What is single malt whiskey: Everything you need to know

The most important things for you summarized:

  • Single malt whiskey is made exclusively from malted barley
  • It comes from a single distillery, but can be blended from different cask bottlings
  • Usually single malt whiskey is distilled in pot stills
  • The storage time is usually at least three years

There is something dry about definitions. They don’t do justice to a drink of the gods like single malt whiskey. But it doesn’t work without a definition either. So what is a single malt?

What is single malt whisky?

single malt whiskey is whiskey made exclusively from malted barley and from a single distillery. However, not from a single cask or a separately held still. It is precisely the mixing of different cask contents that guarantees a manufacturer consistency in taste, aroma and colour.

Many associate single malt whiskey with Scotland. Although many of the highly valued single malts come from Scotland, such top-quality whiskey can also come from Scandinavia or Japan.

Since each of these countries has its own legislation , there are theoretically no one hundred percent fixed production methods. Nevertheless, most stick to the grandmaster Scotland: Malted barley, distilled on pot stills (copper stills), aged in oak barrels for at least three years, from a distillery.

Why are there such big differences between the single malts?

Just because they are single. They are the product of a specific distillery. In a specific country. In a certain environment. Hardly any product reflects the interaction of its raw materials as well as single malt whisky. How a single malt whiskey tastes depends on its production conditions

The production process also plays a role. How is the barley dried? How are the pot stills shaped? Finally the storage. In which casks does the single malt mature towards its perfection? And how long is the whiskey stored in the casks? All of these criteria have an impact on how a single malt ultimately tastes.

Single malt – the great aromatic variety

Let’s try to orientate ourselves between the different single malt whiskey styles. With the flavors light – full-bodied and smoky – soft , helpful “main wind directions” for the flavor assessment have been determined. How light or full-bodied a whiskey is depends, among other things, on the drying process of the barley

The smoky has something to do with the Scottish landscape. It’s full of peat. And this peat is used by some distilleries to dry (kiln) the barley. But be careful, there is a difference between smoky whiskey and peated whiskey: while in peated, i.e. peated whisky, the barley was actually kilned over peat, in smoky whiskey other substances are burned to dry the grain.

Back to the peat. Peat consists of dead plants. Sometimes heather dominates, as in Speyside, Scotland; sometimes seaweed like on Islay. The smoke from the peat fire and its aromas carry over to the barley and whiskey. Scotland’s Islay south coast produces the smokiest single malt whiskeys in the world. Try it yourself if you’re an Islay guy!

Perhaps it is advisable not to get to know the wildest side of single malt whiskey right away. Soft (delicate) whiskeys are made by drying the barley without smoke, purely over hot air. Another decisive factor is how often the single malt whiskey has been distilled. A triple distillation at least gives the direction to a softer character.

The stills are also important – the more contact with the copper, the smoother the whiskey becomes. The length of storage and the type of cask determine whether the wine is rich or light. For example, the oak wood of sherry casks gives the single malt whiskey lush aromas of coffee, tobacco, chocolate, raisins and red fruits.

How is Scottish single malt made?

It all starts with the barley and the water. Scottish water is very special. It’s incredibly soft, as Scotland’s geology is devoid of limestone.

Whiskey production uses a lot of water – for soaking the barley or cooling the stills, for example. Therefore, when you see a whiskey distillery, there is always good water nearby. Single malt whiskey is distilled in copper pot stills.

Some distilleries still malt themselves. To do this, the barley is soaked and laid out on germ trays. Once the starch has turned into sugar, the grain goes to the malting floor. There it is dried with hot air or peat fire. In the next step, the malt goes to the grain mill and is ground into malt flour. From there it enters the mash tun. The sugar is dissolved out with hot water in several steps.

Off to the still

The whiskey experts cool the sugar solution down to 20 degrees. They skim off the mash, pour the liquid into large fermentation vats, and add yeast cultures. These convert the sugar into alcohol.

After two to four days, a kind of beer has emerged (Scottish “wash”) with an alcohol content of between eight and nine percent. This beer comes in the copper still, the pot still. The first fire produces an alcohol content of between 20 and 25 percent. The intermediate product enters the second pot still where it is distilled to 65 to 70 percent alcohol by volume. Both the size and shape of the still, as well as the temperature during firing, affect the taste of the whiskey.

