What Is Single Malt Whiskey?

What's the Difference Between Single Malt and Blended Whiskey?

Whisky in city abstract background

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The term "single malt whiskey" refers to a whiskey that is produced by a single distillery using a single malted grain, which is typically barley. Single malts are most famous among Scotch whisky, though they can be produced anywhere in the world. Ireland, Japan, America, Canada, and other countries produce great single malts as well. People in India, the U.S., France, Germany, Spain, and Singapore drink the most scotch, and whiskey in general. Within that, there's a global increase in single malt sales, so it's becoming even more popular.

Single Malt vs. Blended Whiskey

Technically, single malt whiskey is a blend of malt whiskeys produced at one distillery. That doesn't mean that it's the same as a blended whiskey, whether it be scotch or any other style. For instance, blended Scotch whisky, such as Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal, is made from malted barley whiskeys and grain whiskeys. Quite often, the whiskeys come from multiple distilleries. There is also "blended malt whiskey." This is a blend of malted whiskeys produced at various distilleries. Unlike blended scotch, it does not include any grain whiskeys.

While scotch is the most apparent example, the same distinction between single malt and blended whiskey applies anywhere in the world. The biggest factor is how many distilleries played a role in making the whiskey.

To further add to the confusion, you will also find "single-grain whiskey." These can be made from more than one grain, including barley, corn, or wheat. The word "single" refers, once again, to the distillery, because all of the whiskey will have been made at one location.

Fast Facts

  • Ingredients: Malted barley or other grains
  • Proof: 80–130
  • ABV: 40–65%
  • Calories in a shot: 64–80
  • Origin: Scotland, Ireland, Japan, U.S.
  • Taste: Smooth, oaky, roasted grain
  • Aged: 5 years or more
  • Serve: Straight, on the rocks, high-end cocktails

What Is Single Malt Whiskey Made From?

The word "single" is the most confusing part of single malt whiskey. It does not mean that the whiskey came from a single barrel or even a single batch. Instead, these are typically blends of various barrel-aged whiskeys; many whiskeys in the world, no matter the style, are blended in some way.

The fact that single malt scotch is almost always a blend is quite surprising to most drinkers. For instance, The Glenlivet 18-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch is a mix of various whiskeys that have been aged in different barrels for at least 18 years. All of these were distilled from malted barley and made at The Glenlivet Distillery, though some are aged longer than 18 years.

This blending is how the master distillers are able to produce a consistent taste in their whiskey year after year. If you taste one of the distillery's flagship expressions this year, it should be nearly identical to what you tasted five years ago. On the other hand, if the distillery relied on a single barrel or batch, the whiskey's profile would change constantly and ultimately leave consumers guessing or disappointed. That's not a bad thing, though the single barrel or batch is typically reserved for the special collections and limited edition releases that many distilleries offer.

The word "malt" on a whiskey label completes the definition of single malt whiskey. Malted whiskey actually begins its life in the same way as most beer. The raw barley grains are malted by soaking them in water to start the germination process, then heat is applied to stop the grain from sprouting completely. This makes them susceptible to the fermentation process during which yeast is introduced. At the basic level, beer and whiskey differ in that whiskey is distilled to concentrate the fermented "beer." This produces a beverage with higher alcohol content.

The one thing that continues to make scotch single malts stand out is the use of peated malt, which is also used in blended scotch. Peat gives scotch that signature smoky profile. Very few of the other single malts produced in the world use peat, opting for kiln-dried or roasted malt instead. Unmalted barley can also be used in whiskey production, but that grain will not be used in a single malt whiskey. 

Single malt whiskeys are bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 80 proof) or higher. Most are under 100 proof, though a few can reach 130 proof.

What Does Single Malt Whiskey Taste Like?

Whiskey, in general, tastes like oaky, woody, roasted grain alcohol. It may have caramel, vanilla, fruit, or nut notes as well. Single malts tend to amplify these flavor characteristics and, at the same time, mellow them out so the drink is superiorly smooth. In the case of scotch, there's also a peaty, smoky nuance.

Types

The single malt whiskeys of Scotland are the best-known and must be produced from malted barley alone. In general, they are produced in the same manner, though they don't all taste the same. Beyond the different methods used at each distillery, single malt whiskeys of the various regions in Scotland have a unique flavor profile due to the hyper-local climate and distilling practices. For example, whisky from the Highlands is lighter, Speyside whisky is considered elegant, and whisky made on the "Islands" tend to be slightly salty from the ocean air.

Likewise, single malts produced in other locations will have their own characteristics and methods. Some may even use grains other than barley.

Japanese single malts can rival those from Scotland. Irish whiskey distillers often offer single malts which are viewed as more refined than the more common blend. A number of American single malt whiskeys are quite impressive, and some craft distillers experiment with grains other than barley. You can also find great single malts from Canada, France, Germany, India, and Taiwan, as well as many other places.

Where to Buy Single Malt Whiskey

Single malt whiskey does tend to be prestigious and the average liquor store may have a few options. For the best selection, you may need to seek out a store with a larger selection of high-end spirits or one that specializes in whiskey. Depending on the shipping regulations where you live, shopping online offers a nearly endless supply of single malts to explore. The Whiskey Exchange and Masters of Malt are two online whiskey stores with an impressive selection.

In general, you can expect to pay more for a bottle of single malt whiskey than you will for a blended whiskey. The prestige of a distillery plays into the price as well. However, many of the American and other single malts are surprisingly affordable in comparison to their older scotch counterparts.

How to Drink Single Malt Whiskey

Typically, single malt whiskey is reserved for sipping straight, especially those at the luxury level, primarily because of the higher price. It may be served on the rocks or with a splash of soda or water. Single malts do make a very nice cocktail, though. If you are comfortable with mixing the single malt in your bar, do so because it will produce an excellent high-end cocktail. No matter the whiskey, the most important consideration is that you, as the drinker, enjoy how it's served.

Cocktail Recipes

Single malt whiskey is not called for too often in cocktails, but it's a good choice in a fine-tuned selection of drinks. Primarily, they're good to mix into simple recipes with just one or two other ingredients that merely enhance and show off the whiskey.

Popular Brands

A number of whiskey brands produce single malt whiskey. Some specialize in it while others offer select bottles at the top of their portfolio.

  • The Irishman Irish Whiskey
  • The Glenlivet Scotch Whisky
  • Highland Park Scotch Whisky
  • Knappogue Castle Irish Whiskey
  • The Macallan Scotch Whisky
  • Nikka Yoichi Single Malt Japanese Whisky
  • Yamazaki Single Malt Japanese Whisky