Haig Club: Going against the grain

The Tipsy-Turvy columnist discovers there's more to Haig Club than just 'that David Beckham whisky'.

The first thing you notice about Haig Club is the fancy bottle. With its almost square shape and dark blue glass, it looks more like a bottle of expensive perfume rather than a bottle of whisky.

Then, as you scrutinise the front of the bottle further, you notice something quite unusual indeed - the words "single grain whisky".

Yes, the Haig Club is not a blended whisky nor single malt, but a single GRAIN whisky, which is relatively unknown in this part of the world. Grain whisky is used in the making of blended whiskies like Johnnie Walker, but there are very few distilleries that actually bottle their own single grain whisky.

Haig Club is a partnership with global icon David Beckham and British entrepreneur Simon Fuller. Malaysia is one of the first countries in the world to launch the whisky, along with Britain, China, Vietnam, Singapore, South Korea and the United States. Last Wednesday, Datuk Jimmy Choo hosted Beckham himself at the official launch of Haig Club at The Majestic Kuala Lumpur.

According to Haig Club's global brand ambassador Ewan Gunn, the House of Haig can trace its whisky producing roots back to the 17th century. "John Haig and his cousins, at the turn of the late 1700s, accounted for almost half the distilling in Scotland!" Gunn said during an interview before the launch.

In 1824, Haig established the Cameronbridge distillery, pioneering the art of producing grain whisky in continuous coffee and stein stills - an invention that laid the foundations for the growth and success of the modern Scotch industry. Today, Cameronbridge is Diageo's largest grain whisky distillery, with much of the production going into the company's blended whiskies. It is also one of the few grain distilleries that actually bottles its own single grain whisky, Cameron Brig.

Unlike malt whisky, which is made using only malted barley, grain whisky is made using a combination of malted barley and other cereal grains such as rye, wheat and corn. "At Cameronbridge, we only use 10 per cent malted barley and 90 per cent wheat, and no other cereal grains," said Gunn. "Most distilleries use about 10 per cent malted barley and a combination of wheat, maize or rye. In our case, it's just barley and wheat."

Like malt whisky, grain whisky also needs to adhere to Scotland's whisky regulations, meaning that it has to be matured for at least three years in an oak barrel before it can be called Scotch. A single grain whisky, like single malt, means that the whisky in the bottle comes only from a single distillery.

Haig Club was crafted by Chris Clark, one of the highest regarded blenders in the industry. "With Haig Club, he wanted something that was very approachable and accessible, but also something that a connoisseur would appreciate - something that had some depth and layers of flavour in it," said Gunn.

"We're trying to create a spirit that is quite gentle and clean, and has some green grassy sweetness to it, but also has a little bit of depth and complexity to it as well."

Clark crafted Haig Club using a unique process that combines grain whisky from three cask types. "The first cask type he focused on was fresh bourbon barrels. From that you get a lot of active maturation, a lot of flavour being imparted and a lot of interaction very, very quickly. So we get a lot of butterscotch sweetness, and interestingly, coconut and brazil nut notes," said Gunn.

"The second type of casks are refilled casks, which had held bourbon, then Scotch whisky a few times. From that, you get gentler, more subtle and slower maturation, which allows the distillery character to come out, so you still get that green grassy freshness."

The third casks are rejuvenated casks - casks that have held bourbon and scotch several times to the point that they are essentially spent and won't impart much flavour to the liquid.

"At this point, we rejuvenate them by shaving out a layer inside to expose a new layer of oak, and then re-char them. Then when we add the liquid into the barrel, we still get some of the butterscotch and vanilla notes coming through, but we also get an interesting spiciness, and some oakiness, adding another dimension to the flavour," he said.

The result is a whisky that is vastly different from the official Cameron Brig bottling. "Up to the point of distillation, it's the same spirit. But what we do with that liquid after that is what makes the difference," he said, adding that for grain whisky, the maturation process is even more important than single malts.

"With malt whisky, the spirit you make already has a lot of flavour and power in it. But with grain whisky, the spirit is delicate and light, so it can gain a huge influence from the cask. That can be good or bad, depending on how well you manage the casks.

So is it harder to make a good single grain than a single malt then? "I would say it requires more technical skill. One of the joys of single malts is that you do have those rich heavy flavours. With a single grain, you are working within much tighter parameters to achieve what you want, and if anything goes wrong even slightly, you'll be way off; whereas with a single malt, you've got a bit of flexibility," said Gunn.

According to him, the Haig Club's unique bottle design also draws on a history of innovative bottles produced by the House of Haig, including the Haig Dimple Bottle, recognisable the world over.

"The blue glass is based on the blue glassware that blenders use in their labs, which prevents them from being influenced by the colour of the liquid when they're tasting the whisky. The copper stopper is a nod to how important copper is in the process of distillation." Gunn said.

"Everything about the Haig Club, from the packaging, to the liquid, and the partnership with David Beckham, is to get people to change their quite often old fashioned views of Scotch, and get them to look at it in a new way."