By now you probably know of Haig Club as the brand being touted by the British soccer god David Beckham. But the Scotch whisky has more to distinguish it than simple celebrity endorsement. It is a rare member of an elusive whisky category called single grain.
Grain whisky—the spirit that is married with malt whiskies to create blended whisky—has been showing up on its own with more regularity in recent years. The single-grain variety—one that uses spirit from just one distillery—is the latest incarnation. A few other examples include Japan's Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky, Teeling Single Grain Irish Whiskey and Girvan Patent Still Single Grain Scotch Whisky No. 4 APPS. Grain whisky differs from malt in that it is made in a column, or continuous, still and contains grains other than barley. (Malts are pot-stilled and purely barley based.)
The Haig Club single-grain example has been rolling out for months, backed by "pop-up experiences" in "stylish cities" worldwide. Beckham and entertainment mogul Simon Fuller, who also managed Beckham's wife Victoria's former band the Spice Girls, have been on the stump with the events. In Miami last week, they took over 93 Palm, a former Al Capone residence, and redecorated with a new bar as well as a clubroom designed like a London gentleman's retreat. Branding even included placing the Haig Club logo on the swimming pool's floor.
Unswayed by décor and anxious to get the unadorned story, we sat down with the Haig Club global whisky master Ewan Gunn for a tasting. He said the inspiration to turn the blend component into a brand of its own came from the recognition that "we've got an amazing liquid here, we should be selling it as well." And even while the aim was to create an approachable whisky experience for the newly initiated, he pointed out that grain whisky is something that most whisky lovers have sampled as part of a blend.
With the grain (as it were) of an idea, Diageo, the spirit giant that owns Haig, approached its master blender Chris Clark. (Diageo also makes the blends Johnnie Walker, Bell's, Buchanan's and J&B). As Gunn recalled: "We said to [Chris], "We want you to create a single-grain Scotch whisky that has credibility, but also we want to have accessibility.' He said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.'"
Clark tapped Diageo's Cameronbridge distillery, in Fife, for the new product. Its heritage includes having been the birthplace of the Haig blended whiskies (e.g. Dimple and Pinch) and the first distiller to use a column still in Scotland (1830). While the master blender cleaved to one facility, he gave the whisky complexity by employing a triad of cask treatments within the blend. The first was whisky aged in first-fill Bourbon barrels from the United States. The second employed refilled Bourbon barrels (those that had been previously used for Scotch aging). The third category was rejuvenated American oak barrels, which had been disassembled, the interiors of the staves shaved, reassembled and recharred.
All of the whisky, regardless of cask treatment, used the same grain recipe (90 percent wheat and 10 percent barley). While Haig Club has no age statement, Gunn said that the casks were matured to varying lengths. Scottish law requires that whisky be aged a minimum of three years.
A big marketing thrust is that the liquid is mixable—and it certainly is that. The company has created a number of cocktails and also suggests simple drinks like Whisky & Soda and Whisky & Ginger, as well as using it in a Rob Roy (Scotch Manhattan). We sampled it several ways, including a particular favorite cocktail that is pictured above:
Haig Club Brose
1 oz. Haig Club Scotch
0.5 oz. Honey Syrup
0.25 oz. Cold Brew
0.75 oz. Brose (uncooked porridge)
0.5 oz. Zirbenz Black Walnut Liqueur
In a mixing glass, add ingredients. Stir and serve strained into a Coupe glass. Garnish with stenciled candied walnut dust.
Ultimately, however, we had to try it in a cigar context apart from the confines of a "pop-up experience."
Haig Club (80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $50 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: The color of a California Chardonnay with quick, chubby legs.
NOSE: Fruit and honey aromas with a bit of caramel, sweet cereal, coconut and nutmeg.
PALATE: Surprisingly lush despite its milder body. Also shows complexity within a lighter taste margin: vanilla, honey, butterscotch, rum, banana and a touch of spice with cedar and eucalyptus.
FINISH: Not a long finish, but reminds one of angel-food-cake icing, before drifting off on a few hints of spice.
CIGAR PAIRING: Quesada Reserva Privada (6 1/2 inches by 56 ring gauge, $14.95, 92 points, Cigar Insider August 4, 2015)
This blond corona gorda has a great draw and a wavy burn that corrects itself. Rich, creamy smoke blossoms on the palate to show orange peel and toasted almond. A bit of trepidation was the impetus behind this pairing. (We feared overshadowing the light whisky with a cigar that was too full bodied.) In this case, faint heart won out. In weight, the two components complement each other exactingly, but the marriage goes beyond mere compatibility. The whisky fills in the cigar with its lushness, making it even creamier and boosting hints of spice. Even when the toast on the Quesada was yet to fully form, it picked up silkiness from the Haig. The cigar ultimately gives back with its own rich almond notes, lending the whisky a new aspect. The Quesada takes on the slightest char, which pushes the Haig closer to a medium-bodied weight. In turn, the cigar goes to a level of almost chocolaty and nougat-like sweetness. A superb daytime pairing.