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What Is the Difference Between Single Malt and Blended Whisky?

Updated on September 20, 2017
Enjoying a single malt
Enjoying a single malt

I have heard many arguments with people passionately debating why they think single malt whisky is better than a blended whisky or blends are superior to single malt scotch. I have a much more 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 Defintions

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 contributes 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 their 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 usualy takes a lifetime to get to that level, but we can always keep training.

The real issue with blends is that in 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 and 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.

Conclusion

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, it’s distillation process, the geography of the land, the water that flows from the local loch, the peat from the marshes, the carefully selected barrels, whereas with a blend you are never really sure why it tastes good, bad or OK.

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 the 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!

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    • sunilkunnoth2012 profile image

      Sunil Kumar Kunnoth 3 years ago from Calicut (Kozhikode, South India)

      An interesting read. Your points are clear and helping to clear doubts. Thank you for sharing. Voted up. Shared on FB.

    • dommcg profile image
      Author

      dommcg 4 years ago

      Thanks Thamisgith, i agree. I've had some good blends that are better than bad single malts. I have a bottle of Ledaig that i'm not too keen on and a bottle of Chivas Regal that i quite like, but i've had that bottle of Chivas for about 2 years during which time i've drunk my way through many bottles of Single Malt. Cheers.

    • Thamisgith profile image

      Thamisgith 4 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      I don't think that I'm a whisky snob - but I definitely prefer a good single malt. More character and, as one earlier comment pointed out, a little variance from year to year.

      Blended can be good when, as you say, the aim is to produce a particular flavour and character. However, I think that many blends are intended to increase profit rather than improve taste.

      Anyway, thank you for a very interesting read.

    • dommcg profile image
      Author

      dommcg 4 years ago

      Thanks Rain Defence, I'll keep trying, she might agree at a weak moment! I also have started enjoying a cognac after a meal, whereas i used to simply go for a single malt.

    • Rain Defence profile image

      Rain Defence 4 years ago from UK

      Another great hub. Every time I read one it makes me want to pour myself a drink.

      I think you've got no chance of persuading your wife to visit an island that revolves around whisky. There must be some women out there that appreciate the stuff, but I've never met one!

      I was also unaware of unblended Cognac.. Definitely sounds interesting as Cognac is something I'm enjoying more and more nowadays.

    • dommcg profile image
      Author

      dommcg 4 years ago

      Good point, I also love cognac and Armagnac but wasn't aware at they were actually blends. I think I need to do some more reading (and drinking). Thanks.

    • dommcg profile image
      Author

      dommcg 4 years ago

      Thanks Gordon, I am always amazed by how many different flavours you can get from a fairly similar process. I too love the Islay whiskies but alas haven't yet had the opportunity to visit, I have to convince my wife that a trip to Islay to visit all the distilleries will be fun for both of us. Still working on it.

    • rjsadowski profile image

      rjsadowski 4 years ago

      Excellent Hub. Another difference that you didn't mention is that blended Scotch wiskey is meant to taste exactly the same from year to year. Unblended scotch can vary slightly from year to year although not as much as different wine vintages. They also make small amounts of unblended Cognac in France but they are harder to find.

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image

      Gordon Hamilton 4 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      Enjoyed the read. I have to say that I can't even remember the last time I drank blended whisky. It really has to be single malt for me. I think that came about when I started visiting Islay regularly - about fifteen years back - and truly discovering the originality of single malts and their production methods. I know I am lucky to have these opportunities and that the vast majority of the world's whisky drinkers will never get that chance but hopefully your page will help convince people to try spending that little bit extra on occasion and truly experience the differences between single malts and blends.