Walking down the whiskey aisle at any liquor store, you’re likely to come across bottles labeled “single malt.” On the surface, it might seem like they’re referring to whiskey made from one crop, like single-origin coffee. But that’s not what single malt means on Whiskey.
Single malt is a category of whiskey that alludes to the drink being aged/blended in a single distillery. If whiskey is made at a single facility, it is referred to as single malt whiskey. If a producer uses contents from different distilleries, then the whiskey is not a single malt.
This article clears up confusion around the term single malt and compares the whiskey type to its alternatives, like blended whiskey and grain whiskey. Towards the end, it also includes top single malt recommendations. It is the most comprehensive resource on the subject and covers the taste, quality, and price implications of single malt whiskey. So bookmark it and continue reading.
Single Malt: Clearing The Misconceptions
A very common misconception regarding single malt whiskey is that it comes from a single crop of malt. The term “single malt” doesn’t actually refer to the grain or the crop but the facility where the whiskey is aged. As long as the whiskey is from a single distillery, it is considered single malt.
If you use single malt and single barrel interchangeably, you’re again making a mistake. All single-barrel whiskey is a single malt, but not all single malt whiskey is single barrel. Blended whiskey made from multiple barrels in the same facility is considered single malt. Whiskey that is aged in a single barrel is called single-barrel whiskey.
In other words, single malt whiskey is not made from a single crop of malt, and it is not always aged in a single barrel. Now that you know what single malt whiskey is not, you’ll have an easier time learning what single malt whiskey is.
What Is Single Malt Whiskey?
Single malt whiskey is whiskey from a single distillery. It is not sourced and blended from various distilling facilities and is often aged under consistent conditions, and goes through strict quality control.
Single Malt Whiskey stands in stark contrast to “blended” whiskey. The term “blended” is in quotes because it has a very special definition in this context. Where single malt whiskey is made from one or more barrels in the same facility, “blended whiskey” is made from multiple barrels from more than one facility.
There are many whiskey producers that source their whiskey from different distilleries. Some source from a single distillery and blend it with their in-house whiskey.
Blended whiskey and Single Malt couldn’t be any more apart. But before we get into the difference between a blended whiskey and single malt, it is worth remembering that single malt whiskey can also feature a blend.
Can Single Malt Be Blended?
Single malt can be blended as long as all the whiskeys in the blend are from the same facility. As long as whiskey is made entirely within one distillery, it is considered single malt, even if it is blended. However, it isn’t branded as “blended whiskey” because that term is reserved for whiskey that is blended from vattings sourced from different distilleries.
Blended Whiskey Vs. Single Malt: Which Is Better?
If you ask any whiskey purist whether a blended whiskey is better than a single malt, you will get a pretty cut-and-dry answer. According to aficionados, the best whiskey is a single barrel, followed by single malt, and then blended whiskey.
For them, the least acceptable whiskey is the most diversely blended one, and the best one is sourced from a single barrel. If you follow this hierarchy of superiority, single malt whiskey is in the middle, not as good as a single barrel but not as bad as a multi-facility blend.
But you do not have to follow the value system set by source purists. In fact, the broader whiskey market doesn’t follow the hierarchy of superiority mentioned earlier. An average whiskey consumer judges his drink by taste and price.
There are other factors also that determine whether whiskey is worth buying or not. Let’s examine how Blended and Single Malt whiskeys compare across these aspects.
When it comes to taste, single malt whiskeys can fall short of recipe-driven blends. However, this varies from facility to facility. Four Roses, a bourbon whiskey maker in Kentucky, produces multiple batches in-house and blends them according to its ten signature recipes. These bourbons are made at a single facility yet are blended for taste.
This is the case with many large-scale whiskey producers who can afford to age malt in different batches and blend vattings for a perfect taste. They produce single malt whiskey, which tastes great. Still, blended whiskey makers aren’t limited to whiskey from their own facility and have a larger source range.
This gives blended whiskey makers a broader shelf of ingredients, allowing them to make better-tasting whiskey at a lower cost.
Cost is a very important factor in whiskey adoption. People who choose a whiskey usually stick to it for a while. And that is why considering the price of a bottle is financially smart. Single malt whiskeys are generally more expensive than blended whiskeys. But this can change depending on the branding and the marketing of a whiskey.
Whiskey is no longer a commodity product, and its price is based mostly on its perceived value. If a blended whiskey producer can convince the market that its label means more than that of a single malt, it will be able to charge a higher price. But in most cases, single malt whiskey costs more.
In alcohol and liquor comparisons, availability can be a crucial factor in determining an option’s superiority. But in the case of whiskey, availability isn’t that big of a problem. You have availability issues in 20-year-old single-barrel whiskey, but for blended and single malt whiskeys, the availability is pretty uniform, with neither option being any better.
Quality might seem like an intangible and subjective trait. However, it can be objectively determined based on ABV (alcohol by volume) and consistency.
Single malt whiskey is more consistent than blended whiskey because the facility where it is bottled controls all aspects of aging and production. Blended whiskey makers rely on different facilities for their raw materials and can have ups and downs in consistency. As for ABV, there is no reason for single malt whiskey to be any more or less alcohol-concentrated than a blended one.
