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Terminology can be a confusing sticking point in pretty much all corners of the whiskey world, but that goes doubly for scotch. The similarities in some of the phrases can be impenetrable and confounding to new drinkers, who are often without the resources to know how something like “blended scotch” differs from “single malt” scotch or “single grain” scotch. Thankfully, that’s where we come in.
Single malt scotch is viewed as a prestige product—the flagship offering of most Scottish distilleries. Despite that, it actually only accounts for a small part of the overall scotch whisky market, somewhere around 10%. The vast majority of scotch being consumed by daily drinkers, then, is not single malt scotch but blended scotch whisky, in major brands such as Johnnie Walker and Dewar’s. You can read about blended whiskeys of all sorts in much more detail in our guide to blended whiskey, but let’s focus here on defining what makes single malt and single grain scotch whiskies distinctly different.
The first thing to realize is that words in whisky labeling tend to carry specific meanings, because whisky is a very tightly regulated product. You just need to know the meanings of those specific words, and the puzzle pieces quickly come together.
If you see “malt” in the title of a scotch whisky, you know the following: This whisky was distilled entirely from a fermented mash of malted barley. No other grains can be used in the making of malt whisky—not corn, or wheat, or rye, or even unmalted barley, although the latter has its place in certain Irish whiskey styles. For our scotch purposes, though, if the words “malt whisky” appear, you know that’s 100% malted barley. That fermented mash must be distilled exclusively in traditional pot stills, which are less efficient than larger column stills, but produce a more flavorful and characterful spirit. It must then be aged in oak casks no larger than 700 litres (180 U.S. gallons) for at least three years.
The word “single,” on the other hand, means that the bottle you’re holding is the product of a single distillery, rather than a collection of malt whiskies from multiple locations or distillers. As a result, single malt scotch whiskies tend to function as the calling card of any particular distillery—they are the purest expression of that distillery’s craft, because every drop of the liquid was produced on site, in the most traditional method, pot distillation.
That doesn’t mean that multiple single malts can’t be combined into one whisky, however—the result just won’t be labeled as a single malt. Rather, in products such as the popular Monkey Shoulder, a selection of single malts from different distilleries are blended into one product, which is labeled as a “blended malt scotch whisky.” Note, it can still use the word “malt,” as every whisky in it was made with 100% malted barley. The term “blended malt scotch whisky” replaced the older term “vatted malt” a decade ago, which essentially meant the same thing.
Products simply labeled as “blended scotch whisky,” on the other hand, that are missing the word “malt” entirely, are the result of combining both malt and grain whiskies in one product, and they account for most of the world’s biggest volume scotch brands. And so, we must answer the obvious question: What’s “grain whisky”?
The first thing to understand about grain whisky is the most obvious—it’s made with any grain other than malted barley. Some level of barley malt can still be present in the mash, but if there’s even one kernel of corn, rye, wheat or anything else in there, the result is technically “grain whisky.” Typically, though, these whiskies are made with zero malted barley, and are instead blends of different grains, or one variety of grain.
More important to the role grain whiskies play in the market is the fact that they are not typically distilled in pot stills. Instead, grain whiskies are usually being distilled in large, continuous column stills to a much higher proof point, which results in a “cleaner,” lighter-tasting and more pure spirit, but one that has had much more of the grain-derived flavors stripped away during distillation. As a result, these whiskies are less likely to be consumed on their own, and after aging in oak (which is mandatory for these as well) they’re typically blended with small amounts of more flavorful malt whisky in order to create widely available blended flagships such as Johnnie Walker. This “lighter” profile is preferred by many drinkers, although the market for more flavorful and intense single malt scotches has been growing larger for years.
Recent years have likewise seen an increase in “single grain” whiskies on the market. As with single malt whisky, the “single” here means the exact same thing: That bottle is the product of a single distillery. “Single grain” therefore doesn’t mean the spirit was produced with only one type of grain, which is confusingly how those words sound. Rather, it means a grain whisky produced at a single distillery, intended for neat consumption. More modern scotch distilleries have been experimenting in recent years with the flavor profiles that well-aged single grain whiskies can achieve, but it’s still a relatively young field, and there’s some natural resistance from drinkers to the idea of grain whisky as a premium product, when they’re used to seeing it exclusively in cheaper blends.
If there’s one thing that’s true of the modern scotch whisky market, though, it’s the fact that new ideas are creeping in at an ever-mounting pace. The old traditions and taboos have become much less important over the last decade or so, and distilleries are more willing than ever to experiment with new grain profiles, barrel finishes, non-age-stated releases and anything else they think might make their products stand out. As a result, it’s an exciting time to be a scotch fan, but it likely means we’ll all have some new terminology to learn before too long.
In the meantime, use your newfound knowledge of single malt and single grain scotch whiskies to sample some new bottles!
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.