A Crash Course in Single Malt Versus Blended Whiskey

A Crash Course in Single Malt Versus Blended Whiskey

Single malt whiskey has grown a reputation for being a higher quality spirit than blends. This has led to a misconception that they are also smoother and more flavorful. Yet before you dismiss Dewars as being beneath you, you should at least give blended whiskey a chance to defend itself.

There is no denying that the greatest diversity in flavors does come from the traditional, single pot distilling process. That malted barley form of whiskey, aged for years in an oak barrel, produces that classic Scottish single malt scotch. Yet what you are buying is almost always a blend of several different whiskey types.

What is Vatting Versus Blending

Whiskey companies try very hard to hide the fact that vatting is just a fancier way of saying blending. Most single malt drinkers are under the assumption that they are drinking one single whiskey that comes from one barrel. The reality is that the whiskey is coming from one single distillery, where various barrels are married together to make the final blend.

These may have been aged for different lengths of time, and even come from barrels that previously held a different type of spirit, but since they are derived from the same source the producer calls it a single malt that has been vatted.

The term blended whiskey refers to the type of grains being used to produce it. While single malts exclusively use barley, blended whiskey can contain corn, rye and even wheat as their base. Mixing these together in various proportions is how you get such diversity in whiskey flavor.

Blending whiskey allows for the use of cheaper grains, and does not require the same amount of time to age. This allows a distiller to produce a blended whiskey faster, and for less money. As a result, the demand for blended whiskey is higher, despite the fact that the single malts have an obvious flavor advantage.

How Much Does Age Matter?

The age of a single malt is often its major selling point, but when you go back to the subject of vatting, it becomes clear that different aged barrels of whiskey are being married together to form one single malt. Distillers will use the minimum age of the youngest whiskey to be added during vatting. So while you think you are drinking a 12 year old scotch, the truth is, it may be considerably older. The amount of each barrel used does not affect the “age” of the single malt at all. So long as there are trace amounts of 12 year old alcohol being added, it becomes a 12 year old spirit.

How is a Consistent Flavor Maintained?

Every barrel of whiskey has a unique flavor that was affected by the barrel itself. Vatting hundreds of those barrels together actually gives the distiller more control over how the final product will taste. By following their basic recipe for the types of barrels, and how long each one has aged, they are able to make subtle adjustments to ensure a consistent quality.

As with wine, the environment can have an impact on the way a whiskey tastes. By blending several together, the distiller is able to avoid a change in their products flavor. This is more difficult for single malt producers, who must craft their distinct spirits using multiple independent sources.

As a result, no two individual single malts will ever be exactly the same. Master blenders start with their general recipe, but must rely on highly skilled tasters to achieve a flavor that is as close as possible to the desired result.

After the batch has been completed, tasters are blindly given two glasses of the previous batch, and one of the new. If they are able to discern which one is the new batch, the distiller has not achieved consistency and must try again. Only after the tasters are unable to identify the new blend consistently will the distiller go forward with bottling the final product.  

Single malt distillers are at a much greater disadvantage from blended whiskey makers when it comes to creating an undiscernible product. For these reason, many have resorted to aging thousands of barrels simultaneously in order to have more liquor available to make adjustments with.

Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch Whisky

One of the oldest and most renowned distributors of single malt Scotch Whisky is the Glenfiddich Distillery. Established in 1886, Glenfiddich started out as a small distillery that relied on second-hand equipment for production. Founder William Grant ran a small family run business, which faced fierce competition from larger companies. This competition intensified after World War II, when tastes turned towards the less sophisticated whiskey blends.

The Grant family persisted however, and made the decision in 1963 to market its product outside of Scotland as a strict single malt. While some considered this foolish, the move turned out to be a wise one. Today, Glenfiddich is the largest producer of single malt whiskey in the world, and one of only a handful of distillers that is still being run by a family operation.

Most single malt connoisseurs will admit that it was image that first drew them to the spirit, and taste that kept them there. There is no denying that single malts have a distinct robust flavor that is meant to be savored, not downed and chased. For some this is an acquired taste, building slowly by drinking only high quality single malts with nothing more than a splash of water.

The coveted reputation of single malts should not deter you from blended whiskies. While it may not seem as refined or sophisticated, blended whiskey can be just as smooth and rich in flavor. It is also more diverse, making it easier to find a brand that makes drinking whiskey pleasurable for you. Higher quality blended whiskies can even be savored as a single ingredient in a drink, the same way that single malts are meant to be served.
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