There is no denying that whisky can be a confusing spirit to understand, even for the more experienced drinkers out there. One of the most common questions I got asked as a bar tender was “what’s the difference between a single malt scotch and a blended scotch?”
The easy answer is just single malt comes from one distillery while blended can come from many distilleries. But for those whisky connoisseurs who want to really understand the differences, let’s take an in-depth look. It’s not as complicated as it seems!
The Main Difference between Single Malt and Blended Scotch
- Single Malt is made from barley only
- Blended Scotch can be made of barley and other grains
- Single Malt comes from one distillery
- Blended Scotch is a mixture from many distilleries
- Single Malt can be used to make Blended Scotches
- Blended Scotches are generally cheaper than Single Malts
What is Scotch?
First, let’s clarify what we mean by “Scotch.” You’ll find this phrase thrown around it just about any spirit class you take- “all scotches are whisky, but not all whiskies are scotch.” (Seriously, some variation applies to wines, ports, brandies, bourbons, etc. Get used to hearing it now.)
So, put simply, a Scotch is a whisky. But it is a very special type of whisky. Specifically, Scotch is a whisky that comes from Scotland. Which you probably guessed from the name! (Another idea to get used to in the spirit world. Specific locations like to have specific names for their spirits. Think of Champagne, Bordeaux, Cognac, Irish Whiskey, Kentucky Bourbon, etc.)
Scotland has specific regulations for what can and cannot be called a Scotch. They get very detailed, but the basics are:
- Scotch must be produced in Scotland
- Scotch must be produced from barley and other whole grains
- Scotch must be matured no less than 3 years in oak casks
- Scotch must be distilled and fermented in the same location
How is Scotch Made?
Since the difference in Single Malt and Blended lay somewhat in the process, it’s worth it to do a quick review of scotch-making.
Making Scotch involves six distinct steps.
Barley is harvested, then soaked in water to induce germination. Germination is then halted fairly quickly by heating from an underground furnace.
The roasted malted barley is ground and combined with water to draw out sugars.
The mashed “wort” is placed into a “drum” and combined with yeast to start fermenting those yummy sugars into alcohol.
The fermented mash goes through distillation to remove the alcohol from the malt mixture. This usually occurs over two separate distillations: wash and spirit. In the end, the purest part of the alcohol is condensed and proceeds to…
The whisky, usually a clear liquid after distillation, is poured into a barrel specifically selected by the distiller for its flavors. The whisky is then aged in these barrels for anywhere from 3 years up to decades. This is where it gathers its color and flavor.
Different barrels of whisky are combined to create the perfect collection of flavors that you find in your freshly poured glass. (You’re drinking one while you read this, right?!)
Alright, review over. So where do we get the differences in single malt and blended?
A single malt is scotch, made from majority barley, but distilled all in one distillery. Think of it like a distillery’s specialty.
Each distillery uses a variety of unique and specific processes and techniques to create their own single malt. They tend to be consistent through different bottles (master distillers work hard to make this the case), so if you like Oban 12 year, you can rest assured it will be consistent bottle to bottle.
A common misconception, is that “single malt” means it comes from one single barrel. This is not true. The “single” refers to the location or distillery, not to the barrel!
In fact, most single malts are actually mixes and blends of different barrels within the distillery. This is done for a number of reasons including backing up the whisky supply and cultivating the specific taste and flavor that is identified with each distillery.
Each single malt contains whisky from many different casks, but only one distillery.
Most distilleries create several different single malts, produced through different maturing times spent in the oak casks. They can range from “young” 10-12 year all the way up to 18-21 year bottles! Any bottle of single malt scotch is labeled with the youngest whisky used in it. So if you buy a 12 year, you may be drinking a bottle with even older whisky mixed in.
Single Barrel Scotch
Now, this is the version of single malt that comes from only one specific batch or barrel! They are rare, since most bottles and flavors are created by blending several barrels together. These are really only saved for absolutely special barrels. (Obviously, this also means it comes from one specific distillery as well so they also count as single malts.)
Single Malt vs Single Grain
Another demarcation is single malt vs single grain. Again, the “single” here refers to a single distillery. The difference lies in grain vs malt!
A quick review. For Scotch purposes, the following is true:
- Malt – barley
- Grain – corn, wheat, rye
So, while single grain whiskies do have to come from one distillery, they do not have to come from malted barley. Corn, rye, and wheat can be used, and it can be malted or unmalted.
