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Instant expert: single malt whiskey

 Instant expert: single malt whiskey

If you don’t enjoy single malt whiskey, can you even call yourself “refined?” Single malt whiskey is a symbol of sophistication and class. It’s a drink that is meant to be thoroughly enjoyed. And it’s gaining in popularity. But what, exactly, is single malt whiskey and how does it differ from blended whiskey? You’re about to become an instant expert. Here’s the 411 on single malt whiskey.

Single Malt Whiskey Basics

In short: single malt whiskey refers to a whiskey that is produced by a single distillery using a single malted grain, typically barley. Although the most famous single malts are made in Scotland, that doesn’t mean the rest of the world is far off from perfecting the recipe. Ireland, Japan, America, Canada and other countries are already producing really great single malt whiskey. And that is adding to the global popularity of the spirit.  

As a reminder, most whiskey tastes woody or has an oaky finish. Depending on the type, you might also catch hints of caramel, vanilla, fruit or nuts. The best thing about a single malt whiskey is that it will amplify the natural flavor characteristics and mellow them at the same time. This results in a surprisingly smooth finish.  

Fast facts on single malt whiskey:

  • Ingredients: malted barley
  • Proof: 80-140
  • Color: Warm amber color
  • Region: Scotland, Ireland, Japan, U.S. 
  • Taste: Smooth, oaky
  • Aged: Must be aged 5 years or more
  • Popular single malt cocktail recipes: Rob Roy, Rusty Nail, Blue Blazer 

Difference between single malt whiskey and blended whiskey

When whiskey lovers see that single malt whiskey is a blend of malt whiskeys produced at the same distillery, they get the false sense that it’s similar to blended whiskey. This isn’t the case. The biggest difference between the two depends on how many distilleries were involved in making the whiskey. Blended whiskey comes from blending two (or more) whiskeys from different distilleries. You could also see a “blended malt whiskey” which would be a blend of malted whiskeys, but for it to be a true blended single malt, each single malt was produced at a single distillery. The “single” tells you that all of the whiskey will have been made at one location.

How is single malt whiskey made? 

Further adding to the confusion is the fact that single malt scotch and single malt whiskey are almost always a blend of more than one whiskey. This is surprising to most whiskey drinkers. The word “single” does not mean that it comes from a single barrel or even a single batch. Blending is how distillers are able to keep producing a consistent flavor year after year. 

In its simplest form, malted whiskey starts out the same way as beer. Raw barley grains are soaked in water to start the germination process. Heat is applied to prevent the grain from sprouting. Yeast is introduced during the fermentation process. Whiskey is then distilled to concentrate the fermented “beer.” The result is also a beverage with a higher alcohol content. From there, single malt whiskeys are bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 80 proof) or higher. The ABV range can be anywhere from 80 proof all the way up to 130 proof. 

One characteristic of scotch single malt is the use of peated malt which gives scotch a signature smoky flavor. Single malt whiskeys produced in the various regions in Scotland have distinct characteristics because of the climate and distilling practices. Japanese single malts are similar to those from Scotland. American single malt whiskeys are growing in popularity due to craft distillers being willing to experiment with grains other than barley. 

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