The shape of the stills affects the taste of your single malt whiskey. Long, slender forms produce smooth distillatesShort, squat ones produce a strong, intense taste. The intensity of the heating also has an effect: the hotter and faster it is burned, the less soft the whiskey turns out.

How the cask affects the character of the whisky

The first and last runnings of the finished distillate are discarded. They contain methanol, fusel oils and undesirable flavors. Only the core, the clear and tastefully balanced middle course, gets from the still into the barrel.

The cask storage of a single malt whiskey is an art in itself. There are barrels between 125 and 500 liters capacity. They are always made of oak wood. Oak is breathable, resin-free and durable. Whiskey casks are always oak casks.

Raw whiskey is absolutely colorless, clear as water. It only takes on its color and concentrated aromas during maturation. Most distilleries use American white oak bourbon casks. They transfer wood and vanilla aromas as well as notes of citrus fruits to the whiskey. Others rely on sherry or port wine casks, which impart dark fruit aromas and opulent notes of chocolate and tobacco to their contents. Aging in ex-rum casks also occurs.

The storage location and its climate also play a role. A single malt from India reaches its maturity much faster than in the snowy Scottish Highlands. The choice of the right cask storage has a very significant influence on the aromatic character of the single malt.

The Angels Share

While the whiskey gains in colour, softness and nuances in the cask, around two percent of liquid evaporates during storage each year and thus 0.2 to 0.6 percent by volume of alcohol. The evaporation rate is what the well-spoken Scots call “Angels Share”. Single malt whiskey is a god-given drink for them. Angels Share is the proportion of whiskey that evaporates during cask storage.

The Marriage of the Barrels

Finally, the Master Blender comes into play. A very creative job in the distilleries, because now it’s about blending the whiskeys from the individual casks to a brand-typical taste.

Note: Most single malt whiskeys are blends from several casks. Nevertheless, they can be addressed as single malts, because they come from a single distillery and are based on malted barley. This distinguishes them from blended whiskeys, a mixture of different types of whisky. The single cask whiskey is a special case: it only comes from a single cask. Single cask whiskey is a special case. This is a single malt that comes from a single cask and is often sold in limited editions. Some independent bottlers have specialized in this and offer uncolored single casks without cold filtration. With such a drop you get a particularly natural product in your bar.

Difference between Single Malt Whiskey and Blended Scotch Whisky

Since whiskey has always been there in Scotland, it has of course become the national drink. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was not single malt that dominated, but blended Scotch whiskey. This is a blend of complex malt whiskey and grain whiskey. This is mainly based on wheat, corn and rye.

The blended Scotch whiskey tastes sweeter and more pleasing than a single malt. This produces round, easy-to-sip whiskeys and has long appealed to the public’s taste. The single malt whiskey renaissance began when Glenfiddich launched a single malt in the 1960s. Since then, the single malt has become the flagship of whisky.

Difference between single malt whiskey and bourbon whiskey

Bourbon whiskey is spelled with an e. But that’s just one of many differences. Bourbon comes from the USA. It is distilled from a grain mixture in which corn dominates. Distillation takes place in stainless steel column stills and not in copper stills. Unlike single malt, bourbon is not only made from barley.

Bourbon is always aged in new, freshly burned oak casks. There is no minimum storage period like with Scottish single malt whisky. Due to the high proportion of corn, the soft taste nuances dominate in bourbon. The fresh oak casks and the burnout give this American whiskey powerful notes of wood, vanilla and caramel.

Whiskey from other countries

So far, the Scottish single malt whiskey has been the focus. There’s a good reason for that. You must first get to know the measure of all things before you judge others. The Scottish distillation and storage process is considered the ultimate in all notable distilleries. Ireland has at least as long a whiskey (here with e) tradition as Scotland. But the Emerald Isle has repeatedly been slowed down politically and economically. Irish single malt whiskey has only been on the rise again in recent years.

