So, you’ve decided to jump into the big world of whisk(e)y. Congratulations, you’ve just stepped into a world of subtle nuances and hearty flavors. That’s the thing about whisk(e)y that most people don’t get. When most people think of bourbon, they think it all tastes the same. Any experienced drinker will not hesitate to explain how Maker’s Mark tastes different from Knob Creek. There is not a soul who would deny that there is a difference between a $12 bottle of bourbon and a $30 bottle of bourbon. As much as there are flavor differences in bourbon, however, there are even more so when it comes to scotch.
When you talk to someone who’s really into scotch, they’ll throw around a lot of flavor terms that may be unfamiliar to you at the start. Don’t worry, it all comes together with time. Part of our mission here at iHeartWhisk(e)y is to debunk myths or explain why certain statutes are true. This article, however, isn’t about the different taste profiles of scotch. The previous sentence is more to remind myself so I don’t ramble.
While most of the bourbon crowd is just happy that you know Jack Daniel’s isn’t a bourbon, the scotch crowd can sometimes be a bit more divided and unforgiving if you choose the wrong side. What divides them? The classic battle between Single Malts and Blends.
Let’s be clear on one thing before we delve too much into this. The Complete Guide to Scotch Whisky (6th edition, 2010) states that “[Scotch Whisky] can only be applied to a whisky made in Scotland, and matured for at least three years.” The guide goes on to tell us about the different types of scotches. There are many, but the debate you’ll hear most often amongst people who fancy themselves scotch connoisseurs is the one between single malts and blends.
First, let’s clarify what a blend is because as you delve into more and more types of scotch this becomes important. What most people think of when they hear the term “blend” is a scotch that is a mix of malted whisky and grain whisky. This, however, is not the only blend that exists. If the label reads “blended scotch whisky” it’s a mix of grain and malt; but if it says “blended malt whisky” it means something slightly different.
Let’s clarify before we move on. A blended whisky can contain barrels of heaven juice from all over Scotland and they are all put in a big vat together and mixed to the guy producing the scotch’s personal taste (I’d REALLY like to have his job). Sometimes, a blended whisky will contain really old malt whisky and sometimes it contains the youngest possible malt whisky. The same is true for the grain whisky it contains. The age stamp on a bottle of scotch (blend or single malt) represents the age of the youngest scotch in the bottle.
So, what sets single malt apart? A single malt scotch is vatted with all malt whisky from the same distillery. There are some differences in the distilling process, but we won’t talk about those in this post. Single malts, depending on where in Scotland they are distilled, aged and bottled, all have very unique, very different tastes. If you drink a dram of Laphroaig 10 year old and try to compare it to, let’s say Glenlivet 12 year old; you’ll notice the two taste almost nothing alike. Laphroaig has a big, peaty flavor with strong hints of iodine that come from the water at its location whereas Glenlivet uses a water source in completely different part of Scotland (because Glenlivet is in a completely different part of Scotland) and does not peat its malt (peat is one of those things we’ll talk about later). If you’re trying to expand horizons and go on a flavor adventure, single malts are the definite way to go.
So, which is better? Admittedly, I used to be a single malt snob. I looked down my nose at dirty blends and shunned those who drank them. Then a bar I was running agreed to do a tasting for this small company called Compass Box. It changed my view on blends completely. See, grain whisky, in its early stages, is very bland. This is just a fact of the type of whisky. When it matures past about 15 years or so, however, it starts to exude flavor. Sadly, something aging this long tends to not have a lot of heaven juice left in the barrel so it’s vatted in with younger whiskies. Compass Box produces blended scotch whisky as well as blended malt whisky. A blended malt is similar to blended scotch whisky in that it can come from many places but differs in the fact that it is all malt whisky. The guys over there mix scotch for flavor and are great at it! At the same time, Highland Park 18 year old is likely to never be supplanted as my number one scotch, and it’s a single-malt.
Fact is, taste buds are different. Neither one is actually better, but they are very different. I’m of the opinion that with few exceptions in the blends, single malts tend to be more flavorful and, to me, more enjoyable. That’s not to say that they’re better. I’ve met many a fan of Dewar’s or Chivas who enjoy some flavor but not the overpowering flavor that some single malts can have. Most of all, however, I believe that scotch (and all whisky) is about flavor exploration. A true lover of whisky isn’t looking to drink what others consider the best; a true whisky lover looks to drink all the flavors heaven juice has to offer.
May the best you’ve ever seen, be the worst you ever see!