Scotch Whisky Single Malt Vs Blend

I did not know this but there are five types of Scotch whisky, each with a slightly different definition.  Until now I thought there were only two, single malt whisky and blended whisky.  The definitions of the five types of whisky are:

  • Single Malt Whisky – whisky made at one distillery using pot stills and only malted barley.  Example:  Glenlivet 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
  • Single Grain Whisky – whisky made at one distillery using a continuous still, or using any type of still and grains other than malted barley.  Example:  Strathclyde Single Grain
  • Blended Malt Whisky – whisky made by combining single malt whiskies from different distilleries. Example:  Ballantine’s Finest Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
  • Blended Grain Whisky – whisky made by combining single grain whiskies from different distilleries.  Example:  Teacher’s Highland Scotch Whisky
  • Blended Whisky – whisky made by combining malt whisky and grain whisky.  Example: Chivas Regal 12 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky

Each bottle of Scotch whisky you buy will have one of these five types indicated on the label.

Only about 10% of the Scotch whiskies on the market are single malt. However, single malt Scotch made up nearly 28% of the whisky exported from Scotland.

For all Scotch whisky the age indicated on the label refers to the number of years the whisky spent in casks. Very few whiskies come from a single cask. The mixing of spirits of different ages is permitted.  The age indicated on the bottle indicates the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle, which has matured in oak casks in Scotland for a minimum of three years.

Are single malts better than blends?  Well that comes down to personal taste. Many blended whiskies are cheaper than single malts but that doesn’t mean that single malts are better. Blended whisky can have a great range of flavour and can rival single malts not only for complexity and flavour, but also for price.  Case in point: Macallan Estate single malt has a price tag of $349.50 while Chivas Regal 25 year old blend currently sells for $359.75.

Those new to the world of Scotch whisky usually begin by trying one or more blended whiskies, especially since they generally have a more favourable price point. It’s easy for single malt fans, like me, to write them off as cheap and uninteresting.  However, after some discussion with a Scotch blend enthusiast and tasting some of his recommendations, I made some new discoveries and had to admit that there are some good blended whiskies.

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Scotch Whisky’s Popularity

Scotch whisky prices have been slowly rising over time and in recent years distillers have also introduced new blends and names and labels that do not include a whisky’s age.  According to one distiller I spoke to while in Scotland several years ago, this is the result of increased popularity and demand.  This resulted from a number of consumers no longer being able to afford their 10, 12, and 18 year single malts.

Photo credit: TheTrendSpotter.net

The minimum legal aging requirement for Scotch whisky is 3 years.  However I am not aware of any brand that advertises any 3-year-old scotch whiskies for sale. There are however, many no age statement (NAS) whiskies and many of these will almost certainly contain some 3-year-old whisky mixed in with older blends; but normally 10-12 years old is the minimum age for most consumers to consider purchasing.

Scotch whisky is expensive due to other factors besides demand; many of which don’t affect other alcoholic drinks in the same manner. Long term storage contributes a large percentage of the cost; not only due to the time required to mature but also due to the losses that occur from evaporation. Bottling, packing, distribution and a large percentage of excise tax have a high impact on price as well.

Evaporation, often referred to as the Angels’ Share, is the portion lost from barrels during the maturation process. On average roughly 2% of the whisky is lost per year.  However, newly made spirit evaporates at a much higher rate, closer to 3.5-4% over the first few years with a slow reduction down to about 2% in the later years. 

Whisky Age                      Litres before Maturation           Litres after Maturation

10 Year Old                                    200 Litres                                           160 Litres

12 Year Old                                    200 Litres                                           152 Litres

25 Tear Old                                   200 Litres                                           100 Litres

Is Scotch whisky worth the price?  In my humble opinion many are.  I find that I can easily sip on an enjoyable aged single malt and relax or dive deep into my own thoughts, depending on my frame of mind.

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Myths About Irish Whiskey

As I had mentioned in the past I would occasionally change things up and talk about my other spirited passion. This is one of those weeks.

