Scotland has more distilleries than any country, with close to 100 of them peppered throughout the land. The most distinctive Scotch whiskies are the single malts. In addition to being distilled and matured in Scotland for a minimum of three years in oak barrels (a requirement for all Scotch whisky), single malt scotch is produced at one distillery (“single”), using only malted barley as the grain (“malt”), and distilled in copper pot stills. It is an expensive process but produces a richly flavored whisky and, because it’s not blended with whiskies from other distilleries, very individualistic. This is why single malt scotch is generally more expensive than blended scotch and coveted by aficionados. It’s also the reason why single malts are so much fun to drink and explore.
Single malts are diverse in flavor, ranging from the gentle and subtly complex whiskies of the Scottish Lowlands, to the firmer, sometimes spicy whiskies in the Highlands, to the briny and often smoky whiskies from the Scottish coastlines and islands. The heart of Scottish distilling is an area known as Speyside, where nearly half of Scotland’s distilleries are situated on—or near—the Spey River. Some Speyside whiskies, like Balvenie and Macallan, are full-bodied and rich. Others, like the Glenlivet 12 year old, are very elegant.
Even with all these great single malts, blended scotch still outsells them by a wide margin. Single malt enthusiasm is a relatively recent phenomenon, gaining popularity over the past two decades.
Blended scotches, like Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, Chivas, and Cutty Sark, are marriages of several, if not dozens of different single malts. The advantage of blending is that it smoothes out the rough edges and fills in the missing gaps of a whisky’s flavor profile.
Probably the least known fact about blended scotch is that the majority of the blend is not single malt scotch at all, but rather grain whisky. Grain whisky is made from various cereal grains and distilled in continuous column stills, similar to the way vodka is made. It produces a less expensive, lighter flavored whisky. Some blends are incredible products, but are generally lighter in flavor and less expensive than single malts.
Many people think all Scotch whiskies are smoky, but only a handful of them really are. The smoke flavor comes from using malted barley that is dried over a peat fire. Peat was, at one time, the only practical fuel source for many distilleries. These days it’s an optional flavor enhancement that, by the way, is very much in vogue right now.