E-pistle 2009/36 – South Africa’s First Single Grain

By Joe Barry, South Africa

Distell has released South Africa’s first single grain whisky produced at the James Sedgwick distillery in Wellington which is situated on the banks of the Berg River which in turn runs in the foothills of the picturesque Bains Kloof Pass, opened in 1853 and named in honour of James Geddes Bain the creative mind behind its construction. This pass is today a national monument.

The whisky is called Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky and is of course named after the above Mr Bain. The advertising blurb states “Our Master Distiller skillfully crafts this elegant single grain whisky using Cape Mountain water that flows over 850 million year old sandstone and indigenous fynbos.” The Master Distiller is none other than Andy Watts (of Three Ships fame) and when I was interviewing him a couple of years ago he mentioned he would like one day to bring out a single grain for public release although they have been making them for many years for internal use and he is firmly of the opinion that single grains are making a long overdue comeback.

Bain’s is made from maize as the base product and is laid down in American bourbon casks and double matured, after three years the whisky is released from the cask and then revatted for another two years in first-fill casks. It is sold in a rectangular 750ml bottle at 43% abv. Above the name label is a crest depicting two leopards. These represent the Cape Mountain leopards which have roamed this area for hundreds of years and whilst the numbers of these endangered cats have been substantially reduced rare sightings are occasionally reported.

I asked Andy for some comments and he replied: “…after tasting an excellent North British SG back in the 80’s I developed an appreciation for the qualities of a good grain and I started working on the Bain’s project in 2000. Although my personal preference is towards the bold Islay’s I accept that this is an acquired taste and not to everyone’s fancy. We therefore set about something light and estery with vanilla, spice and sweet undertones and which should, theoretically, reach out to a much wider audience i.e. from drinkers wanting to try whisky for the first time through to established whisky lovers who wanted to try something new and different. The extra time, money and effort behind the maturation plan for Bain’s has also added value. I believe that the release of South Africa’s first single grain just further highlights the amazing world of whisky and it appears our Scottish counterparts agree as they are also now re-visiting their grain whiskies and giving them some of the recognition they deserve. In answer to your question regarding our other whiskies and their grains I can honestly say that we have been producing exceptional grain spirit for many years now and this along with a good wood policy has enabled our grain whiskey to replace and reduce our reliance on imported grains in our total whisky portfolio. The restricting factor then became our production capabilities and that has also now been addressed with a massive expansion project which is currently taking place at the distillery.”

My impressions of the whisky?
Biscuity, malty molasses flavor with an underlying floral sweetness that could remind one of the indigenous fynbos for which the Cape is famous. I would rate it 84, perhaps 85. I like it but then I have nothing to compare it with as I cannot find a UK single grain here.

However for me one little mystery remains. The words “single grain whisky” only appear on the top of the cap and on the leopard crest and then only in tiny print. My question to Andy was, why almost ignore the product type, why not call it openly Bain’s Cape Mountain Single Grain Whisky thereby prompting questions from and contributing to the further education of our whisky lovers very few of whom have even the faintest idea of what a single grain is or why it exists? His answer was to the effect that while he thankfully had responsibility for the important part of the process (the making!) his head office marketing gurus handled that side of things and of course that’s exactly how it happens in the corporate world.

But I for one think they missed a golden opportunity to improve the knowledge of South African whisky drinkers.
Maybe though they don’t want to, perhaps it is better marketing strategy to keep quiet rather than stir up a hornets nest.