What is Single Malt Whiskey?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Whiskey is an alcoholic beverage made through a distillation process. It uses different grains to produce a strong tasting drink, and there are very high quality and low quality whiskies on the market. Some of the most preferable types are called single malt whiskey, and these must be made in a special process, and with certain ingredients. It should be noted that whiskey is the more common spelling for Ireland and American, while others use the spelling whisky instead.

Some whiskeys are aged in wooden barrels.
Some whiskeys are aged in wooden barrels.

Unlike mixed malt whiskies, a single malt whiskey is made with only one grain, and the most common choice is barley. The average ingredients for a single malt whiskey are simple and few in number, and most are simply a combination of grain, water and yeast. Malting refers to the way the grain is treated to increase its sugar levels. It is first soaked in water for about three days, which causes the grains to begin to germinate, and then further growth is stopped by heating the grains to a certain temperature.

True single malt whiskey is rarely mixed, but is instead consumed in a pure form.
True single malt whiskey is rarely mixed, but is instead consumed in a pure form.

Once the grains have been through the malting process, they are ground and added to water to begin to create the drink. Several more steps are involved, including adding yeast, to begin fermentation. Eventually the whiskey ends up being stored in large vats or barrels, where it may continue to age for many years. Though some single malts are sold after three of aging, which is often considered minimum aging time, others may rest in barrels for ten or twenty years, and a lengthier aging process may add to price, reputation, and taste.

The phrase single malt also means that the whiskey has been produced at one distillery, though this does not mean the alcohol was all made at the same time. Description of a single malt whiskey from one batch is more specific and usually is referred to as single batch, or alternately, whiskey bottled from one cask or barrel may be called single cask. Another distinction is between single malt whiskey and single malt scotch whisky. Using the term Scotch whisky is controlled and means that the whisky had to be produced in Scotland.

Given the effort it takes to create this alcohol, it is no wonder that it has fans that treat it much the same as wine is treated by wine aficionados. The various whiskies made through the world, especially of the single malt type, may be tasted and savored. Expressions used to describe them can sound similar to wine tasting speak, and certainly at the upper end, a single malt whiskey can be as expensive as some of the finest bottles of wine in the world. These alcohols are usually not things dumped into mixed drinks, but are instead appreciated with slow sips that can catch all the flavor and nuances that develop during the processes of making the alcohol and aging it.

Scotch whisky has to be produced in Scotland.
Scotch whisky has to be produced in Scotland.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

RocketLanch8

I thought this single malt versus blended whiskey debate was overrated until I tried a really good Scottish single malt whiskey. I can see why some people would prefer single malt whiskey brands to lower end blended whiskeys. I thought the single malt Scotch whiskey I sampled had enough complexity and body on its own. It didn't need to be muddled together with other whiskeys.

I've heard people say that Scottish and Irish whiskeys all taste like liquid smoke, but they must not have ordered the good stuff. I can taste all sorts of flavor notes in a single malt Irish whiskey. Some of my friends can name the exact brand just by the aroma and flavor. I'm not nearly that good.

Cageybird

I have friends who won't drink anything other than a Scottish or Irish single malt whiskey. They consider blended whiskeys to be almost undrinkable, since the flavors can become so unnecessarily complex. I've tried a single malt Irish whiskey a few times, but I don't really see the appeal. I suppose I just haven't developed the same kind of discerning palate my Scotch whiskey drinking friends have.

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