What is Single Malt Whisky?
A quick guide to whisky knowledge
What is Single Malt Whisky?
Single Malt Whisky is whisky made from malted barley and produced in a single distillery.
It is typically bottled at 43% ABV or higher.
Here are a few facts you may want to know about Single Malt Whisky.
- What are some of the most representative brands?
- How does it taste like?
- How much does it cost?
- How is it produced?
- Where does it come from
1. What are some of the most representative single malt brands?
There is a huge variety of distilleries and brands producing Single Malt Whisky around the world. However, scottish distilleries are the most representative of this whisky style: there’s plenty of them and they distill some of the best Single Malt Whiskies around.
If you’re new to the whisky game and want to get right into it, try any of these and you won’t be disappointed.
If you like peated malts (that is whiskies with a smoky flavor), you should try whiskies from Islay: LAPHROAIG, LAGAVULIN or ARDBEG for example
If you have a sweet tooth, you should definitely try these malts from the Highland region of Speyside: GLENLIVET, ABERLOUR or CARDHU.
If you like lighter whiskies (at least in terms of flavor, not necessarily in ABV), choose one of these lowlanders: AUCHENTOSHANor GLENKINCHIE.
If you like floral and fruity flavors, try these highlanders: GLENMORANGIE, BEN NEVIS or DALMORE.
2. How does single malt whisky taste like?
You’ll soon find there’s no easy answer to this question.
Each distillery has its own distinctive flavor profile and that’s what makes Single Malt Whisky tasting such an intriguing activity.
However some general features are common to most single malts.
Whisky is made from malted barley (yes, just like beer): you’ll taste the sweetness of the cereal in almost any kind of whisky, and you’ll know that’s malted barley coming through.
Fermentation delivers fruity and floral flavors that go through distillation and reveal themselves in the glass.
Whisky is aged in oak casks: this imparts vanilla, buttery and creamy nuances that add to the complexity of the maturing spirit.
The wood also adds tannins, giving that astringent taste that contributes to the overall profile of the malt.
These all intertwine and give each Single Malt Whisky its own character.
3. How much does it cost?
Let’s face it: Single Malt Whisky is not cheap. In fact, it is quite expensive; and there’s a good reason for that. Most single malts are aged in oak casks for 10 or more years before they are bottled and sold. This process requires huge investments and calls for a rather high retail price. Let alone taxes, which are a big part of what the final price is made up.
With about 30 $ (23 £) you can buy some really good Single Malt Whiskies, like Talisker 10 years old, for example.
Lagavulin 16 comes at a decent 60 $ (47 £) and is an excellent introduction to Islay peated malts.
As you probably already imagine, the higher the age, the higher the price. You can expect to buy an 18 years old Single Malt for something between 100 $ and 200 $.
After that, you go up, and up, and up… As it is often the case with quality products, there’s virtually no upper limit to the price.
Anyway, don’t panic: whatever your budget is, you’ll always find a delicious malt to taste and enjoy.
4. How is single malt whisky produced?
The process of making Single Malt Whisky can be summarized as follows.
barley is malted by allowing the grain to partially germinate. The process is then blocked with hot air (if you use peat fire, you give a smoky flavor to the final spirit). The grain sugars are now ready for the next step.
the grain is milled, thus turning it into grist. Grist is mixed with hot water in large vessels called mash tuns to extract the sugars. The mixture is cooled down and yeast is added. The fermentation begins: sugars turn into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Thus you obtain a “beer” (or wash, as they say in Scotland) around 8-9% ABV. It is now time for distillation.
the wash is poured in the so called wash still, where the first distillation takes place. The wash is heated in the still and distilled by cooling the vapors in the upper part of the still (the neck). A 20-25% ABV liquid is obtained (the low wines). This is filled into the spirit still, where a second distillation takes place, thus obtaining a 65-70% ABV spirit. This is our wannabe whisky, the so called new make.
the new make now goes into the casks, where the spirit will age and mature until it’s ready for bottling. Oak casks are most common in the industry, but a variety of other cask types are used, especially in the last part of the aging process (the so called finishing).
before going into the bottle, whisky is diluted with water to the desired alcohol content (about 43% ABV in most bottlings). Remember that in Single Malt Whisky what goes into the bottle must be the product of a single distillery (not a single cask though).
Each process in whisky making adds to the uniqueness and quality of the spirit you will taste in your glass.
5. Where does it come from?
The first written evidence of whisky making is found in 1494, when Friar Cor, from Lindores Abbey in Fife, Scotland, purchased malt to make aqua vitae (latin for water of life, that is, whisky!).
Some earlier Irish evidence of whisky making has been produced, making it hard to determine its first country of origin. Is it Ireland or Scotland? Whisky in early times seems to have been the produce of traveling monks; it has most likely developed in both countries over a certain period of time and through continuous contact and exchange.