What is Grain Spirit, and Cutting Through the BS February 19 2013
When you tell people you're starting a distillery, they logically ask "what'll you be making?". Our answer is grain spirits (plural), which usually leads to the next question, "what are grain spirits"? The Canadian government defines "grain spirit" as:
an alcoholic distillate, obtained from a mash of cereal grain or cereal grain products saccharified by the diastase of malt or by other enzymes and fermented by the action of yeast or a mixture of yeast and other micro-organisms, and from which all or nearly all of the naturally occurring substances other than alcohol and water have been removed; B.02.002, Food and Drug Regulations (C.R.C., c. 870)
In layman's terms, grain spirit is whisky fresh off the still, before it's been aged in a barrel. Some people call that moonshine, but moonshine usually also means non-tax-paid liquor distilled without a licence.
Many in the whisky establishment will scoff at the notion that anything fresh off the still should ever be referred to as whisky, but they're wrong. Under Canadian law, "whisky" is defined the same as grain spirit, but also allows for "flavouring" (kind of alarming) [see B.02.10]. U.S. law also has no ageing requirement for whisky - it just has to touch wood. "Canadian Whisky", however, is defined separately from core "whisky", with the added requirement that the spirit be aged in "small wood" (barrels) for three years.
But definitions like these aren't especially helpful to consumers, as they do nothing to guide taste. As the late genius Richard Feynman explained:
You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing — that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
-"What is Science?", presented at the fifteenth annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association, in New York City (1966) published in The Physics Teacher Vol. 7, issue 6 (1969)
This couldn't be more apt in the world of whisky. The government says Canadian Whisky is grain spirit aged in "small wood" for 3 years. Great, that tells us almost nothing. It's perpetuated the myth that Canadian Whisky is always distilled from rye, even though that's never been the case. Also, were the barrels new, or had they already been used for wine, bourbon, or something else? Were they 5 gallon or 55 gallon barrels (big difference in surface contact with wood) or something in between? Saying "I like Canadian Whisky" is sort of meaningless, given that Canadian Whisky can taste like almost anything. Likewise with "grain spirit", which can be distilled from corn, rye, wheat, barley, and others which will have very different tastes.
The type of grain used (or combo of grains, known as the "mash bill") is the single most important factor in determining what whisky will taste like. This shouldn't be too surprising; ingredients tend to matter.
So, in the name of science and consumer education, we're going to be spending most of 2013 distilling and bottling un-aged whisky from different types of Ontario grain. We're going to first release spirit distilled from a single batch of Ontario wheat grain, followed by oat, rye, and others. Customers will know exactly what they're drinking, and can make their own determinations of what grains they like. After releasing single-grain spirits, we'll start to mix it up and figure out recipes we and our fans can all get behind. Here's to fun and learning!