What Is “Single” about “Single Malt Scotch Whisky”?

19 Apr

For inspiration and encouragement, I am drinking a very special single-malt Scotch: Ardbeg’s Corryvreckan. I’m not here to describe it in detail, other than to say it’s incredibly well-balanced and drinkable at 57.1% ABV (that’s 100° proof in the British system).

What I am here to write about is the various words used to describe distilled spirits made in Scotland. To answer the question that is the subject of this post, “Single” means that the whisky was produced in a single distillery. That’s it. The final product could be a mixture of various barrels, but as long as all the product was created at a single distillery, it’s a single malt. For instance, you could make a 25-year-old single malt from 80% 25-year-old whisky aged in ex-Bourbon barrels, and 20% 25-year-old whisky that had been aged in ex-Sherry butts. Even though it’s a mix, it’s still a single malt since it’s a product of a single distillery.

On my other blog, I have written extensively about the production process behind single-malt Scotch whisky. The critical requirements are that it be made from only water and malted barley, distilled in pot stills, then aged in oak barrels for at least three years and one day. Another kind of whisky made in Scotland is single-grain whisky. Single-grain whisky is typically distilled in continuous distillation (rather than batch distillation) using a type of still known as a Coffey still (named after its Irish inventor). The “single” in “single-grain” still retains the same legal definition as in its use in the adjective “single-malt,” namely that the whisky is the product of a single distillery.

When I was first learning about single-malts, I was more familiar with blended whisky. I have heard that approximately 90% of the whisky produced in Scotland is blended. This begs the question: Blended of what? In order to get to the answer to that question, let’s first step back a bit to look into how whisky is mixed and what it is called when it is mixed. I am not referring to mixed drinks.

As I noted above, a “single-malt” can still be mixed from a variety of independently aged whiskies — as long as they all were produced by the same distillery. A “blended malt” or “vatted malt” (a term that may soon be disappearing since the term may be phased out by the Scotch Whisky Association) is a mixture of single-malts from different distilleries. The best known vatted malt might be Johnnie Walker Green, which is composed of four single-malts. The Scotch Whisky Association recognizes five broad categories of whisky: single-malt, single-grain, blended malt, blended grain, and blended. These terms carry the force of law in Scotland. It’s very important that products be labeled clearly so that the consumer knows what they are getting.

Beyond vatted malt is blended Scotch whisky: It’s what you get when you mix one or more single-malts with one or more single-grains. I do love single-malt Scotch whisky, but I own some single-grain and some vatted malts and some blends. To me, it’s all good. The way I see things, every occasion is unique. I don’t have a favorite distillery (well, on any given day it’s probably Highland Park, Bruichladdich, Glenrothes or The Dalmore) but I appreciate choice too much to stick with one whisky all the time. I really believe that variety is the spice of life and as long as it’s good, I’ll drink it. What’s key for me is to have enough experience to know what whisky is best in a given situation. I’m still learning. For me to even try 25% of all the whisky available in Scotch’s current production would take me years. I’m game!

I’ll close with a couple pictures of a small portion of my collection. This is just my current “working set.”

My open Bruichladdich single-malts.

My open Bruichladdich single-malts.

My non-Bruichladdich open whiskies.

My non-Bruichladdich open whiskies.

1 Comment

Posted by on 19-April-2009 in Whisky2.0


One response to “What Is “Single” about “Single Malt Scotch Whisky”?

  1. Ken

    19-April-2009 at 09:14

    OK, your post convinced me to have a Laphroaig 10 – gotta love a company that gives you a parcel of land when you buy a bottle.


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