What Exactly Makes a Whiskey ‘Single Malt’, ‘Single Grain’ Or a ‘Blend’
Whisky is a complex spirit. Each type of whisky must meet a different set of classifications and rules, which means that no two whiskies are the same. Previously, we've explored the differences between Scotch and Bourbon, but this time we're going to delve more deeply into the different forms of Scotch whisky. Scotch can be a single malt, a single grain whisky, or most commonly a blended whisky. These are often confusing, so in this article, we will outline exactly what makes a Scotch whisky a "single malt", "single grain" or "blended".
Single Malt Whisky
The first step in understanding the term "single malt" is to determine which part of the whisky-making process each word of the term applies to. First, let's look at the word "single". This is the most confusing part of the term because it can be applied to a variety of factors related to whisky. For example, a common misconception about single malt whisky is that the term "single" implies that the whisky must be the product of a single batch or single cask.
However, this is not the case. In fact, almost all single malt Scotch whiskies are blended. When we say "blended", we are referring to the process of combining whiskies from different casks and different vintages to form the final product. Different casks impart flavors to the whisky in different ways, so the distilleries blend the whiskies together to find the balance of flavors to form their single malt whisky.
If the word "single" doesn't refer to a cask or batch, what does it refer to? The "single" in "single malt" simply means that the whisky is the product of a single distillery. Therefore, while a single malt can contain whisky from many different casks, all of them must be produced by a single distillery. For example, at Kilchoman we often graft casks together, and our Machir Bay and Sanaig are made from ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks grafted together; we are a single farm, single malt distillery.
Next, let's look at the word "malt". This is the less confusing of the two words, as the word means little other than the grain used to make whisky. In the case of single malt whisky, the grain is entirely barley - at Kilchoman, we grow over 200 tons of barley on our farm and then soak it for two days in room temperature water to allow the grain to begin to germinate. Although vats are now often used for malting, we use traditional ground malting techniques to prepare the barley for the next stage of the whisky-making process. After 5 days of malting, we lift the malt off the floor and "peat" the barley for 10 hours, which creates our unique Kilchoman peat smoke aroma. The "malt" in "single malt" therefore means that the whisky must be produced from only malted barley and water.
While this term can easily be confused with "single malt" due to its similarity, it is important not to confuse the two, as they are quite different. One thing they have in common is that the term "single" in both terms refers to the requirement that each whisky must be produced at one distillery. The main difference, however, is that single grain whisky does not necessarily have to be produced from malted barley. In fact, other grains such as wheat, corn or rye can be used, and they can be either malted or unmalted. As a result, single grain whiskies are usually lighter in body and tend to offer sweeter flavors than smoky aromas.
Single grain whiskies also differ from single malt whiskies in the way they are distilled. Single malt whiskies are distilled using traditional pot stills, while single grains are distilled using column stills (or Coffey stills). Pot stills are operated batch by batch and are primarily used to create aromatic products. Column stills, on the other hand, can be used to produce high ABV whiskies on a larger industrial scale. As a result, single grain whiskies are not usually bottled on their own (with a few exceptions), but are often blended with malt whiskies to create blended scotch.
Blended Scotch Whisky
As we mentioned earlier, different whiskies were often blended together. Blending was necessary because, at the time, single malt Scotch whisky was very strong and raw, and not everyone liked it. By blending, Usher was able to create a milder-tasting Scotch whisky that appealed to a broader market. Today, approximately 9 out of every 10 bottles of Scotch whisky sold worldwide are sold as "blended Scotch whisky." Prior to 2009, any blended Scotch whisky could be sold as a blended Scotch whisky. However, the Scotch Whisky Regulations now state that blended Scotch whisky must contain a combination of one or more single malt Scotch whiskies and one or more single grain Scotch whiskies.
The proportion of grains and malts in a blend varies from bottle to bottle. The grains form the body of the whisky, while the malt gives the whisky additional flavor. As a result, more expensive blended Scotch whiskies will tend to use a higher percentage of malt in their blends.
With this new legislation came two new categories of blended whisky: 'blended malt scotch' and 'blended grain scotch. While 'blended Scotch whisky' previously included all of these terms, the change in the exact definition of blended Scotch whisky required the introduction of these two new categories. Blended Malt Scotch Whisky means that it is a blend of two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries. Similarly, blended grain Scotch whisky is a blend of two or more single grain Scotch whiskies from different distilleries. Blended malts are the more common of the two, but there are some distilleries that sell blended grain whiskies for the truly curious whisky connoisseur.
So, to summarize -
Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
A Scotch whisky produced by a single distillery.
Can only be made with barley and water.
Single Grain Scotch Whisky.
A Scotch whisky produced by a single distillery.
Can be made with any grain, including wheat, corn, or rye.
Blended Scotch Whisky.
Blended Scotch Whisky - Blends one or more single malt Scotch whiskies with one or more single grain Scotch whiskies from different distilleries.
Blended Malt Whisky - A blend of two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries.
Blended Grain Whisky - A blend of two or more single grain Scotch whiskies from different distilleries.
We know that all the terminology surrounding whisky can be very confusing. this crash course will give you a better understanding of the different varieties of Scotch whisky on the market. At Kilchoman, we specialize in making the best single malt Scotch whisky Islay has to offer!
If you want to learn more about single-grain whiskey, you can click bolded words.
Edition: Rubick L.