What’s the Difference: Single Malt vs. Blended Whisky

In an unfortunate stereotype that’s been embedded within the minds of avid whisky drinkers the world over, blended scotch whisky gets a bad rep from “purists” in the market. It’s a reality that single malt’s blended brethren had to face for some time now. Clearly the term, “blended” is self-explanatory, but where does the phrase “single malt” come from? What’s the history behind both styles of whisky, and how do these differences play into the resulting flavors profiles of each?

These are all pertinent questions when dealing with this age-old spirit. And the answers come to us in the form of original distillation, contemporary distillation, nuanced mixing methods, and of course a bit of marketing know-how. Has the process changed since the days of single-pot distilled scotch? Absolutely. Chalk it up to a growing demand for whisky and therefore a need for enhanced means of production. Yes, you still have your mom n’ pop distilleries in the mix, but for the most part, those small operations have grown significantly over the years, experimenting with different processes at the same time. And with a seemingly ever-expanding market, there’s never been a time to be a whisky drinker. So if the whole single malt vs. blended argument has you confused, you need not to worry. We’ve got you covered with enough information to help you understand exactly what you’re purchasing next time you’re debating between that 16-year single malt and blended option.

What is Whisky

Know Your Spirit

We’re going to go ahead and assume you already know what whisky is, however, understanding its composition and process from mash to mouth is crucial in comprehending the difference between single malt and blended varieties. At the very base level, whisky is made from a fermented grain mash, for Scotch this has traditionally been barley that is malted and then used to make the mash. However, other whiskies can feature different grains in their composition. For instance, American bourbon must be made from at least 51 percent corn. Rye whiskey features a predominately rye composition, and so forth. Now, since we’re focusing on scotch, we’ll stick with malted barley. Whisky is a gentleman’s drink no doubt, drunk by the founders of this country and others abroad.From here, the malt is now “mashed” with warm water to extract soluble sugars from the barley. Historically, because the water used must be reliable and locally-sourced, this is why most early distilleries were situated near rivers and lakes. After the maximum amount of sugar is extracted from the mash, the newly named “wort” is then cooled, fermented over the course of 48 hours, and then distilled, twice in Scotland, before being aged in oak barrels. One the desired maturation is reached, it’s then bottled and, well, the rest is history.

Know The Basics

Barley: The grain that’s used in the tradition production of Scotch whisky
Malting: The process of germinating the grains
Malt: The germinated (sprouted) cereal grain that results from malting
Mashing: Extracting the soluble sugars from the malted barley in preparation for fermentation
Wort: Resulting sugary liquid from the mash that’s ready for fermentation.

From here it’s then fermented and twice distilled to produce a spirit that’s 65-75% alcohol.

*Remember that single malts can only use barley. Blends can, however, be made with corn, rye, unmalted barley or wheat.

Single Malt Whisky

Glenfiddich 18 Year: ($65)
The Macallan 12: ($72)
Lagavulin 16: ($50)

Single Malt

Not Quite What It Seems

Now you may be asking yourself what the above information has to do with single malt whisky. Well, traditionally single malt was just that, malted barley mashed fermented, and then single-pot distilled. This is the classic way of producing single malt scotch. However, it typically yields a smaller amount of whisky, which when demand is high, can be a problem. So, leave it up to the great marketing machine to ingeniously come up with a “same difference” scenario as a result of distilleries “vatting” their whisky to increase quantities.

In so many words, vatting comes about when individual (single) malt whiskies that are in different stages of the aging process are married together to create a final product. Therefore, that single malt you are sipping on has most likely been blended with different batches from the distillery. Now, a Scottish single malt is defined as a whisky only made from malted barley, prepared in the traditional way, from the same distillery. It’s not single whisky from a single barrel as many of us like to think. What’s more, the age on the bottle of whisky only serves to denote the minimum age of the youngest whiskey that went into the bottle. So, that bottle of 14-year in your hands could actually feature a majority of older whiskies in its composition, which we’ll admit is a silver lining in this instance. This isn’t all deceit, though. It’s the Master Distiller’s job to develop different profiles and variants of a distillery’s whisky. And in doing so, blending different whiskies together from under the same roof accomplishes that effect.

Cliff’s Notes

  • Always made from malted barley
  • Prepared in tradition manner
  • From the same distillery: blended with other batches
  • Not always from the same barrel

Blended Scotch Whisky

Glenfiddich 18 Year: ($65)
The Macallan 12: ($72)
Lagavulin 16: ($50)

Blended

A Result of High Demand

Interesting enough, it’s believed that blended whiskies make up more than 90% of scotch whisky sales worldwide. Why you may ask? Well, for one there are less restrictions surrounding their distillation, they’re relatively cheaper to make, and they don’t have to age as long to be considered drinkable. In short, blended scotch whiskies are considered grain whiskies, meaning they’re made with anything except malted barley. Grain whiskies, therefore can be made up of wheat, rye, unmalted barley, and corn.

So in laymans terms, the word “blended” on your whiskey bottle denotes a blended grain whiskey, in addition to -though not always- blended batches. Not all blended whiskies are considered bargain though, as there are some well-aged blended scotch whiskies that are indeed quite interesting, they just require more time in the barrel to reach this level.

In the end, it really boils down to your preferred palate and intentions with the whisky. For a cocktail fan, blended is typically the better option, while a quality single malt is ideal for the guy into smoking cigars by the fireplace. All whiskies, though, impart different flavors and experiences thanks to in-house blending by the Master Distiller or the multitude of grains involved in crafting a by-definition blended scotch. One thing’s for certain though, whisky culture remains the same. It’s the gentleman’s drink no doubt. Drunk by the founders of this country and others abroad. It’s been shared over celebrations, accomplishments, and mourning the life and loss of loved ones. Is there a better option? Of course not, There’s just you, your style and preferences, and your glass. Just be sure to raise one in gratitude to the hard working men and women who made that batch possible.

Cliff’s Notes

  • Make up more than 90% of Scotch whisky sales
  • Considered “grain whiskies” made from blended grains
  • Boast a more efficient and economical distillation method
  • Can also be made from Scotch blends from different distilleries

All Blends Are Not Created Equal

So if you happen to have a hankering for some blends that don’t burn going down, then be sure to check out this list of the best blended scotch whiskey that’s sure to please.

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