Whisky Advocate

But Is It Malt Whisky?

January 24th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonWhat is malt whisky? Pretty simple question; almost stupidly simple. It’s whisky made from malt. If you put anything else in besides malt, it’s not malt whisky. That’s why single malt and blended malt Scotch whisky doesn’t have a “mashbill.” It’s 100% MALT. Just malt.



Well, then, what’s malt? We use the term generally to refer to malted barley: barley that has been wetted (“steeped”), allowed to germinate while being turned, and then kilned to drive off the moisture and kill the sprout (before it eats anymore of those valuable starches that will become the water of life).

But other grains are malted as well: rye and wheat, mostly, but other grains like oats and triticale can be malted, even corn. The Scotch Whisky Regulations wisely specify that barley malt must be used to make single malt and blended malt Scotch whisky, but the U.S. Standards of Identity have a few more loopholes for other malts. They note that “malt whisky” must be 51% malted barley and “rye malt whisky” must be 51% malted rye grain…but they don’t specify what the other grains must be. There’s also that odd little catchall phrase that they tuck in there: “…and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.”

I’m thinking that a whisky made from a mashbill of 51% barley malt, 35% rye malt, and 14% wheat malt would qualify to be labeled as “malt whisky” in the U.S., and that it could further have a fanciful name like “All Your Malts Are Belong To Us!” or “Malts-a-Million,” or simply “Malts Whiskey.”

If you’re wondering what got me thinking about this, it was a sample that came in for review from Wood’s High Mountain Distillery in Colorado, their Tenderfoot Whiskey. They’re calling it ‘our single-malt whiskey,” and it’s made with 77% barley malt, 10% wheat malt, and 13% rye malt. I guess it’s “single-malt” in that it’s all made at their distillery; me, I’d call it a “single-triple malt.”



It just makes me think. The Scotch Whisky Regulations were updated in 2009, and made some substantial changes. There have been no changes to the Standards of Identity in almost 20 years, nothing at all since the explosion of whiskey experimentation that has been taking place at distilleries big and small. We still don’t have good definitions to cover the unaged “white” whiskey (or the aged and filtered stuff, like White Owl and Jacob’s Ghost), the multiplicity of grains, and experimentation with wood.

So should the Standards of Identity tighten up, with sharper definitions designed to let consumers know more exactly what they’re getting? Should they stop insisting on new charred oak barrels for everything (everything with prestige, that is)? Should they have an outright “Experimental Whisky” category? While we’re at it, should they recognize that this is America, and start using the “whiskey” spelling in the regs?! There is increasing interest in changing the Standards of Identity: who gets to write those changes?

It’s Friday; have at it.


Barley image: © Lucash / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

Rye image: © LSDSL / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

15 Responses to “But Is It Malt Whisky?”

  1. Lisa Wicker says:

    Ten months removed from commercial winemaking…hired by distiller Steve Beam at Limestone Branch Distillery. Fermentation and production management the focus of my job. Aging experimentation, mash bills, etc. the icing on the proverbial cake. Labeling, in some cases, limits experimentation. Anxious to read responses and hear your opinion. I love fine whiskey, experimentation helps me learn to dissect flavours and process. We are primarily in white spirits currently because we are too young for Bourbon release. Trying to establish accurate labels a continual headache for us. Love to hear the consumer side, our side is trying to establish a high quality brand.

  2. Mark S says:

    I think accurate labeling is important – to some consumers more than others – but great care has to be taken when defining/redefining the new nomenclature. Terms have to be used consistently: Look at the now defunct vatted malt and pure pot still classifications. Producers preferred those terms, but for someone new to whisk(e)y, blended malt and single pot still are much more comprehensible. I also understand the apprehension producers have over using, say blended malt, because it could lower the perceived value of the product by associating it with blended whisk(e)y. It’s a bit of a mine field for sure. Sorry, I don’t think that clears anything up.

  3. Ol' Jas says:

    I’d kinda like to see “single” replaced with “single distillery.” I bet nobody has ever known what “single” meant without being told. I didn’t.

