By Kevin McComber
One of the most common questions floating around in the whisky education ether is “What the heck is single malt whisky?” Another common question is “How the heck did I get in this ether?” I’ll attempt to answer the first, and leave the second to a later discussion.
The term “single malt” often seems to impress many whisky novices, though single malts, like any other whisky, can run the gamut from mind-blowingly tasty to mind-blowingly nasty. While most tend to fall somewhere in between, I want to dispel the myth that the words “single malt” have anything to do with quality.
To uncover its real meaning, the phrase “single malt” should be broken into its two component words and analyzed from there. “Single” refers to the distillery at which the whisky was produced – it’s made at a single distillery. In other words, it’s the product of only one distillery and will most likely represent the house style of that particular establishment. “Malt,” on the other hand, refers to the grain that’s used to make the whisky – the whisky was made only from malted grain. Thus, “single malt” means the whisky was made at a single distillery, using malted grain as its only grain ingredient. You can have single malt Scotch whisky, single malt Irish whiskey, and even single malt American whiskey, as long as it’s only made at one distillery and only from malted grain. It should also be noted that, in the vast majority of cases, the malted grain in whisky is malted barley.
Contrary to the term “single malt,” the word “blended” often makes both whisky novices and connoisseurs turn up their noses like a princess at a landfill. But there’s no good reason for it – blends can be just as amazing as single malts, if not more so, and I also want to dispel the myth that blends are inferior to single malts.
A blended whisky is a mix of single malt whiskies and grain whiskies (non-malt whiskies), made according to the specifications of the blender. This means that, if a single malt has some awesome qualities in one flavor area but is lacking in another, another whisky can be added to it to fill in the gap. Other whiskies can be added to make it smoother. Still more can be added to give it a beautiful finish. Blending is an art, and when you taste a phenomenal blended whisky, you can skip that trip to the Louvre; Mona Lisa’s got nothing on a great blend.
At the end of the day (or at the beginning of it, sometimes), the whisky you choose should just be based on what you prefer. A great blend is like a world-class orchestra with all instruments perfectly balanced, while an outstanding single malt is akin to a solo by your favorite musician. You just have to decide which concert to attend.
Kevin McComber recently completed a PhD in Materials Science & Engineering at MIT and like any great mind, his true passion could be found in a glass. Back in 2006, Kevin began dabbling in whisky, but became much more engrossed in it in 2009 after meeting a few “whisky mentors” whose collections, knowledge, and generosity allowed him to see much more of the whisky world. Kevin began leading whisky tasting events around Boston in 2010, primarily for students and alumni of MIT and other universities, as well as posting his musings about whisky experiences on his blog MyWhiskipedia.