Because of the effects of corn and wheat, grain whiskies tend to be sweeter and lighter.
Distillation is a huge part of the difference in malt versus grain. They use different stills to produce their whisky!
- Malt – pot stills
- Grain – coffey stills
Pot stills require double distillation, are less reliable, and create smaller batches. However, pot stills concentration and focus flavors, so it’s easier to create a specific product. (Perfect for single malts!) Coffey stills are much more reliable and can produce much larger quantities with higher ABV. Which is why these are often used in blends.
Blended Scotch Whisky
Blended Scotch is a mixture or “blend” of different whiskies from different distilleries. Single Malt is strong and difficult to produce. Blended whiskies evolved not only as a flavor alternative but a price and market alternative as well.
Blended whisky accounts for a huge percentage of whisky purchased world-wide. It takes years to make a 21 year single malt. It takes far less time to create a delicious blend. And, it appeals to a wider audience meaning more sales!
(Without selling blends, single malt distilleries would probably close. So, whether you love them or hate them, blends are necessary!) As with single distillery whiskies, blends can be divided into categories. (Though any blended scotch does have to contain one single malt and one single grain. The more malt, the higher the price!)
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
Blended malt scotch is exactly what you image. A blend of two or more single malts from various distilleries around Scotland. However, bottles can and will include a single grain.
Blended Grain Scotch Whisky
Care to take a guess at what Blended Grain whiskies are?
You got it! A blend of two or more different grain whiskies from around Scotland. These are less common than blended malts, but they do exist.
What does Scotch Taste like?
Oh boy, what a complicated question!
Just like wines, Scotch flavors are largely dependent on location. Some areas are extra peated (Islay) while others are soft and sweet (Speyside) and still others are full-bodied smoke (Highland).
When tasting from a distillery, keep in mind where in Scotland the distillery operates. There are five distinct areas of Scotland that can be grouped according to general taste. (Although bottles and distilleries do still vary within groups depending on process!)
Highland (including the Islands like Arran and Skye)
The largest region (some argue the Islands should be excluded and form their own) Highland scotches have wide variety. You can find unpeated bottles, but many have a smokey flavor, though they are lighter and with more fruitcake notes than Islay versions.
Examples: Highland Park, Talisker, The Dalmore, Glenmorangie, Oban
A subregion of the Highlands, Speyside is considered the most elegant and refined of all scotches. They are typically sweeter and nuttier, with grassy undertones.
Examples: Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, The MacAllen
This is a lower-production region with lighter and more delicate whiskies. You’ll find almost no peat or smoke in these bottles! They have soft honey and cream textures, with hints of light spice like ginger, cinnamon, and toast.
Examples: Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie
Cambelltown is a tiny region and has dramatically reduced its distillery number. But it still produces remarkably distinctive and popular malts among their following. An eclectic mix of smoke, salt, fruit, nuts, and wool combine the best of all the Scotch worlds.
Examples: Glen Scotia, Kilkerran
These are usually the heavy-hitters of Scotch. They are the strongest and most powerful with classic peat and smoke. Since the islands are swept by storms, wind, rain, and seawater, most Islay scotches also have an element of the sea. Salt, seaweed, brine, and iodine are common flavors you find with peat!
Examples: Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bunnahabhain
What does Single Malt Taste like?
Single malts are incredibly varied based on location and distillery. However, once you find a single malt from a specific distillery, the flavor will be fairly consistent bottle to bottle. Look to the list above to find which areas and distilleries have the profile you like best!
What does Blended Scotch Taste like?
The taste of Blended Scotch is harder to generalize. This is because it’s not based on any one region or any one distillery. The combination of different distilleries obviously takes away that location consistency. And since blended scotches can even combine grains, you have an even wider range of options beyond malt!
Most blended whiskies are made to focus on a few flavor notes that combine well. Generally, they are smooth with many complex notes and full-flavor profiles. (Think of Single Malts as specific instruments: saxophones, flutes. While Blended is a full orchestra!)
The downside of a blend is some of the funkier notes in specific single malts get cut out in a blend in an effort to create a smooth, balanced bottle. But the flip side is by playing around with quantities, blenders can achieve really unique and complex flavor combinations!