    How many non-anoraks would think that the name “Greenore Single Grain Irish Whiskey” means that it’s made from a single type of grain? Probably most!

  4. sku says:

    Interesting post Lew. “Single malt” isn’t defined in the TTB regs, but given examples like the Wood’s, I think it should be. To nearly all whisky drinkers, single malt means distilled from 100% malted barley at a single distillery. Using the term otherwise is misleading.

    I also agree that the regs, in general, need a tune up, including definitions for White Whiskey and Moonshine. I’d love to see a requirement to list the distillery as well, but that’s highly unlikely.

  5. McKinney says:

    Given the level of experimentation and the variety of grains, both malted and unmalted, available to most any distiller, I think trying to fit whiskey categories into words like “straight,” single,” “pure pot,” “blended” and “blended malt” becomes a bit confusing to everybody involved, and especially the new consumer not schooled in the esoteric nomenclature. Food labeling should be simple. If the package says, “Enriched wheat flour, sugar, water,…” etc. on the label, I can tell more about the product than whatever name Madison Avenue slapped in big, bold letters on the front.

    I like the way Lew had it spelled out above: “51% malted barley, 35% malted rye, 14% malted wheat.” Put that on the label.

    Since I expect some small American producer will try to tap into the current Irish boom soon, I expect we’ll see a label saying “Straight Single Pot Still Whiskey” before long. Does this mean a mix of malted and unmalted barley from one distillery aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years? Since this is an American label, does this mean small grains are included and the barley portion (both malted and unmalted) adds up to 51%? Can’t tell.

    To fix this, maybe a label saying this:
    (40% malted barley
    20% unmalted barley
    20% corn (if malted is left off, can we assumed unmalted?)
    10% rye
    5% wheat
    5% converted rice (Uncle Ben’s?)),

    Some distillers may not wish to disclose their mashbills and more than some bottlers want to disclose which distillery or distilleries produced what they bottle. However if the goal is disclosure about what the consumer is purchasing (often at a premium price) and ingesting, maybe this would work.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      The malted barley provides the enzymes needed for the conversion to fermentable sugars. so you need the malted barley, if its not there you would need to use artificial ones.

  6. Mr. Manhattan says:

    Myself, I’d simply like to see more transparency and less marketing-ese from the current cohort of US “craft distillers.” Tell me what you’ve actually done (which includes selecting, blending, and bottling someone else’s whiskey) and what you’re trying to achieve and I’m more likely to feel I can connect with the product, regardless of what TTB category it falls into. (I’m looking at you, Proximo!) Regulations will never keep up with innovators.

  7. two-bit cowboy says:

    Great topic, Lew. Will we ever get more than a handful of folks to agree on labeling information?

    Having attended more than a few single malt Scotch whisky Master Classes some tidbits stick in my mind. Master distillers and ambassadors–not marketing types–conduct the classes. Most seem more than willing to tell all about what’s in a given bottle of whisky: barrel woods, what the barrels previously held, toast/char levels, peat levels, when the cuts are made, “finishing” specifics, and a wealth of other geeky details. I guess it’s too simple to think the labels could contain that info.

    My impression is this: thanks to government regulations, labels are the thorns in distilleries’ backsides. The more regulations dictate what must be on the label the more likely we are to see distilleries only meeting the minimum standard.

  8. JDC732 says:

    I was thinking about this topic when I visited Stranahan’s a few months ago. They label their product “Colorado Whiskey” with almost zero information about what went into the finished product (outside of what music they were playing while distilling the particular batch). If many foods/beverages are required to have ingredient lists, why shouldn’t distillers have to follow suit? I can see why Stranahan’s would want to use the identifier, Colorado Whiskey – they want to communicate to the consumer that this is a place distinctive product, just like distillers in Scotland or Tennessee are want to do. Heck, one could even point to similar scenarios in the wine world where terroir labeling can trump varietal labeling. I’m just not sure this is the best way to make a product understandable, and therefore accessible, to the novice and aficionado alike.

