The wonderful world of scotch is so full of nuance and mystery. Each bottle contains a world of flavor, but the label contains a somewhat more confusing world of regulations, definitions, and specifications. Let’s look more in-depth at the specifics behind one of the world’s most common bottle designations and its twin sister that no one can really define: single malt scotch vs double malt scotch.
Main Differences between Single Malt vs. Double Malt:
The main differences between Single Malt vs. Double malt are:
- Single malt whiskey is made in one distillery, whereas Double Malt whiskey is produced in two distilleries.
- Single Malt can only be made with barley and water, whereas Double Malt includes other grains other than barley.
- Single Malt must be aged a minimum of 3 years in oak, whereas Double Malt has no aging requirement
What is Scotch and How is it Made?
According to the Scotch Whisky Association, around 1.28 billion bottles of scotch are sold every year. And scotch alone makes up 70% of Scotland’s food and drink exports! The United States imported over 137 million bottles in 2018. And just last year a bottle of scotch sold for nearly 2 million dollars.
The popularity of scotch is clearly on the rise. But what exactly is it and why do some people pay millions for it?
One of the reasons scotch is so highly prized and so expensive is because it has a built-in quality guarantee. The Scotch Whisky Association, a Scottish trade organization, created a set of legal rules necessary for any bottle wishing to label itself “scotch.” These rules might seem constricting and arbitrary, but they were actually put in place to preserve the reputation, flavor, and purity of scotch whisky. So any time you buy a bottle labeled scotch, single malt or not, you know exactly what you’re getting.
- Scotch must be distilled at a single distillery
- Scotch must be distilled in a pot still
- Scotch must contain only water and barley
- Scotch must have been aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels
- Scotch must have been Distilled and Fermented at the same location
- Scotch must have been made in a permitted Scottish warehouse
- Scotch must be bottled in Scotland
- Scotch must have the bottle year as well as the age of the dram marked on the bottle
- Scotch must be labeled with the year of the youngest liquor used in the bottle
Of course, if we want a condensed version, it’s much simpler. Scotch is whisky made from barley that is produced and matured in Scotland. Whisky is any liquor made from distilled grains. In Scotch, this grain must always be barley. And this barley must be grown, malted, distilled, then aged in oak for at least 3 years – all in Scotland. And that’s the basic definition of “scotch,” if the list above makes your head spin.
There are 6 official designations for scotch: single malt, single grain, blended, blended malt, and blended grain. (Note there is no “double malt.” We’ll get into why below!) The key in understanding the differences lies in the process and ingredients.
How is Scotch Made
Because of the strict rules above, all scotch produced follows the same basic process. Most of the differences are in the last step, but it is worth knowing all three to understand the nuance of flavors in single malts and blends.
Step 1: Malting and Mashing the Barley
Growing the Barley: We’ve mentioned all scotch is made with barley. Barley is grown throughout Scotland, but not every distillery has their own barley harvest or even their own malting floors. Most distilleries buy their barley from nearby farms or distilleries with larger fields. A huge portion of Islay barley comes from the distillery Port Ellen, for example.
Germinating the Barley: The harvested barley is then soaked in the distillery’s local water. (Each distillery has a unique water source that helps define their style and flavor.) The barley soaks until it is just beginning to germinate. It is then removed from the water and dried over hot fires or other heat. (This is another area where distilleries impart flavor to their whisky via peat, wood, or heather.) This dried, germinated barley is called malt.
Creating the Mash: Malted barley is ground down and mixed with warm water to create wash. The natural enzymes in barley begin converting sugars into alcohol. This process creates wort.
Step 2: Fermenting and Distilling
Adding yeast: The wort is transferred into washbacks (fermentation tanks) and combined with yeast to increase sugar to alcohol conversion. Once yeast is added, the mixture is called wash.
First Distillation: The wash moves to a copper pot still that heats the wash until the alcohol converts to gas and rises through the pipes to another chamber. These pot stills are generally small and create small batches of low-wine with intense flavor.
