Today I’ll be reviewing a Girvan 1990 31 Years from the Thompson Brothers, but first I’d like to get a little something off my chest. No worries, I won’t take up too long of your time.
Because consumers have been conditioned to value age, I’m not surprised these seemingly affordable older grain whiskies get snapped up quickly. But they sometimes seem to lose track of the discernable differences between grain and malt whisky. You can’t just approach grain whisky as being another version of malt whisky. Both spirits are made from grains and have matured in oak, but that’s pretty much where the comparison ends.
Please don’t misunderstand: grain whisky can be very tasty. I’ve had the pleasure of tasting several older ones that I thoroughly enjoyed. And grain whisky has been (and still is) immeasurably important for the whisky industry. Without it, Scotch whisky would be in a very different place. Some might argue a better place, but certainly not in a more successful one (from an economic standpoint).
Yet, grain whisky is a very narrow spirit that’s been rectified to death. It was always intended to be part of a blended whisky, not to be drunk on its own. When it comes off the patent still, Girvan sits at 94.5% alcohol. That’s too high for any spirit that has ambitions of ever becoming truly great. It’s not vodka, because it is not entirely neutral. The grain influence is noticeable and there are still compounds for the oak to interact with. But honestly? We’re not that far off.
Just remember, grain whisky is generally not made from barley, except for a small percentage needed to kickstart fermentation. Barley has proven to be the most complex and flavoursome of all grains used for spirits. Instead, other grains like wheat or maize are often the core ingredient for grain whisky. With all due respect, but these grains are inferior to barley’s flavour potential. Plus, most of the grain whisky is matured in tired casks anyway. It needs decades to come anywhere close to the depth and complexity of much younger malt whisky.
Not surprisingly, grain whisky is generally cheaper than similarly aged malt whisky. For example, the Girvan 1990 31 Years from the Thompson Brothers costs around 110 euros. That certainly sounds like a bargain. But I bet you I could find a comparably priced malt whisky that’s just as good, if not better. Yes, even in today’s inflated market.
Age generally matters, but only when you compare like with like. And while both malt whisky and grain whisky are a category of Scottish whisky, they almost couldn’t be more different. One of my pet peeves on social media is people marvelling at the low cost of older grain whiskies, using malt whiskies as a frame of reference. I can’t really be bothered to engage in a discussion on Facebook, but just had to point this out on my own platform.
But back to the matters at hand. Indeed, an older grain whisky bottled by the Thompson Brothers. Over three decades actually, which is deserving of our respect. But, and I know this sounds snobbish, it’s not the same as a 31-year-old malt whisky.
Girvan 1990 31 Years (50.6%, Thompson Brothers, 278 bts.)
Nose: As with most grain whiskies, it’s like sniffing glue at first. Then hints of oak shavings, orange liqueur and buttery popcorn, but also a touch of sage, vanilla pods and nail varnish. Taste: Mouthfeel is surprisingly creamy. There are touches of oak spices, but also sweet popcorn, white grapes, and macadamia nuts. That’s followed by a whiff of cough drops and gentle herbs. Finish: Medium length. Some resin, as well as rum raisins and pineapple.
Good, but also quite boring. The Girvan 1990 31 Years from the Thompson Brothers is like every other grain whisky of a similar age. The flavour profile of these whiskies is so narrow. If you like it, you're in luck. Otherwise, they can be unimaginative.