Irish whiskey has been becoming more popular in recent years. During the last decade the category has boomed. According to Forbes, U.S. sales of Irish whiskey increased by 9% in 2019, and rose over 13% in the five years prior to that. The number of distilleries in The Republic of Ireland has increased from only four in 2010 to more than 30 by 2020.

Scotch Is Better

There is no objective answer to this statement but there are a few subjective considerations if you decide to take a side. Scotch has had an advantage in that the selection of single malts and blends available in North America far out-weigh the number of Irish whiskeys.  This is largely due to there being 130 distilleries in Scotland compared to just over thirty in Ireland. However, that trend is now changing because of a range of interesting Irish whiskeys becoming available to the North American market.

Another argument for scotch supremacy is that it’s generally distilled twice, while Irish whiskey is usually distilled three times. Because of this some people think the whiskey tastes too light. For this same reason others consider Irish whiskey to be more approachable and versatile.  Having said this, not all Irish whiskey is triple distilled as some distilleries opt for only a double distillation.

It’s Only Good for Shots

It is true that Irish whiskey is ordered as shots but it also works in a number of cocktails such as Irish Coffee, Whiskey & Ginger or a Zesty Irishman. Many of the whiskeys are also very palatable being sipped neat, with a splash of water, or on the rocks.

All Irish Whiskeys Taste the Same

This is anything but true but since Jameson’s domination of the North American market for so long this became the perception. Now there is a large range of Irish whiskeys that feature very different flavour profiles. The classic Irish pot still style of whiskey is readily available, including such brands as Green Spot and Redbreast. There are also Irish single malts like Writers’ Tears, Knappogue Castle and Tyrconnell, which both offer whiskeys that have been finished in sherry or other wine casks. There is even the peated Connemara.

Final Thoughts

There will always be those who favour Scotch Whisky over Irish Whiskey and vice versa. To me it is more important to appreciate the unique qualities of both whether or not you have a personal preference of one over the other. For me, depending on the occasion and my mood I have several single malt scotch favourites, as well as several single malt and single pot Irish whiskeys that I am partial to.

My scotch go-to’s include Islay’s Lagavulin and Bowmore, and Speyside’s Glenlivet.  From the emerald isle I find Sexton to be smooth and calming and Green Spot more complex and robust.

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Whisky or Whiskey

Today I am taking a break from my usual subject, the sweet nectar of the Greek gods, otherwise known as wine, to talk a little about my second passion, which I am equally as fond of; whisky, or is it whiskey? The fact of the matter is that whether it is whisky or whiskey is dependent on where the brew was made.  Whisky hails from Scotland while whiskey originated in Ireland. Whiskey is also the normal spelling used for North American varieties.

Both Scottish whisky and Irish whiskey make use of the same grain, barley, but the similarity ends there. The two beverages do not taste at all alike.  In fact the taste can vary dramatically by region within each of the countries.

The common North American whiskies are made with rye, wheat or corn, or a combination of two or all three.  Again, regional differences may impact the composition and flavour of the whiskey.

My beverage of choice, whether it is whisky or whiskey, depends on my mood.  I don’t have a single favourite, not because I can’t make up my mind but because my favourite of the day depends on my mood. What do I mean by this?  If I find my mind overstimulated the last thing I want to do is try to relax by sipping on a very complex and robust whisky that attempts to challenge me.  That just generates more unsettledness.  Instead, in that situation I want something very mellow and smooth, such as Sexton or Bruichladdich’s ‘The Laddie’.

However, the reverse is also true.  If I am relaxed and decide to sip on a whisky I will select one that is more complex and bold; one that is robust and will stimulate my mind, perhaps Bowmore or Lagavulin. 

Being the family’s historian and an avid genealogist for the past 40 years, I have been asked on more than one occasion whether I place my allegiance behind my father’s Scottish heritage and whisky, or my mother’s Irish ancestry and whiskey. My answer is “definitely”.  I must admit that I have a prejudice for the Scottish and Irish varieties over those from North America.

Going forward I will occasionally inject a whisky or whiskey musing just to keep life interesting, but my main focus will continue to be the grape.

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