Master of Malt 1991 North British 20 Year Old – Review

Thanks to Master of Malt for the sample and apologies for not reviewing this before they once again went ahead and selfishly sold all of the bottles.

I know that blended Scotch whiskies make up more than 90% of whisky sales around the globe, that fact gets beaten into our brains every time we read anything remotely whisky industry based. While that number doesn’t surprise me, I’m also pretty sure I don’t quite grasp its magnitude. So much attention is lavished on “premium” single malt Scotch that it’s easy to forget that 9 out of every 10 bottles of Scotch sold isn’t single malt. Another angle on this is just how much grain whisky is produced versus single malt. “Neutral” grain spirits, the filler, for lack of a better term, in blended whisky, can make up anywhere from 20% to 80% (in the cheap stuff) of the blend. (See Ludo’s comment below correcting me on that last bit) So when you consider that 90% of whisky sold is the blended stuff and a good percentage of the blended stuff is neutral grain spirit…well, someone other than the single malt distilleries is making a hell of a lot of booze out there.

North British is one of those someones. Located in Edinburgh, right next door to Tynecastle Stadium, home of the Hearts, this grain distillery was established in 1885 by a trio of successful blenders, John Crabbie, William Sanderson, and Andrew Usher. Today, North British churns out approximately 64 million liters of spirit a year…yeah, 64 million. By Comparison, Glenfiddich, the largest single malt distillery in terms of output, makes around 10 million liters a year…less than one sixth of North British’s output. Looked at another way, 64 million liters fills up more than 85 million 750ml bottles, and if the average 750ml bottle is about 12″ long (measurement taken from the delicious bottle of Cantele 2002 Salice Salentino Riserva I just polished off) that means lined up end to end, the distilleries output would stretch 197,683 miles…enough to circle the globe more than 7 times. By comparison, one of the smaller single malt distilleries, Islay’s Kilchoman, has a yearly output of around 300,000 liters of spirit, which when lined up in bottles reaches about 927 miles, roughly the distance between San Francisco and, well…Reliance Wyoming,  home of the Cute & Curly Pet Complex and the occasional high wind alert.

Where was I? So, yeah, these grain distilleries really crank out the hooch. In North British’s case the hooch is made solely from French-grown corn and green malt, which helps in the fermentation process. They do their own malting and use a larger percentage of green malt than other grain distilleries. This single cask expression from Master of Malt was aged in a first fill bourbon barrel which yielded 244 cask-strength bottles. As with any Master of Malt bottling, this is non chill-filtered, and has not been caramel colored. Sadly, if you go looking for it, you’ll find it’s been sold out, but don’t let that stop you from seeing out other expressions from this well-worth-a-look distillery.

The Nose:  Well, Master of Malt describes the nose as surprisingly bourbon-y, but why shouldn’t it be, the grain used here is predominantly corn and it’s aged in an ex-bourbon barrel. Hell, I’d be shocked and concerned if it wasn’t reminiscent of a bourbon! There’s a lot of vanilla-tinged sweetness here, butterscotch and caramel with soft mellow notes of toasted bread, buttered popcorn and creamy orange sherbet. Honey covered oak notes hover in the background along with some bright cinnamon, a little toasted coconut and just a hint of candied liquorice. A bit of water softens that sweetness and allows more toasted coconut and toasted bread to emerge.

The Palate:  This continues to be a fairly sweet dram. A big, slightly viscous opening wave of kettle corn and salted caramel with thick, straight-from-the-bean vanilla. The oak notes are subsumed early by sweet clove and cinnamon and a decent dollop of barrel char, but towards the end, more tannic wood notes emerge. With a bit of water, that initial burst of sweet corn and caramel is toned down, turning slightly more vegetal with some with nice semi-sweet cocoa notes coming through. The spicy oak notes are softened as well, making the palate a much more approachable one.

The Finish:  A lot of lingering sweet corn sweetness with even more drying, gingery, peppery, oak.

Thoughts:  A very different Scottish-made whisky with some very familiar flavors. The nose was very reminiscent of a wheated bourbon, but I think the use of the ex-bourbon cask instead of legally mandated new charred oak cask, let a bit more of the corn come through. There is a lot of sweetness here, at times for me it can be a little too much, but it is at least a consistent sweetness, and continues throughout the dram, giving this oak-tinged single grain an almost syrupy, velvety quality. I did enjoy this, but to be honest, it also made me long for a nice bold bourbon.

Master of Malt 1991 North British 20 Year Old, Lowland, Single Grain

55.8% ABV

Score:  84

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2 thoughts on “Master of Malt 1991 North British 20 Year Old – Review

  1. Great to read a review of a single grain whisky. So little is known about it among whisky enthusiasts. I do want to point out though that grain whisky or grain spirit (i.e. whisky which has not been matured) is not the same as grain neutral spirit – that’s vodka. It is a legal requirement for any Scotch whisky (grain or malt) not to be distilled up to neutral strength. You would just need to compare say North British with Strathclyde grain spirit for instance to realise they are far from neutral.
    Moreover, the idea that grain whisky is simply a filler is also a myth – again, replace say Invergordon with North British in any young blend and you are guaranteed to taste the difference.
    Also, a 3-year-old grain (the minimum requirement for it to be used in a Scottish blend) will have extracted a lot of flavours from the oak by the time it goes into a blend.
    Please don’t read this comment as a criticism by the way. I am delighted you are writing about single grain whisky but I needed to clarify this point for your readers.
    Keep up the great reviews,

  2. Ludo!

    Thanks for the comment and clarification on neutral grain spirits, I appreciate the expertise! Also, thanks for pointing out that the grain spirit in blends is not filler…poor choice of words on my part.

    Thanks for reading, I definitely appreciate your participation!

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