky is used at a relatively tender age for blending. That means that, even if the fresh spirit ended
up in a spectacular cask, the odds are simply against it ever achieving its full potential greatness.
Yes, sometimes - but the odds are quite slim.
Most of the good casks arriving in Scotland are reserved for malt whisky.
Not many grain whiskies receive a shot at greatness. Even though many
elements of grain whisky production have been greatly modernised, there’s
still an element of chance to the ‘traditional’ maturation process in oak.
The remaining grain whisky distilleries in Scotland resemble huge factories and
are located primarily in the Lowlands. Their stills are modern versions of the so-called
‘Coffey Still’. This type of column still was invented not long after the more primitive
type invented by Robert Stein. This ‘continuous’ still consisted of a series of pot stills,
so this equipment probably produced a purer spirit than the modern Coffey stills.
Last but not least, grain whisky is usually distilled (and stored) at a higher proof.
One of the reasons for the purity of malt whisky is the fact that the spirit comes into
contact with the copper of the pot stills. The magic of chemistry imbues the copper with
cleansing properties. A standard column still doesn’t expose the spirit to much copper,
so more impurities remain in the whisky. That’s also the reason why you are less likely
to suffer from a hangover after you’ve enjoyed a few malt whiskies too many.
Scotch grain whisky distilleries use a continuous distillation process - as opposed
to the batch process used for Scotch malt whiskies. Using this technology makes it
much easier to scale up production quickly when the demand for whisky grows.
A grain whisky or blended whisky will always contain mostly inferior unmalted grain cereals.
Because other grains are considerably cheaper than malted barley, it makes economic
sense to use those grains instead. The average blended whisky drinker is not known for
his (or her) refined palate, so it’s more important to be able to produce whisky cheaply
than to use the finest ingredients for that whisky.
The mash of cereals for every whisky
always includes SOME malted barley,
but most of the mash is composed of
unmalted cereals. Only Scotch malt
whisky is made exclusively from 100%
malted barley (and yeast and water).
First of all, there are the ingredients of the whisky.
Instead of the malted barley that is used for malt whiskies,
grain whisky distillers can use any cereal grain they like.
Cereal grains are (for example) maize, wheat, buckwheat,
rye, oats and millet - as well as rice, sorghum and quinoa. .
So, if you do actually find a great, old and mature grain whisky you’re experiencing a rare treat indeed.
Your chances of finding a good malt whisky are much better - and the younger ones are still more affordable...
A few casks that may have seemed mediocre at the time of filling first can
still surprise us and have a magical effect on the whisky over the years.
You can find more information about the 6 remaining active grain whisky distilleries in the profiles
for Cameronbridge (Diageo), Girvan (W. Grant & Sons), Invergordon (Whyte & Mackay), North British
(owned by Diageo / the Edrington Group), Starlaw (La Martiniquaise) and Strathclyde (Pernod Ricard).
This page focuses on the history of Scotch grain whisky and the distilleries that were closed recently.
If you are able to afford very old blends there’s a chance you’ve ingested grain whisky from:
With only six remaining active grain whisky distilleries and seven closed since 1980, this means
that more than half of all Scotch grain whisky distilleries were closed within the last half century.
That puts the +/- 25% loss of malt whisky distilleries during the 1980s in perspective. And these
figures only take the number of distilleries into account - not the volume of ‘whisky’ produced.
UDV closed the Caledonian distillery near Edinburgh in 1987.
The Cambus distillery was also owned by UDV who closed it in 1993.
One of the first distilleries to fall in the 1980s was Carsebridge near Deanston.
Dumbarton was a relatively young grain whisky distillery, founded in 1938.
Inver house founded Moffat / Garnheath in 1965 - and closed it again in 1985.
When Diageo closed Port Dundas in 2009, a legacy that started in 1845 ended.
Strathmore (a.k.a. North of Scotland) was active between 1957 and 1980.
The Caledonian grain whisky distillery was founded by Graham Menzies & Co. in 1855 as ‘Edinburgh’.
In 1884 the Menzies company merged with DCL. Even though Caledonian operated with just one Coffey still,
it was Scotland’s largest whisky distillery for a few years. The distillery was located west of Edinburgh, north of
Edrington's... eh... North British distillery which is located a little to the south. Both of these distilleries could be
found in the Lowlands on the imaginary line between Glenkinchie and Saint Magdalene.
Caledonian was closed by UDV in 1988. The buildings were demolished in 1998.
The Cambus distillery (a.k.a. Tullibody) was founded
near Stirling in 1836 by John Mowbray. There had
already been malt whisky distillation at that location
since 1806, but the owner decided to convert the
equipment into a grain whisky distillery in 1836.