Whiskey producers making single malt and blended drinks have the same ability to raise or lower the ABV. But because of better consistency, single malt whiskey wins in this aspect.
Alcoholic drinks are very social in nature and are often consumed in the presence of friends. Therefore, your friends’ opinion of your beverage of choice matters almost as much as your own.
Single malt whiskey sends better social signals than blended whiskey. It is generally perceived to be superior and makes you look like an aficionado. To the extent that that matters to you, single malt is better than blended whiskey.
Verdict: Blended whiskey can taste better than single malt while single malt can have better consistency and quality compared to blended whiskey. They have similar ABV and availability, so ultimately, the choice comes downs to subjective preferences in taste and perception. Single malt will make you look good, but blended whiskey might make you feel good.
Single Malt Vs. Grain Whiskey
While the true opposite of single malt whiskey is blended whiskey sourced from different facilities, it is also compared to grain whiskey. Single malt is malt whiskey made from malted barley, while grain whiskey is whiskey made, in part, from grains other than malted barley.
Difference 1: Single Malt Whiskey Is Made At A Single Facility, While Grain Whiskey Can Be Sourced From Different Distilleries
Malt whiskey and grain whiskey are opposites but single malt is a very specific subcategory of malt whiskey. If you compare it to grain whiskey, then one noteworthy point is that single malt whiskey is made at a single distillery. Grain whiskey also has its single-distillery subcategory called single-grain whiskey. But overall, grain whiskey can be sourced and blended from multiple facilities.
Difference 2: Single Malt Is Made Solely From Malted Barley, While Grain Whiskey Can Be Made From Any Grain
Malt whiskey, in general, and single malt in specific, is made from malted barley with no other grain sources. Grain whiskey is either made entirely from non-malt grains or in part from grains other than malted barley. For a whiskey to be considered a “grain” whiskey, it should have at least one grain source that is not malted barley. These could include rye, non-malted barley, or maize.
Difference 3: There Might Be Malt In Grain Whiskey, But There Won’t Be Non-Malt Grain In Single Malt Whiskey
Just because malt is added to a grain whiskey doesn’t mean it is no longer a grain whiskey. The fact that a non-malt grain is present in its recipe is enough to make it a grain whiskey regardless of other ingredients.
Since single malt whiskey has a far stricter definition, the addition of any other grain source aside from malted barley is enough to remove the single malt label from it. Even adding malt from a different distillery is enough to strip the single malt label.
Difference 4: Grain Whiskey Is Made In Stills, While Single Malt Is Aged In Barrels
One of the most significant differences between the two types of drinks is that one is made in column stills. Column stills produce a far higher ABV and have different aging periods. Grain whiskey is usually made in a still, while malt whiskey (and single malt whiskey) is aged in barrels. This difference produces another interesting overlap when discussing scotch whiskey.
Difference 5: Scotch can be a single malt whiskey or a grain whiskey, depending on the preparation method
Scotch whiskey can be made from 100% malted barley as well as with a percentage of other grains. This would make you think that all scotch made from 100% malted barley is considered malt whiskey.
However, if you were to make scotch in a column still without using any grain other than malted barley, you’d still have to call it a grain whiskey. In this context, the medium in which the whiskey is made matters just as much as the content of the whiskey.
Best Single Malt Whiskeys To Buy
By now, you know that single malt is made from malted barley and no other grains and is distilled (and sometimes blended) at a single facility. You also understand that while single malt is seen as a higher quality whiskey than a multi-source blend, it doesn’t always taste as good as blended whiskey.
In this section, you’ll find the best single malt whiskeys that taste great, look great, and have the perfect consistency for repeat buying.
- Aberlour 16-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky – This Whiskey offers the best of taste, value, and longevity. It is considered the best single malt whiskey by aficionados and average whiskey drinkers alike.
- The Glenlivet 12-Year-Old – This is the best low-end single malt that costs less than $50 and still has a semblance of quality.
- Auchentoshan American Oak – This whiskey has room for flavor and is hence best for mixing. It can also be consumed solo, though you will need some time to get used to its taste.
- Aberlour A’Bunadh – This single malt whiskey is the best cask strength option that tastes great despite a high burn factor. It is admired by connoisseurs for being made using traditional methods instead of contemporary processes.
- Bowmore Master’s Selection 21-Year-Old – Bowmore Master’s is a great single malt in general, but its 21-year-old bottle is a genuinely impressive well-aged whiskey that has a peak flavor profile and smooth texture.
Recap: Defining Single Malt Whiskey
Single Malt means single distillery when talking about whiskey. Beverages made from malted barley alone at a single distillery/facility are considered single malt whiskeys.
They often offer better quality and consistency than multi-source blended whiskeys and are slightly more expensive. But many whiskey drinkers argue that blended ones taste better.
Ultimately, your choice should be dictated by your preference and budget. If you really prefer single malt, then recommendations for high-quality options are covered above, including bottles under $50 and over $120.