Single malt whiskey is produced by a single distillery using a single malted grain (typically barley). The most famous is single malt Scotch whisky, and it's the model for other single malts made throughout the world. Ireland, Japan, America, Canada, and several other countries also create great single malts. Drinkers in India, the U.S., France, Germany, Spain, and Singapore consume the most scotch and whiskey in general, and there's a global increase in single malt production and sales. Since it typically costs more, most drinkers enjoy single malts straight or reserve the whiskey for high-end cocktails.
Single Malt vs. Blended Whiskey
Whiskey labels can be confusing, so it's good for drinkers to understand a few common terms. While scotch is the most obvious example, the same distinction between single malt and blended whiskey applies anywhere in the world. The most significant factor is how many distilleries played a role in making the whiskey.
- Single Malt Whiskey: A blend of malt whiskeys produced at one distillery from one type of malted grain.
- Blended Whiskey: A blend of malted barley and grain whiskeys from multiple distilleries. This includes scotch brands like Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal.
- Blended Malt Whiskey: A blend of malted whiskeys produced at various distilleries (it does not include grain whiskeys).
- Single Grain Whiskey: Whiskey produced from more than one grain, including barley, corn, or wheat, at one distillery.
- Ingredients: Malted barley or another malted grain
- Proof: 80–130
- ABV: 40–65%
- Calories in a 1 1/2-ounce shot: 97–116
- Origin: Scotland, Ireland, Japan, U.S., and elsewhere
- 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?
Single malt whiskey is made like any other whiskey: Grains are fermented with yeast to convert the sugars into alcohol, and the liquid is distilled into a concentrated alcoholic beverage before it's aged in barrels, blended, and bottled. Single malt whiskey distillers simply apply a few special techniques along the way, and they're often similar to making scotch.
All malted whiskey begins its life in the same way as most beer. Typically made with barley (though some use rye), the raw grains are malted by soaking them in water to start the germination process, then heat is applied to stop the grain from sprouting entirely. The malting process makes the grains more susceptible to fermentation. Unmalted barley (or another grain) is used for other whiskeys, but not single malt whiskey.
Also used in blended scotch, single malt Scotch whisky uses peated malt. Drying the barley over locally-sourced peat gives the whiskey its signature smoky profile. While some single malt producers outside of Scotland also use peat, most opt for kiln-dried or roasted malt instead.
Possibly the most confusing part of single malt whiskey is the word "single." It does not mean that the whiskey came from a single barrel or even a single batch. Instead, these are blends of various barrel-aged whiskeys produced at one distillery.
No matter the style, many whiskeys in the world are blended somehow. It's how distillers produce a consistent taste in their whiskey year after year, so the whiskey you're drinking today is almost identical to the bottle you enjoyed five years ago. If the distillery relied on a single barrel or batch, the whiskey's profile would constantly change; each barrel and the environmental conditions add different flavors to the finished whiskey as it ages. For this reason, a whiskey brand's flagship expressions are blended, while single barrel or batch whiskeys are frequently reserved for special limited-edition releases.
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 mixes various whiskeys aged in different barrels for at least 18 years. Essential to the single malt definition, all of the whiskeys were distilled from malted barley at The Glenlivet Distillery.
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?
Generally, whiskey tastes like oaky, woody, roasted grain alcohol, often with caramel, vanilla, fruit, or nut notes. Single malts tend to amplify and mellow these flavor characteristics simultaneously, so the drink is superiorly smooth. In the case of scotch, there's also a peaty, smoky nuance.
The single malt whiskeys of Scotland are the best-known and must be produced from malted barley alone. While the distillers primarily use the same techniques, the taste varies. Scotland's single malt whiskeys beautifully display regional characteristics and develop a unique flavor profile due to the hyper-local climate and distilling practices. For example, whisky from the Highlands is lighter, Speyside whisky is regarded as elegant, and whisky made on the Islands tends to be slightly salty from the ocean air.
Likewise, single malts produced in other locations have their own attributes and production methods. Japanese single malts rival those from Scotland because the founding distillers studied the scotch style. Irish whiskey distilleries often offer single malts, which are viewed as more refined than the country's more common blended whiskeys. Several American and Canadian single malt whiskeys are quite impressive as several craft distillers experiment with grains other than barley and other methods to give their whiskeys a distinct style.
The market for single malts has grown considerably since Glenfiddich introduced the first bottles to the U.S. market in the 1960s. The growth of this category is fascinating, and it's delightful to see the outstanding single malts coming from Australia, France, Germany, India, Taiwan, and many other places.
Where to Buy Single Malt Whiskey
Single malt whiskey has a prestigious reputation, and the average liquor store should have at least a few options. For the best selection, seek out a store with a more extensive 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.
In general, you can expect to pay more for a bottle of single malt whiskey than you will for a blended whiskey. The reputation of a distillery and the age of that particular bottle also play into the price. A 50-year old single malt Scotch whisky from a famous distillery will cost more than a 15-year-old single malt American craft whiskey, for instance.
How to Drink Single Malt Whiskey
Due to the higher price, single malt whiskey is often reserved for sipping straight, especially those at the luxury level. It may be served on the rocks or with a splash of soda or water to open up the aromas and flavors. Single malts do make a very nice cocktail, though. If you are comfortable 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 what you're drinking.
Single malt whiskey is rarely called for in cocktails. It's best in simple recipes with just one or two other ingredients that enhance and show off the whiskey. An excellent place to start is with the most famous scotch cocktails.
A number of whiskey brands produce single malt whiskey. Some specialize in it while others offer a few 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
Wondrich D, Rothbaum N, eds. The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails. 1st ed. Oxford University Press; 2021.