Has William Grant & Sons opened a treasure trove with its new single grain Scotch expression?

Has William Grant & Sons opened a treasure trove with its new single grain Scotch expression?

There was an element of fanfare last week when William Grant & Sons unveiled what it claimed is “a break with whisky conventions”. The launch here in the UK of The Girvan Patent Still Single Grain 25 Year Old, announced on Friday (4 October) represents the company's entry into the single grain sub-category of the broader Scotch whisky sector.

Is this as big a deal as William Grant would have us believe? After all, the blended Scotch and single malt segments are both performing pretty well globally - overall Scotch export sales in the first half of this year were up by 11% in value on a 9% lift in volumes. Does single grain really warrant the level of fanfare that the company afforded it?

Blended Scotch – which is made mainly from grain whisky with malt whisky less so (you've got the value growth of single malt to thank for this) - dominates the Scotch market, with around 92% of global Scotch sales. Meanwhile, single malt offers a healthy value return: Produced in batches, historically inconsistent and expensive to make, single malt represents a growing part of the global Scotch market. 

Indeed, the craft nature of single malt distilleries, along with their highly individual product, has allowed brand owners to focus on premiumising single malt offerings. This has left significant 'white space' in the Holy Trinity of whisky (single malt, blends and single grain) previously only peopled by some independent bottling companies, who have talked about grain whisky as being something to be celebrated, and the odd proprietary bottling from grain distillery owners (Diageo has a very-entry level grain offering, Cameron Brig, which can be found mostly around its home distillery of Cameron Bridge, in the Lowland Scottish town of Glenrothes).

But, much as single grain whisky has been well-received by consumers, there are still big challenges that face this sub-category. For a start, grain whisky is often seen as an 'industrial product'; the bigger grain distilleries in Scotland have the ability to produce over 100m litres a year, each (compare that to William Grant's Glenfiddich – the world's biggest-selling single malt brand - with annual production of around 10m litres a year).

Also, the production process for single grain whisky is more complex than for single malt. Along with the perception of being 'industrial', then, and the fact that independent bottlers have been selling grain whisky at a much lower price point than single malt, the concept of launching a single grain whisky on a broader scale – and into the premium arena, to boot - is always going to be a difficult proposition.

In releasing The Girvan Patent Still 25 Year Old as a permanent expression, William Grant is making a brave, bold move into the third - and far lesser-known - segment of Scotch. This promising exercise should open up the single grain sub-category, but I can see two big challenges ahead for the company.

Firstly, how is it going to tackle the market with its ultra premium priced entry (US$400 per bottle), in an area which has historically seen low-priced, very old offerings from independent bottlers?

And, how is it going to communicate the very concept of single grain - a more complex proposition to understand than malt - to consumers beyond Scotch enthusiasts? 

To me, this looks like William Grant is tentatively dipping its toes in, rather than holding its nose and going cannonball.

However the company tackles these issues, the fact that it is the first major Scotch producer to highlight the opportunities available to single grain Scotch is something to be applauded.