Next week in this space, I'll be looking in some depth at the world of Scotch whisky, but first, I want to clarify a point of some confusion: the distinction between single malt and blended whisky.
Consumers and even some bartenders have a misconception that single-malt Scotch is not a blended whisky, but this is a myth. Single-malt scotch is a blend, but it's a very specific type of blend. In fact, nearly all whiskies on the market today are blends—bourbons, ryes, Tennessees, scotches, etc.—although in this article I'll focus on Scotch.
The confusion arises from the misunderstanding of two words—blend and single—words whose seeming simplicity mask a more complicated reality.
What Is a Blend?
What we need to do here is to establish that there are two different ways to use the word blend—an informal way and a formal, or legal, way. Informally, a blend is a mixture—in this case, a mixture of two or more whiskies that are bottled and sold as one whisky. Formally, however, a blended whisky is a product that contains a mix of barrel-aged malt and grain whiskies.
There's a common misconception that because a certain whisky is labeled "single malt," it must be the product of just a single batch or barrel of whisky. This is incorrect. Most single malts, as you'll see, are a blend, in the sense that they're a mixture of whiskies.
What Does Single Mean, Anyway?
The root of all confusion lies in the simple word single. A single-malt scotch whisky is nothing more or less than the product of a single distillery. Not the product of a single batch or a single barrel, but a single distillery. A single-malt Lagavulin may contain whiskies from many barrels produced at the Lagavulin distillery, but it will contain only whiskies produced at Lagavulin.
A single-grain scotch whisky varies only in that it contains barley and one or more other cereal grains, usually wheat or corn. Again, single is misleading here: it refers not to a product made from a single grain, but a product made at a single distillery.
Variables, Consistency, and House Style
When whisky is aged in oak barrels, a number of variables influence the final character of the spirit. A full discussion of these variables is beyond the scope of this article, but they include climate variations, where a barrel ages within its warehouse, and even variables in the quality of the oak used to make the barrels.
Because so many variables influence the character of a barrel of whisky, nearly all whiskies on the market today are made by mixing barrels together to achieve a product that's consistent from one release to the next. A master blender at the distillery tastes through the barrels that are ready for release and mixes them to create a product consistent with the brand's flavor profile. Not every barrel produced at, say, Springbank or Glenmorangie will exactly fit the house style that consumers expect. To achieve that house style, then, requires a blend of whiskies from many barrels.
Single Barrel Scotch
A single-barrel scotch is the product of a single barrel of whisky, unmixed with whisky from other sources. Because the flavor, aroma, color, and other characteristics vary from barrel to barrel, each barrel release is a unique product. Single-barrel releases are therefore inconsistent from one release to the next. Not many of these exist in the scotch universe (they're much more common in American whiskeys), but Balvenie has a couple of them available.
So we've established that single malts are usually produced by blending whiskies from different barrels produced within a single distillery. What about all these other blends we hear about? There are three types you'll encounter:
- Blended malt scotch whisky: Formerly called vatted malts, these are a blend of single malts from two or more distilleries. Companies such as Compass Box purchase whiskies and blend them to create new products with certain characteristics. Peat Monster, for example, is a Compass Box whisky that emphasizes the rich, smoky flavor of peat.
- Blended grain scotch whisky: A blend of single grains from two or more distilleries. Single grains are usually known for being light and mild, but some distilleries produce exceptional grain whiskies. Compass Box's Hedonism is a fine example of a blended grain scotch.
- Blended scotch whisky: What many consumers think of when they hear the word blend, blended scotches comprise 90% of the scotch category in sales. A blended scotch is a mix of both malt whiskies and grain whiskies, sourced from several different distilleries. Brands include Johnnie Walker, Dewar's, Cutty Sark, J & B, and Chivas Regal.
About the author: Michael Dietsch approaches life with a hefty dash of bitters. He is a proud new father, malt fanatic, and cocktail curmudgeon. He laughs at grace and lives in Providence. You can follow him on twitter at @dietsch.