The Carsebridge grain whisky distillery was also located in the vicinity of the Deanston malt whisky distillery.
Like many others, Carsebridge started life as a malt whisky distillery. Supposedly, it was founded in either 1799 or
1804 by one John Bald. Around 1852 the pot still was converted into a patent still and in 1877 or 1878 the distillery
became part of DCL. The single grain whisky from Carsebridge is said to have been of a very high quality.
The Carsebridge distillery was closed in 1983 and its buildings were demolished in the 1990's.
There have actually been two distilleries with the name Dumbarton - both located in the town of Dumbarton.
The village lies on the confluence of the River Leven and the Clyde, west from Glasgow. One of the two distilleries
was a long gone malt whisky distillery in the Lowlands that was founded in 1817 - before the Excise Act was passed.
The grain whisky distillery we’re interested in here was the other one. This ‘Dumbarton’ distillery was opened quite
recently (in 1938) by the famous whisky entrepreneur Hiram Walker.
The Moffat grain whisky distillery was part of the Moffat complex in Airdrie, East of Glasgow.
Built as recently as 1965, Moffat was home to the stills that produced the "Gairnheath" single grain whisky.
I've had the pleasure of sampling a magnificent specimen of that whisky from Olivier Humbrecht's cellars - his father
had a connection to the distillery. Within the Moffat complex two brands of malt whisky were produced as well; the
Glen Flagler and Killyloch malt whiskies. Bottlings as single malt whisky have been very rare.
All ‘distilleries’ in the complex were closed by the end of 1985.
Port Dundas is one of the oldest distilleries on this list - they started making grain whisky in 1845.
Well, ONE Port Dundas distillery did - there actually have been two distilleries by that name in Glasgow.
The most recent one installed Coffey stills in 1845, but pot stills were used as well until Port Dundas was included
in DCL in 1877. At the time, the distillery used 5 pot stills and 3 Coffey stills. There was a big fire in 1903 and the
ownership changed a few times before Diageo decided to close the Port Dundas distillery in 2009 (or 2010).
Just like two other grain whisky distilleries, Cambus
was located not far from the Deanston malt whisky
distillery in the Midlands region of Scotland.
By the end of the 20th century Cambus was owned
by UDV, who decided to close the facility in 1993
(after closing Caledonian just five years earlier).
There were several ‘whisky booms’ in the 19th century.
The one that spawned the Cambus grain distillery was
driven by the invention of the Coffey still.
The Strathmore distillery was active between 1957 and 1980 - amongst many malt whisky distilleries in the area.
It was founded by George Christie on a site that used to be a brewery, not far away from Cambus. They used the
name 'North of Scotland' for their grain whisky. There have been some experiments with the production of malt
whisky at the site, but to no avail. Strathmore was closed in 1980 and the buildings were demolished in 1993.
Those were the recently closed grain whisky distilleries.
You may have noticed that some distilleries switched from
malt whisky distillation to grain whisky distillation in the
19th century. Some distilleries even distilled two types of
whisky at the same time. This continued in the 20th century.
I already mentioned Loch Lomond as an exception, with
both pot stills and column stills operating. The Ben Nevis
distillery had a similar set-up. At one point they even had
a ‘single blend’ in their portfolio, containing both malt
whisky and grain whisky from the Ben Nevis distillery.
This practice has become rare in the 21st century.
However, that changed when Aeneas Coffey or Robert Stein
invented an entirely different type of still in the middle of the
nineteenth century; the patent still - a.k.a. the Coffey still.
A Scotch grain whisky distillery can legally use any grain it
wants (like maize, rye, wheat, etc.) to produce grain whisky.
During the first few centuries since the (alleged) invention of
aqua vitae in Scotland or Ireland, all whisky was made from
malted barley - and in traditional copper pot stills.
- Cameronbridge (the oldest & largest grain whisky distillery)
- Girvan (a grain distillery built in 1963 by W. Grant & Sons)
- Invergordon (this distillery belongs to Whyte & Mackay)
- North British (the second largest Scotch grain distillery)
- Starlaw (opened in 2010 and owned by La Martiniquaise)
- Strathclyde (owned by the Pernod Ricard conglomerate)
After the closure of Port Dundas in 2010, there are just six
active grain whisky distilleries left in Scotland. Don’t let that
low number fool you though - these six produce more Scotch
‘whisky’ than the +/- 100 malt whisky distilleries combined;
Some would argue that Loch Lomond is (partly) a grain whisky distillery as well...
Apart from the active distilleries listed above, there are ‘silent’ grain whisky distilleries too, including Caledonian,
Cambus, Carsebridge, Dumbarton, Moffat / Garnheath, Port Dundas (closed in 2009) and Strathmore.