When you get down to it, Scotch whisky is the most diverse category of whisky in the world. A wide variety of grains, barrels, stills, and techniques go into the thousands of products produced in Scotland. And that’s a problem—namely because, for novice Scotch drinkers, there’s a lot of uncertainty.
Say you and I tried scotch for the first time this week: My experience sipping smoky, roiling Lagavulin would be totally different from your finessed, easy-drinking Dewar’s. We both had Scotch, yes, but we had two very different styles of Scotch: one a single malt, one a blend.
In a legal sense, anything labeled Scotch whisky must be made from grain that’s been distilled (in Scotland) and aged in oak barrels (again, in Scotland) for at least three years. But after that, the road forks in a few directions. A blended Scotch whisky can make use of any whisky that fits these criteria as part of its components. But to label a bottle a single malt, the liquid inside must have been distilled at one distillery, entirely from one grain: malted barley. And this is where the flavors start to diverge.
Typically, a blended whiskey will make use of a grain like corn or wheat, both of which make a softer spirit, similar to bourbon. “Speaking generally,” says Lew Byrson, author of Tasting Whiskey and the forthcoming Whiskey Master Class, “blends are gentler and have a creamy sweetness from the grain whisky. Malts, even the sweet bourbon-casked ones, have more definition and structure.”
“A blend, such as Dewar’s, is a blend of whiskies from up to 40 different distilleries, whereas a single malt will be a marriage of casks from just one distillery,” says Georgie Bell, global malts ambassador for Bacardi and co-founder of whisky stereotype-breaking organization Our Whisky. “The way I like to explain it to people is it’s like an orchestra. A single malt is a string quartet, where you hone in on one particular sound, [or in this case] representation of a distillery. A single malt shows the distillery blush and character; it singles it out and frames it with cask influence. A blend, on the other hand, is the full orchestra—a blend of whiskies from all over Scotland. It balances all elements of the orchestra, and is pulled together and kept in line by the master blender—our conductor.”
But despite some fairly straightforward differences in whisky theology, there’s a cultural hierarchy between the two, and it puts blends at the bottom, partly because of the use of grain whisky.
Grain whisky tends to get an unfairly bad rap. It’s perceived often as cheap. In the United States in particular, “blended” and “grain” whisky are both phrases that have bad associations. In the last century, during bourbon’s worst eras, brands like Four Roses contained a portion of bourbon, with “neutral grain” spirits (essentially vodka) blended in to save money. These whiskies were labeled “blended.”
But Scotland’s blends are an entirely different product, despite some shallow similarities. “Grain whisky is cheaper to make and cheaper to age,” says Bryson. “That’s not to say they’re cheap whiskies, but they do cost less.” Blends give whisky makers creative freedom, like an artist with more than one color of paint. “Most blenders I’ve met take more joy in their blends,” explains Bryson. “It’s more of a challenge—more of a chance to play with their art. Single malts have a limited palette. Blends are only limited by what the distiller and customer can afford.”
The reality today is that a more educated consumer base is appreciating each type of Scotch whisky for its strengths. “People certainly have their preferences,” acknowledges Ewan Gunn, Diageo national program director, “but I don’t believe there’s a hard line between the two types… someone who truly enjoys Scotch whisky will usually appreciate both.”
Gunn, who works with both blends and malts for Diageo, says his first drink was Lagavulin 16, but he quickly came to enjoy blends. He sees equal opportunity for greatness in both. “A single malt—such as Talisker or Lagavulin—provides the opportunity to taste the unique flavor and style of one distillery from one specific location, whereas a blended Scotch whisky—such as Johnnie Walker—presents the opportunity to enjoy all four corners of Scotland together in one glass, which is an equally delightful experience. One type isn’t better than the other,” he explains, “they’re just different.”
Bell thinks people are coming around to that idea. “Consumer’s these days are more open-minded than they were five, even 10 years ago,” she says. “From my experience, as long as there’s an interesting story behind it and an element of education, then it doesn’t matter whether its a single malt or blend.” She’s also not sure the two styles of whisky are so different at all. “Honestly, there are more similarities than comparisons. Flavors really evolve around blending style and cask types used.”
But at the end of the day, the two styles aren’t interchangeable. For one thing, malts tend to be significantly more expensive, sometimes two or three fold. “Blends offer affordability, and that means more than just saving money,” explains Bryson. “It means you feel less weird about making a cocktail, about sharing freely, about having some every day. Malts are, generally, better for drinking neat, savoring, making a special moment. Malts offer a sense of place, a connection to a heritage.”
Gunn is less willing to admit those differences. “Both types are actually great in cocktails,” he says, “although historically there does seem to have been a (completely unfounded) perception that blended Scotch whiskies were for mixing and single malts were not.”
Bell thinks consumers are being more open to new experiences and more adventurous with their whisky choices. She’s also quick to point out that some malts are more friendly to new drinkers. “Whiskies that [are aged in barrels that once held] bourbon also do well, such as Aberfeldy 12, as they’re accessible in flavor.” She thinks education is really the driving force between whether consumers like something. “People like it when they’re guided as to what to do with it. I think the highball movement going on right now is a great thing and leads consumers to be more creative with their whisky, both in the bar and mixing at home.”
It’s important to note that, while names like Macallan and Glenmorangie may be fairly well-known among drinkers, the bulk of Scottish whisky produced and sold every year isn’t the famous malts, but rather blended whisky. In fact, more than three-quarters of Scottish whisky is blended.
There are lesser-known categories between these two pillars, too. One of them is blended malt. Blended malts, as you might expect, are blended whiskies that only use malts as components. That means no grain whisky, and the malt whisky comes from one or more distilleries.
Another outlier that deserves some praise is the single grain whisky, which obeys all the same rules as a single malt, but exchanges malted barley for another grain. Though these whiskies take on much softer profiles and have less “structure,” they can be complex, delicious treats with enough time and care.
The reality is that all of these categories are most valuable to consumers when consumers use them as guideposts for exploration. Here are a couple well-known blends and single malts that are used to create them:
Blend: Johnnie Walker Black Label
Malt: Caol Ila 12 Year
Blend: Dewar’s Double 27 Year
Malt: Craigellachie 23 Year
Malt: Aberfeldy 16 Year