Friday, February 24, 2017

How big of a deal is it whether that whisky is a “single malt”?

For many, the term “single malt” carries with it a cachet as perhaps a superior product.  Is it?  How much does it mean that a whisky is a “single malt”?

The “single” in “single malt” means that all of the whisky in the bottle was distilled at the same distillery.  If you mix two or more single malts, you have a “blended malt” such as a Monkey Shoulder, a Johnnie Walker Green Label, or any of a number of Compass Box whiskies.  To say that “single malts” are better is apparently to say that they are better because of their purity of character or flavor?

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

First, let’s say that you own a distillery and you decide to expand.  You buy the parcel of land next door and build an exact duplicate of your distillery on that parcel, “cloning” your first distillery.  You buy exactly the same kind of stills for the second distillery.  You have both distilleries draw their water from the same sources at the same places. You use the same grain in both distilleries, the same yeast and the same procedures in every respect.  Your warehouse is plenty big, so once you have distilled your whiskies you mature the whiskies from both distilleries in the same warehouse, side by side, in identical casks.  Let’s say that when you are bottling the whiskies, you permit an undetectably small amount of whisky originally distilled at the clone distillery to be mixed in with the whisky from the original distillery.  You cannot call that a single malt.  It is a “blended malt”.  (The introduction of a minuscule amount of whisky from a second distillery specifically in order to keep the whisky from being sold as a “single malt” is actually done regularly in the industry, and is called “teaspooning”.)

For the second example, stay focused on the fact that most of the flavor of a whisky comes from the cask in which it is matured, which is of course independent of the distillery.  Let’s say that you decide not to expand, but instead you decide to “liven things up”.  You take a cask of whisky that has been matured in a former bourbon cask for three years in a very mild environment, and you mix it 50/50 with whisky that you have had maturing for fifteen years in a former sherry cask located on the other end of Scotland, lashed to a rocky outcropping on the southern coast of Islay.  No problem, that is still a single malt!  A real life example of something that is commonly done that is not as extreme is the common practice of “finishing” a single malt by finishing its maturation in a different type of cask in order to add a layer of different flavors.  Further, due to the uncertainties in the maturation process, in order to achieve the flavor profile that consumers expect from a given single malt, it is generally necessary to mix whiskies from different casks that taste different anyway.

So when presented with a “blended malt”, don’t automatically turn your nose up at it because it is not a “single malt”!  There really is nothing special about whisky qualifying as a “single malt”.

A brief word to prevent confusion.  I am talking about the difference between “single malts” and “blended malts”.  A “blended whisky” is indeed something different, but that is a subject for a later blog.  I will, however, go ahead and go on record saying that I am not among those who consider single malts to be inherently superior to blended whiskies.

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