Second Distillation: The low-wine transfers to the second distillation in spirit stills and heated again to convert the alcohol to gas. Here the master distiller must make a precise decision on when to cut the second distillation into the head (first cut), heart (middle cut) and tail (end cut). The heart is the purest distillate and the only one used to make scotch. In some cases, distilleries use a tiny heart, only 16% of the entire distillate, to make extra pure scotch.
Step 3: Maturation, Blending, and Bottling
Oak Aging: Scotch is required to be matured in oak for at 3 years minimum. The final “heart” distillate, a clear liquid is siphoned into specific casks for maturation. Most higher end scotches will be matured for at least 10-12 years, but they can be matured for many decades. Distilleries will use different types of casks to introduce different flavors into their scotch. Ex-sherry and ex-bourbon are two of the most common.
Blending: Before the scotch is bottled, the master distiller will taste each barrel to determine which flavors should be blended together to create the most interesting, pure, and consistent scotch. Once these blends are created, the result is bottled and shipped for us to enjoy!
What is Single Malt?
The basic definition of single malt is really quite simple: scotch that comes from only one distillery.
The common misconception stems from the word “single.” Many confuse this to mean a single barrel, a single bottle, or a single grain. By the legal definition of single malt scotch, “single” simply means one distillery. (But since you know the definition of scotch, you know that single malts are also made from a single grain, barley, by default. This does not make them “single grain,” which is a different designation we can see below.)
This means most single malt scotches are blends of different barrels or casks within the distillery. Distillers do this to maintain a consistent flavor profile in their offerings.
However, you can find single malt bottles that are single cask, single batch, or single barrel. These will be clearly marked on the bottle and are usually a little more expensive since they highlight a particularly tasty barrel!
Single Malts are the essence of a distillery. Their own singular expression that comes from their own unique combination of water, drying methods, stills, distillation cutting, cask maturation, and the master distiller’s vision. No two single malts are alike, even from year to year within one distillery. They are unique and highly prized, even the lower aged bottles.
Similar to single malt, but it doesn’t need to be made from only barley.
Single grain is a separate designation used to describe whisky made from a grain other than barley. These other grains could be corn, wheat, or rye and can still be malted or unmalted. But again, the “single” in this phrase also indicates the dram comes from a single distillery.
In general, distilleries that produce single malt do not produce single grain and vice versa. They tend to be separate establishments.
One final difference, single malts are made in pot stills, as we discussed above. Single grains are distilled in Coffey (column) stills which create larger batches and higher ABV!
What does Single Malt taste like?
There is no good answer to this question, and that’s part of the reason scotch has been so successful and so popular. There seems to be a flavor and style for everyone!
Scotch ranges in taste based on where in Scotland it is from and what techniques were used in the distillery’s process. Each distillery puts their own unique spin on their single malt, so you’ll find different taste profiles even within a distillery’s product lineup. Something aged for 8 years, for example, will be much lighter and less complex is flavor than an 18-year single malt. I could make a list of all the possible flavors, but you would be reading this all day.
But there are general classifications, based on location, that you can use to group scotches into flavor profiles. This will help you when picking out a bottle!