Blended gets a bad reputation, since many younger versions tend to mix something good with lots of low quality whisky. But the older you go, the more likely you are to find really excellent bottles. (Some can even rival Single Malts, but don’t tell anyone I said so.)
The only advice I can really give you here is to go out and try a few. Some of them give you an obvious clue on the bottle. (Compass Box Peat Monster is a good example. But for the love of scotch, don’t buy a bottle of that unless you know you like peat!) Others you’ll just have to give a shot.
If you’re wary, you can always go to a bar and try a glass or two of a selection that interests you before you buy a whole bottle!
Scotch for Beginners
The question so many new whisky drinkers ask is “where do I start with scotch?” It’s true, scotch has achieved an almost mythical status in the whisky world and many view it as inaccessible. But it doesn’t have to be!
Below are some suggestions for first tastings. (I do recommend ordering a glass at a bar before investing. But if you want to take the plunge with a bottle, more power to you!)
I tried to stay away from the classics like Johnny Walker and J&B, but you can always start with those as well.
1. The Glenlivet 12 Year
The Glenlivet is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland and was the first one to incorporate “The” into it’s name. (Other distilleries kept stealing it’s brand because it was so popular!) This is probably one of the most common single malts to start with.
A classic Speyside, Glenlivet is sweeter, milder, and fruitier. Your new palate won’t get overwhelmed by peat, but you’ll get a bit of a zesty finish to expose you to scotch spice.
2. Caol Ila 12 Year
If you’re intrigued by peat, this is the way to go. It’s not overwhelming for an Islay, reminiscent of barbecue or bacon rather than a full-blown campfire or peat block. You’ll notice it in the background behind oils, salt, and grass.
3. The Balvenie 12 Year Double Wood
This is my personal favorite start because…it’s the first whisky I ever tried!
Aged in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, Balvenie 12 combines the best of toffee and vanilla with cream and spices. You’ll avoid getting too much spice from the sherry, as the sweeter chocolate notes temper it out! (When I tried it, I honestly thought I’d never need to taste another whisky again. Obviously I was wrong, but it was that good for young-me!)
1. Compass Box Great King Street Artist’s Blend
Compass Box has really been revolutionizing the blended whisky category. Their goal seems to be making blends more universally appealing and whisky-making more transparent. They are an excellent and accessible brand for beginners and experts alike.
Artist’s Blend is mostly malt, but with a bit of grain mixed in.
2. Monkey Shoulder
Definitely a sweeter, softer blend full of vanilla, nuts, and fruit since it’s blended from Speyside malts. If you like Maker’s Mark Bourbon, you’ll enjoy this option. There’s no grain mixed in, so you’ll be able to adjust your palate to malt before proceeding on!
3. Chivas Regal 12
Chivas Regal regularly wins awards and there’s a reason why! Full of honey, herbs, and fruit, its creamy texture is easily sipped and the price is remarkably accessible.
The Best Classic Single Malt Scotches
I firmly believe every human on the planet should try a single malt once before they die. There is something so richly superb in a distillery’s pure expression of their malt. Below are some of my top choices of classic single malt scotches you can find nearly anywhere!
(Many of these are also good for beginners looking to try specific regions!)
1. Talisker 10 Year $70
This is my top daily dram! I love the comforting salty, smokey peat, reminiscent of a beach campfire. Pear and caramel keep some sweet notes in the finish. I’m also a big fan of spicy scotches, and the notes of pepper, toast, and malt compete my dream!
2. Laphroaig 10 Year $60
I had to put this one on my list or my boyfriend would complain. (And, to be fair, it does deserve its place on the list!)
Laphroaig 10 is an Islay peated, no way around it. It has a strong medicinal taste and a powerful brine flavor. Iodine, sea salt, and mangos make up the rest of the flavors. It’s a classic example of an Islay!
3. Highland Park 12 $50
Something of a gold standard for single malts, especially from the highlands. Warm, silky, and sweet this is a perfect example of the lighter and more luxurious highland dram! They hit the nail on the head with their own description of honey-heather. It’s full-bodied, so the faint notes of smoke round out the palate. Excellent and delightful!
4. Glenfiddich 12 $60
If you didn’t try Glenlivet first, chances are you tried the Glenfiddich! Another classic Speyside, this is sweet, nutty, and fruity. Wood, toffee, and vanilla are key, and Glenfiddich is known for its creamy pear flavor and texture. The distinctive Speyside grassiness comes out towards the end!
