Telling Whiskies Apart
People constantly debate why single-malt whisky is better than blended whisky, or why blends are superior to single-malt scotch.
I have a pragmatic view on the subject. I simply believe that if you are drinking a good-quality whisky, you like the taste and enjoy drinking it; it doesn’t really matter what type of whisky you are drinking.
That said, there is no mistake that in general single malt is perceived as a finer drink, and blends are generally seen as the single malt’s runt of a little brother. It is often said that blended can be very good, and that is of course true. Over 90% of the whisky sold around the world is blended, and 90% of the whisky-drinking world can’t be wrong, can they?
Clarifying Single Malt and Blended Definitions
First, let’s clear up some of the confusion that surrounds single malts and blended whisky. The definition of “blended” whisky is pretty straightforward: it is a blend of single malts from a variety of different producers. The blends range from 10 up to 50 different single malts in a blend. The age of the blended whisky is dictated by some pretty strict rules; to be called "whisky," it has to be over 3 years old (not that I’ve ever seen or would drink a 3-year-old whisky!), and the age displayed on the bottle must be that of the youngest malt in that blend. The actual process can be quite scientific, with very fine measures and whisky in conical flasks rather than 70cl glass bottles.
A “single” malt, however, is a whisky that is produced by just one distillery or producer. This allows single malt whiskies to develop regional flavors where the distilling methods, land, ingredients, water, peat, heather, type of casks used, etc., from that area contribute to the flavor of the whisky in that geographical area. This accounts for single malts from Islay being peaty and smoky and single malts from Speyside being sweeter and more fragrant. Single malt scotch also improves with age while it is in the casks, however, will stop maturing as soon as it has been bottled which is how it differs from fine wines.
Whisky is always aged in oak casks; however, the wood that the cask is made from contributes greatly to the flavor. It is rare to use a new oak cask to age whisky in as the wood has no flavor at that time, much more common is to use casks that have been used to age sherry, port, Madeira, or even bourbon because the flavor that has already been absorbed into the wood adds different flavors to the whisky. Islay whiskies for instance use peat fires to dry the barley giving a smoky and peaty flavor to the whisky; this can really be tasted in whiskies like Laphroaig or Lagavulin.
How Do They Compare?
So when buying and drinking a single malt you are getting the benefit of all the careful tweaking that has developed over hundreds of years for a distiller to define the taste of their whisky, whereas in a blend you are getting a flavor that a “blender” has decided works together for a specific purpose which could be to develop a great tasting whisky but could be as cynical as to make a cheap whisky that will make a lot of profit.
The highest accolade that you can receive in the blending world is to be the Master Blender. Each company that blends whisky will have its own Master Blender, he's the man who tastes all the whiskies and decides what will work and the proportions that each whisky will be added to make the final blend. These guys have well-trained noses and palettes and can design a blend for any purpose. Needless to say, it usually takes a lifetime to get to that level, but we can always keep training.
The real issue with blends is that the vast majority of the time the Master Blenders are simply blending poor quality malted whisky to sell to the mass market, many single malt whiskies never see the light of day in a bottle and are developed simply to add to a blend.
That is not to say you can’t get very good blends, I’ve tasted an 18-year-old Chivas Regal blend and I have to say it Was very smooth and drinkable, but compared with an 18-year-old Glenlivet single malt for example I found it rather lacking in flavor despite being in a similar price range. I have to say, though, when dropping into a bar in Scotland where the walls are stacked as far as the eye can see with hundreds of bottles of Scotch you will struggle to spot a blend and at the end of the day, the Scots know what they are doing when it comes to Whisky.
So, to me, the real difference between single malts and blends is that you know what you are getting with a single malt. You know you are tasting the history of that whisky, its distillation process, the geography of the land, the water that flows from the local loch, the peat from the marshes, and the carefully selected barrels, whereas with a blend you are never really sure why it tastes good, bad, or okay.
You can’t argue with the statistics, 90% of the whisky consumed over the world is blended whisky. However, unfortunately, they are drinking cheap, mass-market blends that get mixed with coke and never really tasted. Why are they doing this? Maybe because they like the taste of coke, maybe because it costs $20 for a bottle rather than $50, or maybe because they like to get drunk, but I doubt it’s because they like the taste of the whisky.
Sure blends can be very good and single malts can be bad, so the only way you will ever know for yourself is to try as many whiskies of all types and make up your own mind. What I would say though is that if you are interested in the flavor of the whisky and would like to try a blended whisky look for a blend that is at least 15 years old, that way you have a least a guarantee that the ingredients are of a certain age and quality. Happy drinking!
Questions & Answers
Question: What would be the best Speyside single malt in your opinion?
Answer: That's a tough one, I love Glenlivet, particularly the 18-year-old one.
Question: Is Monkey Shoulder a blend of three single malts? It is, in my opinion, "as good" as any single malt at a very reasonable cost. Would you agree that Monkey Shoulder a good value?
Answer: It is good value, but in my opinion, you can get a decent single malt for just a little bit more. Talisker or Glenfiddich 15 are both excellent.