18 May 2024
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What is single malt whisky?

Often considered ‘superior’ among aficionados, single malt whisky has been made in Scotland since the 18th and 19th centuries. But what actually makes a single malt unique?

Today, the popularity of single malt Scotch extends across the globe, and many countries – such as Canada, Japan, Ireland and America – have also started to produce their own single malts. For the whisky beginners, we’ve answered six FAQs in an attempt to demystify this most prized of all whisky varieties…

Table of Contents

What is single malt whisky?

Barley

While a blended whisky is created from single malt whiskies and grain whiskies taken from different distilleries, a single malt whisky can only be produced from a single distillery. It also can only be made using a single variety of malted grain, typically malted barley. 

However, contrary to what you might assume, single malt whisky need not be the product of one single whisky cask – indeed, they are almost always a blend of whiskies taken from several casks. As long as these casks are all from the same distillery, the final ‘blend’ is considered a single malt.

The reason distilleries tend to do this is so all of their whisky has a common flavour profile which the consumer will expect from the brand. If they used the whisky from a single batch or barrel, the whisky’s taste could change constantly and dramatically, so in order to create their signature collections, they use a blend. Single cask and single batch whiskies tend to be saved for limited edition releases, where the brand is more free to experiment with flavour. 

Did you know?

Only 10% of Scotch whisky can be defined as a single malt? Most Scotch is of the blended variety.

How long does it take to mature?

whisky casks - what is single malt whisky

Single malt Scotch whisky needs to be aged for at least three years – in fact, it’s the law in Scotland for ALL Scotch whisky – blended included – to be aged for at least three years in oak casks. And while that is the minimum maturation period, it is often aged for much longer to create those distinctive flavours it is famous for. 

Outside of Scotland, the rules for making and maturing single malt whisky can be a little (read: a lot) more confusing. In America, for example, single malt as a category is so new that its rules of production are, as yet, undefined. However, the proposed American definition differs from the existing rules in Scotland. While American distillers would have to produce single malt at one distillery using only malted barley, they would not need to mature their spirit for three years.

Is single malt more expensive than other types of whisky?

The price of a particular bottle of whisky tends to be determined by two main factors – the cost to make the whisky and the demand for it. In terms of production costs, it makes sense that the longer a whisky takes to mature, the more expensive it will be (especially when you factor in whisky lost to evaporation during the ageing process ie. The Angel’s Share).

As most brands will usually age their single malts for longer periods than their blends (which tend not to have an age statement on the bottle), this can drive up the price.

As single malt whisky is also often considered more desirable to collectors and connoisseurs than other types of whisky, the demand is also higher and the price goes up again.

How do you drink single malt whisky?

Because of its price tag and prestige, single malt whisky is often consumed straight up, served on the rocks or saved for a special high-brow cocktail like a Rob Roy.

You can also add a splash of water or soda to accentuate the whisky’s taste, opening up the subtle aromas and flavours that may otherwise be missed – although, adding ice and water to your beverage is often a controversial topic within the whisky community!

What does it taste like?

Single malt whisky is often described as oaky and woody, with smoky and peaty notes or sweet, spicy flavours depending on how it is made (the level of smokiness depends on the amount of time the barley is exposed to peat smoke during the drying process). 

Compared to its blended counterpart, single malt whisky tends to have a more uniform taste due to its single source. Some single malt fans will insist it is smoother than blended whisky but there are many who would argue that quality blended whisky can be just as rich and smooth, and often more complex. The only way to find your preference is to start trying them.

What should I try first?

what is single malt whisky?

Whether you’re dipping your toe into the world of whisky or consider yourself a whisky connoisseur, here are some suggestions for your next drop of single malt…

1. The finer side of single malt: 

Glenlivet 14 Year Old Single Cask Butt 2022. Part of an original collection of exclusive Speyside whisky, this Single Cask Scotch features a delectable infusion of ripe plums, wild brambles, dates, figs, iced ginger cake and hints of toasted oak for a true taste sensation. 

2. An affordable option:

Laphroaig 10 Year Old Whisky Crafted on the Scottish island of Islay, this full-bodied, complex single malt whisky has hints of seaweed and sweetness, alongside Laphroaig’s signature smokey peated flavour.

3. For the absolute beginner:

Auchentoshan 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky. The toasted almond and caramelised toffee aromas tempt beginners to drink this smooth triple distilled single malt. The delicate flavours won’t overpower beginners either, before deciding to move on to more complex single malts. 

Holyrood distillery new make spirit

The Lowland whisky distilleries you need to know about

Once a significant single malt player, The Lowlands is now mostly known as the home of the blend – but this all looks set to change as several new and exciting distilleries in the region are in the process of creating their own innovative whiskies

J.J. Corry Irish Whiskey

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If you want to support and encourage more talented women to enter the world of whisky, these are some of the female-owned brands you need to have on your radar and tell all your friends about