The Highlands – northern-most region of Scotland and by far the largest. Flavors vary, so they can be hard to pin down. You’ll find a range from light, fruity, and sweet, too salty, dark, and rich. Examples: Dalmore, Ardmore, and Oban
- Wood Smoke
- Fruit: Citrus, Apples, Pears
- Occasional Peat
Speyside – Just off the shoulder of the Highlands, this is Scotland’s most productive region. Speysides are generally lighter and brighter, perfect for casual sipping. They remind you of walking through an orchard or a spring meadow. But they have a darker, spicier side too. Examples: The Macallan, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet
- Orchard fruit: Apple, Pears
- Honey or Caramel
- Green: Grass, Herbs, Mint
- Light Spices
The Lowlands – The lightest and gentlest of the scotches, often called “The Lowland Ladies” for their soft floral and perfume-like quality. Examples: Annandale and Eden Mill
- Floral Notes: Apple blossoms, white flowers
The Islands – variable based on the Island, but generally heavy in heather and peat smoke with a honey sweetness. Examples: Jura, Talisker, Highland Park
- Peat Smoke
- Heather Smoke
- Sea Brine
Islay – well-known and distinguishable for their intense smoky peat and clear salty brine. Flavors vary based on type of peat used: aromatic, spicy or medicinal. Smoked meat, brine, moss, and iodine are common notes. Examples: Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig
- Intense Peat
- Smoked Meat or Fish or Leather
- Hot Spices: Chilis, Pepper, Cinnamon
- Antiseptic “Hospital Smell” (in some)
- Green moss or herbs
- Sea Minerals: Sea Salt, Brine
Campbeltown – distinguished by their salt, vanilla, and wet wool notes. You’ll note toffee and dried fruit too. Campbeltown scotches, like Islay, are highly distinctive. Examples: Glen Scotia, Springbank, Glengyle
- Vanilla or Toffee
- Dried Fruit
- Wet Wool
The Best Single Malt for Beginners: Glenfiddich 10
Glenfiddich is one of the classic Speyside Single Malts. It’s full of bright orchard flavors, pear cream, and sweet honey. Any easy sip and a classic way to start your first scotch experience.
The Best Classic Single Malt: Glenmorangie 10
Glenmorangie 10 is a medium-bodied Highland whisky. It’s warming, but pleasantly honey sweet, with a bit of spice at the end. You won’t find intense peat or smoke here, but it’s a classic “original.” It’s a good opportunity to get familiar with malt.
The Best Single Malt for Peat Lovers: Ardbeg 10
One of the most intense peats around, Ardbeg 10 is full of thick mossy smoke, rich smoked fish, and some sea salt. There is less medicinal flavor than you find in Laphroaig and less meat than you find in Lagavulin. Overall a greener, grassier dram with intense peat smoke.
The Best Single Malt for Risk Takers: Caol Ila 12
A very intense dram that needs quite a bit of water. But you’ll note interesting flavors like coconut, boiled fruits, and a bit of grass and sherbert!
What is Double Malt?
Here’s where things get tricky. Legally, there is no such thing as double malt. The designation does not exist. There is no technical process that creates a “double malt.” And, in all my years of buying scotches, I’ve never encountered a bottle labeled “double malt.”
That said, it does exist in marketing terms. But because there is no legal definition, “double malt” could really mean anything. (It’s genesis was likely to avoid less-prized phrases like “blended.” But, of course, I can’t say for certain.)
So, what could this term mean? Let’s take a deeper look at what we could change about single malt to make it…double.
Vatted or Blended Malt
A Vatted whisky and vatted malt are old terms for Blended malt. “Blended malt scotch whisky” is the legal, technical term for a blend of two or more single malt whiskys from two different distilleries. Simply, these are single malt scotches from different areas of Scotland that are blended together to create a new bottle with a specific taste profile.
How is this different from Single Malt? Remember single malt is a blend of matured scotches from all within one distillery, a highlight of that distillery’s technique.
A vatted malt is a blend of matured scotches from different distilleries, usually created by a separate blending company.
Vatted or Blended Malt is probably the closest approximation of what “double malt” is intended to mean, though we can’t be sure. Many vatted malt scotch bottles only include two distilleries and these will be marked on the bottle.
Other vatted malts include more than two single malts. The age stated on the bottle is still the youngest whisky included in the blend. Compass Box makes a number of these that we will discuss below!
Blended whisky means a blend of both malt and grain whisky. They often have a poor or cheaper reputation and hardly ever have the age listed on the bottle. But that doesn’t mean they are all low-quality. Johnnie Walker and Famous Grouse are among the most popular blends.
Simply a blend of only single grain whiskys, no malt, no barley. These single grain whiskys also come from many locations and are blended by a blending company. This is the least likely definition, but we’re including it to cover all our bases. Compass Box Hedonism is a good example.