  9. P.T. Wood says:

    First I hope that despite the wax and the quandary of what a single malt is you enjoyed our whiskey. We agree with you and wish there was a more descriptive category to place our whiskey but there really isn’t and “single malt” is the closest for now, as it is an all malt whiskey from one distillery. As you may have noted our bottle only refers to what is inside as Whiskey. On our hang tag and on our website we do refer to it as a single malt whiskey followed quickly by a description of our grain bill. Which to be exact is
    • 62.5% Malted two row barley
    • 9.375% Cherry wood Smoked malt barley
    • 6.25% Chocolate malt barley
    • 9.375% Malted wheat
    • 12.5% Malted rye
    The only other ingredients are fresh mountain water, a traditional scotch yeast and 2 different new American oak barrels one 25 gallons and one 30 gallons both with a #3 char.
    We don’t feel we have any secrets to keep and have always been very up front with our processes and grain bill. We are very proud of the fact that our whiskey is made by hand at our distillery from grain water and yeast in our 130 year old German pot still. Thanks for thinking of us and if you ever get to Colorado please stop by and say hi we would love to share a dram with you!
    P.T. and Lee Wood
    Wood’s High Mountain Distillery

    • Lew Bryson says:

      P.T. and Lee,
      THANKS for noticing and weighing in. My commentary was not meant in any way as a criticism of your whiskey, or really of your labeling, except in a strictly tongue-in-cheek sense! Yours just made me start thinking (I didn’t even mind the wax).
      And since I reviewed your whiskey for the upcoming issue, I can’t really talk about it, but I will say that it’s one of the sample bottles I didn’t give away…

  10. Sean Foushee says:

    I agree that the Standards of Identity need to be updated, but I think a more pressing matter is the TTB Labeling Regulations (Code of Federal Regulations; Title 27: Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; Part 5 – Labeling and Advertising of Distilled Spirits § 5.36). Many consumers aren’t educated as to the meaning of the terms “distilled by,” “bottled by,” “made by,” “produced by,” etc., which causes confusion and is often used deceptively by spirit rectifiers or distillers looking to sell a sourced product in order to keep the doors open while their distilled product matures.

    The term malt whisk(e)y might have been muddled by experimental mash bills and creative distillers–along with a lack of consumer education by the industry–but I’d rather first see the regulations changed to promote a more honest label concerning the origin of the contents.

  11. Lew Bryson says:

    Well…Thanks for the input.
    I’m not nuts about the idea of putting an ingredients list on whiskey labels; I think that’s overkill, and I also support the right of whiskey makers to keep that secret if they wish. I’d like to know, but if they don’t want to say, well, it’s their whiskey.
    I agree with Sean that the regs should more closely address where a whiskey comes from; where it’s distilled (although even that is iffy; what do you put on a Bowman label?) rather than the somewhat shifty “made/produced by” labeling allowed when a bottler adds water.
    But I also think the Standards would benefit from a less focused American perspective. There’s too much insistence on doing it the traditional American way: in new, charred oak barrels, with fairly closely defined processes. I’m okay with standards like that for bourbon, but other types of whiskey are being shoved into a straitjacket.
    I don’t want a plethora of new definitions, but thought should be given to adapting to the new reality.

  12. Rick Hadsall says:

    Great write-up, Lew!

    I think we need a serious overhaul. It’s been too long.

    – Stop mandating 750ml bottles; we will get more variety on these shores if we allow 700ml bottles, too.

    – New charred oak: Fine, for Bourbon and Tennessee styles. But don’t mandate anything outside the Scotch rules for malt whisky.

    – Align our rules for single malt, blended malt, and single pot still whiskeys produced here with the Scottish and Irish rules.

    This will reduce confusion for the consumer. Malt whisky is an international product, as evidenced by the wide range of countries producing the style — Japan, India, Taiwan, France, Belgium, Australia, South Africa, and much more. We shouldn’t have, encourage, allow our whisk(e)y producers to produce a “malt whisky” or “single malt” that isn’t in that definition. Let them use refill barrels. Make them age it 3 years. Make it be 100% barley malt for a single malt (or blended malt), and 100% barley split between unmalted and malted for a pot still.

    And let the creative distillers in this country have a go at it. Everyone will win.

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