SINGLE MALTS & BLENDS: DEFINITIONS & DE-MYSTIFICATIONS

One of the most common questions floating around in the whisky education ether is “What is single malt whisky?”

The term “single malt” often seems to impress many whisky novices, though single malts, like any other whisky, can run the gamut from mind-blowingly tasty to mind-blowingly nasty. While most tend to fall somewhere in between, there is one myth that that should be dispelled at the onset: the term “single malt” has nothing to do with quality.

To uncover its real meaning, the phrase “single malt” should be broken into its two component words and analyzed from there. “Single” refers to the distillery at which the whisky was produced – it is made at a single distillery.  This means that it will likely represent the house style of that particular establishment. “Malt,” on the other hand, refers to the grain that’s used to make the whisky – the whisky was made only from malted grain. Thus, “single malt” means the whisky was made at a single distillery, using malted grain as its only grain ingredient. 

You can have single malt Scotch whisky, single malt Irish whiskey, and even single malt American whiskey, the country of origin does not matter, as long as it is only made at one distillery and only from malted grain.  It should also be noted that, in the vast majority of cases, the malted grain in whisky is malted barley.

Contrary to the term “single malt,” the word “blended” often makes both whisky novices and connoisseurs turn up their noses like a princess at a landfill. Outside of snobbery, there is no good reason for it – blends can be just as ethereal as single malts, if not more so.

A blended whisky is a mix of single malt whiskies and grain whiskies (non-malt whiskies), made according to the specifications of the blender. What this means is that if a single malt has some solid qualities in one flavor area but is lacking in another, it can be blended with another to fill in the gap. Blending allows for many positive possibilities. Whiskies can be added to a blend to make it smoother. Still others can be added to give it a beautiful finish. Blending is an art, and when you taste a phenomenal blended whisky, you will understand why it is done.

At the end of the day, the whisky you choose should be based on what you prefer. A great blend is like a world-class orchestra with all instruments perfectly balanced, while an outstanding single malt is akin to a solo by your favorite musician. You just have to decide which concert to attend.

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Categories: Wine & Spirits

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