5. The Macallen 18 Year (Sherry Oak) $250
Looking for a fiesty dram? Aged in ex-sherry casks The Macallen 18 hits all the points of oranges, dried fruit and hot spice. The touch of fruit keeps it from being overpowering. What a smooth and complex drink it is!
Bonus: Lagavulin 16 $90
This was the second scotch I tried. The peat was a little much for me on my first go, I’ll admit. But a year or so later Lagavulin 16 surpassed Balvenie as my favorite!
The Lagavulin 16 has such an excellent depth of flavor it was impossible for me to leave off this list. Another Islay, the notes of driftwood, leather, and strong peat reach you first. But they are quickly followed by sweet apples and toasted bread. There’s a hint of salt in keeping with the storm-swept island. Save this one for your favorite guests! (Or just keep it to yourself…)
The Best Blended Scotches in 2019
Below are some of my particular favorite blended whiskies. They aren’t in any particular order, since each one has a slightly different flavor profile! (Comparing a peated blend to a fruity one is like comparing apples and oranges.)
*You might be asking why I’ve selected classic single malts and year-specific blends. Because single malt scotches are products of specific distilleries, they are often prized for their consistency and pure expression of one distillery. Blends, on the other hand, can appear and disappear as the years go on and the mixtures change!
1. Compass Box No Name (Blended Malt) $150
If you love peat, this is absolutely the way to go. Compass Box specifically created this bottle to focus on the peat bombs of the whisky world. There are combinations of both Islay and Highland scotch, but a background of ripe red fruits like cherries and plums and autumn leaves keeps it very interesting!
2. Douglass Laing’s Rock Oyster $50
An excellent blend of all the island distilleries (Arran, Skye, Islay, Jura, Orkney), the maritime flavors are strong in this blend. Oak, sea salt, and honey start off. There is a hint of peat and smoke in the background to finish off the warm, stormy glass.
3. Dewar’s 18 Year Old $57
Malt and grain together blend in a perfect creamy texture. This one is heavy on grain notes of malted barley and oak. There is a lovely vanilla tail, and a very honeyed almond flavor. Only the faintest hints of salt and peat for those listening carefully.
4. The Famous Grouse $30
This serves as both a sipper and a mixer. First, made in 1896 it’s popular world-wide and especially in its home country! Toffee, malt, and cookies are the main flavors. The tiniest amount of spice and smoke come through towards the finish!
5. Haig Dimple 15 Year $40
You might know this one if you watched Breaking Bad. It’s warm, medium-bodied, and well-balanced. Strong notes of toffee, caramel, and even fudge shine through – indicating high malt origins.
Bonus: Hibiki 17 (Very hard to find!)
Not technically a Scotch since it comes from Suntory in Japan, but in the world of blended whiskies, Hibiki really outstanding. (And much of the Japanese technique was pulled from Scotland so we’ll cheat here!)
Hibiki is very fruit-forward, citrus peels, rains, and cooked fruits mixed with honey. Nuts and smoke make an appearance in the finish.
How do I serve Scotch?
Both Single Malt and Blended Scotches can be served the same ways!
- Neat – room temperature, alone in a glass
- On the Rocks – over ice, either a few cubes or one giant one
- With water – sometimes you can add just a tiny bit of water to a neat scotch to bring out hidden aromas and widen the flavor
What is whisky versus whiskey?
It’s really just another one of those designation things. America and Ireland and nearly everywhere else in the world spells their whiskey with an “e.” Scotland (and Japan interestingly) spell theirs without the e. It’s the same thing at the heart. Just a good way to indicate location!
What is vatting versus blending?
Vatting is really just a fancier way of saying blending.
So What Can I Take Away?
In the world of scotches, everything is dependent on location. So if you get confused, focus on that aspect.
A single malt comes from one distillery, one location. It’s a chance for that distillery to showcase its unique whiskey-making process. Once you find a good Single Malt Scotch, you know you’ll have a best friend for life!
A blended scotch can be a combination of many different distilleries and even many different grain types. They are an excellent way to select a specific flavor profile, and you always have the option to try new blends as the years go by! Now head out to your local bar and sample the best Scotland has to offer. (And now you’ll actually know what you’re ordering!)