In the world of whiskey, the term "single malt whisky" can be confusing. At its most basic, it 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.
"Single" Is Confusing
One major confusion with single malt whiskey lies in the word "single." It does not mean that the whiskey in your bottle 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.
That's quite surprising to many drinkers, but single malt scotch is almost always a blend. 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.
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 it's typically reserved for the special collections and limited edition releases that many distilleries offer.
Single Malt vs Blended Whisky
Just because a single malt whiskey is technically a "blend," doesn't mean that it's the same as a blended scotch. Blended Scotch whisky, such as Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal, is made from malted barley whiskeys and grain whiskeys. Quite often, the whiskeys used in these blends come from multiple distilleries.
For instance, a distillery may produce its own malted barley whiskey, but purchase grain whiskey from another distillery that specializes in it. Then again, some whiskey brands will simply blend whiskeys made offsite and not produce their own whiskey whatsoever. Compass Box Whisky is a great example as they are masters at blending scotch produced by other companies.
There is also "blended malt whiskey." This is a blend of malted whiskeys produced at various distilleries. Unlike blended Scotch whisky, 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.
"Single-barrel" whiskey is the term that refers to a whiskey bottled from one barrel. When you see this on the label, it is whiskey in its purest form because it has not been mixed with any other whiskey. Of course, these also have a price tag to reflect such perfection and patience.
"Malt" Is Important
The word "malt" on a whiskey label completes the definition of single malt whiskey. Before the whiskey distillate even touches a still, the grain is prepared for fermentation. This helps turn the starches into fermentable sugars that will become alcohol.
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.
The one thing that continues to make scotch single malts stand out is the use of peated malt, which you will also find in blended Scotch whisky. It's what gives scotch that signature smoky profile. Very few of the other single malts produced in the world will 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 Malts of the World
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, whiskeys of the Highlands are lighter, Speyside whiskeys are considered elegant, and those 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. 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.
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.