Indian and Japanese whiskey

The Japanese are regarded worldwide as an outstanding nation of craftsmen. They master the craftsmanship of distilling whiskey admirably. Producer Yamazaki creates a Japanese whiskey that is considered one of the most expensive and coveted of its kind in the world. In Japan, too, people know how good single malt is made.

Let’s take another look at the country with the largest whiskey production. That’s not Scotland, it’s India. Whiskey enthusiasts may have heard of the Amrut distillery, which outperformed Scottish single malts in blind tastings. In doing so, they prove that good whiskey distilling is not necessarily tied to a particular country or climate. However, whiskey blends are mainly bottled in India.

Whiskey from Kenya

There are also some interesting whiskey producers in Germany who can hold a candle to their Scottish colleagues in terms of craftsmanship and passion.

Single malt from the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Spain

In addition, the rest of mainland Europe also has excellent whiskeys to offer. There is also excellent whiskey in the Czech Republic, Spain or Switzerland that real whiskey connoisseurs should definitely try.

Alternative to single malt whiskey from Ireland or whiskey from Scotland:

  • Trebitsch single malt whiskey from the Czech Republic – kosher whiskey from the Trebitsch Distillery
  • Maund Whiskey from Switzerland – Single malt whiskey made in the Alps
  • Single malt whiskey from Spain – e.g. from the Destilería Acha

Questions & answers about single malt

Single malt whisky: the older the better?

Whether an older whiskey actually tastes better than a younger one actually depends more on your personal taste. Nevertheless, there is a clear relation to whiskey age: the longer a whiskey matures, the more expensive it becomes. The Laphroaig distillery in Scotland is one of the most famous whiskey distilleries in the world. This can be explained quite simply – with every year that the spirit is allowed to mature longer, more and significantly more complex aromas end up in it. However, this also means more work for the distillery (or less space to store new whiskey), which is why an 18-year-old whiskey is usually more expensive than a 10-year-old whiskey.

As far as the quality of the whiskey is concerned, this means the same thing that applies to all other foodstuffs: the slower it is produced and therefore the longer it has had to mature to its full aroma, the better the quality. Of course, you have to decide for yourself which whiskey you personally like better.

The following applies to beginners in whiskey drinking: It is best to start with the milder whiskeys. Before you dare to try strong, peaty variants, you should first give your palate the opportunity to get to know the aromatic basic palette of the whisky. Only gradually increase your smoke aroma and find out where the best aroma can be found for you.

Are there bottle-aged single malts?

Definitely no. The maturation and development of the single malt takes place in the cask. Once bottled, it has only one purpose: to be opened to flatter your senses.

How do you drink single malt?

The tumbler probably comes to mind immediately. This is a relatively low drinking glass with a heavy base and a wide opening. You can fill your bourbon in there, optionally with ice – but never a single malt whiskey. Because through the large opening, the fine nuances of this complex drink evaporate, never to be tasted again.

Get a nosing glass (with a stem) or a Glencairn glass (with a stem ). Both taper upwards , sending the concentrated flavors straight to your nose. The whiskey is at room temperature. And there are never ice cubes in your glass. Those who prefer their single malt chilled can use stone or metal ice cubes/ However, as the temperature drops, you lose quite a bit of flavor variety. It is always best to drink single malt from a nosing or a Glencairn glass.

After pouring, the first thing to do is wait. It is said that the single malt needs one minute to rest in the glass for every barrel year. Then carefully lead to the nose, sniff, hold away, sniff again. A good single malt whiskey is incredibly aromatic.

A nosing wheel helps with orientation. This is a disc where you can sort the flavors into major and minor groups. The first sip stays in the mouth for a moment , playing over the tongue and palate. Feel the taste as you swallow and repeat the process with the other sips. Always thoughtful and focused.

Can you dilute single malt whiskey with water?

Maybe a matter of taste, but actually unnecessary. After all, the normal cask strengths of between 40 and 46 percent have already been diluted with water by the distilleries. At best, water may be added to the higher-proof whiskeys – but always try, drop by drop. You don’t need to dilute your whiskey. It is therefore better to use stone or stainless steel cubes for cooling.

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