Friday, December 23, 2011

Single Malt Scotch vs. Blended Malts vs. Blended Whisky

It has been quite some time since I've posted anything, life has a way of keeping me busy.  One thing that has been on my mind lately is the issue of Scotch Whisky and the various forms we can enjoy it.  Single malt whisky is seen by some as the gold standard of whisky in the scotch whisky industry, and to some degree that is true but only to a degree.  In this blog I am going to discuss my thoughts on the three styles of scotch whisky that are available to us and why as a consumer we should not get too hung up on being snobby about only the single malts.

The undisputed king of the refined palate when it comes to scotch is single malt whisky.  There is a world-wide industry that flourishes with the idea that the finest scotch available is in single malt whisky.  What is a single malt whisky?  It can best be defined as a whisky that is produced, barrelled, and aged at the same distillery and then blended at that same distillery to be bottled.  A sub-category is single cask single malt whisky which is exactly what it sounds like..a distillery takes one cask and fills bottles only from that cask...and typically such bottling are at a high alcohol content as compared to other single malts, though that is not always a constant thing.  I do enjoy single malts very much, and they truly are the very essence of whisky making...all blends either blended malts or blended whisky starts as a single malt.  Another way of thinking of single malts is they are fingerprints of whisky....they are uniquely individual creatures...each region of Scotland having their own special characteristics ..and each distillery having its own uniqueness influenced by factors such as the style of malted barley they use, the water source, the yeast strain, how the barley is malted, the type of pot stills used, the uniqueness of the Lyne arm used, the barrels used to age the whisky in, the length of time a whiksy is aged, all of these things and more have an influence on the appearance of single malt whiskies.  As a result single malt whiskies can lend themselves to an incredible canvas which the distillery masters create incredibly good or not so good whiskies.  Just because a scotch whisky lays claim to being a single malt, and in fact is a single malt, does not mean it is a high quality, delicious whisky.  A very good argument can be made that the smaller independent distilleries such as Glenfarclas and Bruichladdich are excelling at producing better quality, superior single malts than are the big boys such as Glenfiddich and Glenlivet. Can something be done to take advantage of this diversity of flavor profiles that is the range of single malts being produced?  Absolutely, this is where blended malt and blended whisky comes into their own.

Aren't all blends the same? Isn't J&B the same vs Teacher's Highland Cream vs Hogshead?  Of course the answer is no, not by a long shot.  The last brand I mentioned, Hogshead, is an example of the category of scotch called blended malt or vatted malt.  What is a blended malt?  A blended malt is a whisky that is created by taking single malt whiskies from different distilleries and blending them together to attain a specific style of whisky.  The most well know blended malt whiskies are the Johnny Walker range that starts with the Green Label, goes to the Gold Label, and ends with the high priced and highly sought after Blue Label.  Each color label is separated by the others via the minimum age of the single malts used in the blend.  The Blue Label uses the oldest single malts in it's blend and the youngest whisky in that blend is around 18 to 20 years old...and some whiskies in this blended malt are much older - hence the price is often very high for this scotch...stupidly high in my opinion.  Blended malts can be affordable and provide the consumer with a very rich whisky experience.  They are generally crafted to appeal to a consumer seeking a specific flavor profile.  If you only want to savor a more refined Speyside whisky experience, or perhaps you seek a concentrated blast of Islay power there are blended malts that do a magnificent job of meeting those expectations - and they generally will not cost you an arm and a leg to obtain - generally.  As is evidenced by the Johnny Walker Blue Label, blended malts can be most expensive and hard to get depending on any number of factors.  They are quite worth exploring though, and as time goes on I will be acquiring a range of these fine whiksy styles and reviewing them for you.  This leaves us with the mass production beast of the scotch whisky industry, blended whisky.

According to Wikipedia blended whisky accounts for about 90% of the volume of scotch whisky exports from Scotland.  What is it?  Blended Scotch or blended whisky is taking blended malts or vatted malts and adding to them other grain whiskies (aged or unagedMcClelland range of single malts and Lismore are often cheaper in cost than most blends....without sacrificing too much, if any, in terms of quality.  Teacher's Highland Cream is one of my favorite blends, because it boast one of the highest percentages of single malt whiskies to be part of the recipe for the blends...and the flavor profile reflects this in a positive way in my view.  Why do distillers mix grain whiskies with single malts?  Simply stated the grain whiskies tend to help take the sharp edge off of the single malts in the blend to make the whiksy more palatable to people and more agreeable for use as a mixed drink ingredient...and help ensure exceptional consistency in the product from day to day, month to month, year to year - reliability, consistency, and volume of production are the main concerns of the makers of the blends.   Still, keep an open mind to blends, especially those starting out their journey in enjoying scotch.  They can be excellent ambassadors of a most unique and diverse universe of delicious scotch whiksy.

Each style of scotch has their function withing the realm of scotch appreciation....while single malts do reflect the individual excellence of a robust whiksy industry, the consumer can still enjoy a great deal that scotch has to offer by exploring all three styles. Indeed as you gain in knowledge of scotch you may well become experienced enough to identify what single malts are being used in blended malts and in blended scotch.

Soon, I will endeavor to write about the cost of scotch and bourbon, and other spirits. One does not have to spend a small fortune to establish a tasty and diverse scotch, bourbon, and other spirits collection.  By the way, I do not buy scotch or bourbon to sit upon a shelf unopened and unconsumed as some kind of investment. No, I buy them to drink them, which is what the hard working people at distilleries all over the world work so very had to achieve...and product that is consumed and enjoyed.


  1. Watch out Bourbon is taking over the world...

  2. Dg, that is the interesting dynamic in the competition today between scotch and bourbon, and competition there certainly is both here in the States and internationally. You have planted a seed for another blog I may starting on soon...thanks!