What does Vatted Malt or Blended Malt taste like?
This is possibly even harder to explain than single malt because there are just so many options. However, they are probably even easier to buy according to taste. Why? Blending companies will carefully select specific single malts to create a specific taste profile.
A perfect example is Compass Box Peat Monster. For this particular blend, Compass Box selected the strongest, peatiest, smokiest scotches around. While the exact formula is a secret, you know that the single malt scotches in Peat Monster are specifically targeted towards peat lovers.
So while no two blended malts will taste exactly the same, you can estimate flavor based on either the distilleries included (if they listed) or the name of the whisky blend itself.
What does Blended Whisky taste like?
Blended whisky is similar to blended malt in the number of options you can find. However blended whisky won’t be as clearly marked with the style and type so you’ll have to get some help when shopping for a bottle you like. They range from light, honey, citrusy, and floral to dark, rich, caramely, and spicy.
You should note that blended grains will be much lighter and more approachable since grains like wheat and corn tend to be sweeter. Unless you get a rye blend, then be prepared for a bit of a kick!
The Best Vatted Malt for Beginners: Monkey Shoulder
A “fun and quirky” take on Blended Malt whiskys, Monkey Shoulder is a blend of Speyside scotch full of smooth and rich citrus flavors, a bit of honey, and creamy flavors. It is incredibly easy to drink and excellent in a mixed drink too.
The Best Classic Vatted Malt: Johnnie Walker Green Label
Possibly one of the most common and classic scotches you’ll find on shelves today. Johnnie Walker Green Label is a harmonious blend of Speyside, Highland, Lowland and The Island scotches. The notes are fairly rich with chocolate, espresso, and dark nuts. But there’s a vibrant touch of vanilla and oak and pepper too.
The Best Vatted Malt for Peat Lovers: Compass Box Peat Monster
If you love peat, here’s the blended malt for you! It includes blends from Laphroiag, Caol Ila, Ledaig, Ardmore, and others. The peat smoke and salty meat notes are undeniable, of course, but there is also something light and floral like roses and tropical fruits.
The Best Blended Whisky for Beginners: Dewar’s White Label
This blend has been around since 1899 and includes 40 different grain and malt whiskies! Dewar’s is fairly classic and easily found in shops or bars. It’s light with honey and a bit of toffee, fudge or milk chocolate.
The Best Blended Grain for Beginners: Compass Box Hedonism
Light and delicious with strong cake and fruit notes, Hedonism is the perfect example of what a blended grain whisky should taste like. You’ll notice a bit of spice and chocolate on the finish, but it’s a light and smooth blend full of cereal flavors.
FAQ’s About Single Malt vs. Double Malt
Making single malt scotch is really difficult and involves lots of different processes and the main thing that makes single malt more expensive is the angel’s share and rarity. So, the scotch tends to be more expensive not because of how old they are, but because of their rarity.
There are a few things that go really well with scotch and that include Cheese like Roquefort, Gouda or Swiss, you can also try Pork ribs, and if you are looking for a dessert you can try fruit like apple or pears or dark chocolate as well.
If you are starting to drink scotch for the first time, you can try adding a little bit spring water and stir it, or add one to two ice cubes in it in order to be able to release all of the flavors.
Single Malt vs. Double Malt – The Final Choice?
Single Malt, always single malt. Always pick something you can identify and guarantee quality over something you can’t. Since double malt has no legal definition, it’s wise to shell out for the legitimate single malt.
That is not to say you shouldn’t enjoy a clearly labeled Vatted or a Blended scotch. Some of these are really quite excellent and full of delicious flavors you won’t get in a single malt. Vatted and Blended selections are often much more consistent in flavor across the years as well. Blended scotch whisky is a great chance to have some fun and experiment with different styles of whisky. So don’t be a single malt snob, give blended malt scotch a try too!
If you want to try something labeled “double malt,” try to find one that is clearly labeled with the distilleries included so you at least know what you’re getting.