What is single malt whisky? And is it always better?

Or maybe the question should be What is single malt whiskey? Should you write whisky or whiskey in the first place? These are indeed questions I hear a lot from those who start the wonderful hobby that is quality whisky.

So seriously, what is single malt whisky?

Well it’s quite simple at first sight. It’s malt whisky from a single distillery. That means it is distilled in that distillery and it only uses malt as the main ingredient, not any other grains. In Scotland the rules are strict, and it has to be malted barley. However, a single malt from another country might not be as strict, in the USA for instance some single malts are made from malted rye.

A single malt is not the same as a single cask. A single malt is still a blended whisky in fact, something I frequently use to pull down malt snobs from their High Horse. As a side note, if a Malt Snob is literately on a high horse, I prefer to use a large metal hook to pull them down. But that’s beside the point. Except maybe to emphasise I really don’t like malt snobs.

Anyway, back to the question of what is single malt whisky. As stated, before it is usually a blend. More precisely a blend made out of different casks of whisky distilled in the same distillery. A lot of people also say it has to be from a single source of local water and a single kind of locally made barley. Both would be wrong. While they usually always use the same source of water, it is by no means mandatory. And it can be any malted barley and does not have to be locally produced. Although usually they do try to support their local farmers, sometimes they just don’t produce enough to support demand.

Also, it could be different kinds of barley. Most of the time they stick to one kind, like optic or the older golden promise. But I think it would in fact be interesting to mix those up. So, distillers, experiment away. I liked the local and bere barley experiments by Bruichladdich and Arran so I’m all for experimenting within the boundaries of tradition.

When only a single cask of single malt is bottled without blending it is indeed called a single cask. And most of the time single casks are made from single malt. But it’s perfectly possible to bottle a single cask of grain whisky: so, a single cask is not always a single malt. And for bourbon they actually call it a single barrel. Probably because when Americans pronounce the word ‘cask’ it sounds like they are taking a dump.

Now on average single malt whiskies are better than blended whiskies. This has something to do with volume: blends are usually made and marketed to be cheaper and accessible around the globe. Then there are the luxury blends that aren’t always great (some in fact are very below average) but are just pricey because of great marketing. Chivas Regal surely comes to mind: not a bad whisky but I’ll gladly make you taste 3 cheaper mainstream blends blindly and most of you will prefer them to Chivas.

However, some blended whiskies are actually great. Most (but not all) are blended malts. This means blends of different single malts from different distilleries. The old version of Johnny Walker Green label is a prime example (the new one is still ok but nowhere near as good), but the ones I really like are specialist blended malts from companies like the wonderful Compas Box and the exciting independent bottler Douglas Laing.

When you think about it there’s logic in it: More quality malts from different distilleries can give a master blender more options to create a great whisky. While you lose the DNA of a single malt (if such a thing exists) you get more combinations in return. And why stop there. If you have top quality grain whisky, why not include it in a proper blend that could be fantastic. Black Bull 40 is absolutely stunning, and the 12-year-old version is an amazing bang for your buck whisky. And Compas Box made very clear you can make a blended grain taste awesome with Hedonism.

The only reason single malts are on average way better is that they got into a connoisseur’s position and on average a lot more effort is put into them to make sure they are indeed great. If the same kind of effort is put into blended malt, blended grain or just proper blended whisky, they can be just as stunning. So perhaps the question of what is single malt whisky should be answered with ‘lucky’?

Oh, and about that whisky versus whiskey thing. The Irish use Whiskey, most Americans do too. The rest of the world uses Whisky. Pretty much. It really doesn’t matter that much to be honest, just look for the great quality stuff. With out without an ‘e’. Actually, preferably without ‘e’ … as in e-caramel colouring. But that’s a subject for another blog.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

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12 thoughts on “What is single malt whisky? And is it always better?

  • July 11, 2019 at 11:51 am

    Really interesting article, and it got me researching a bit into my own very favourite whisky from the foothills of the great Brecon Beacons in South Wales (UK). 

    I discovered that Penderyn Whisky is also a single malt, brewed in the same Welsh distillery in the area. Not one to blow my own whistle (or be biased), but, have you been lucky enough to try Penderyn yet?

    Disclaimer – yes, I am Welsh!

    • July 11, 2019 at 11:57 am

      I did taste the portwood finish a couple of years ago at a festival. I thought it was promising but at the time felt the whisky could do with a bit more complexity. However that was 2015 so they only had up to 11 years of maturation to work with. I had a single cask last year of I believe a 14 year old and it had a lot of depth and the fruity style you also find in Irish whisky that I really like. I can’t wait untill the first barrels still maturing reach age 20.

  • July 11, 2019 at 11:58 am

    My husband is very fond of whisky and has tried all sorts of it, even products from another countries. I also became quite acquainted to them, even though I’m not a drinker. However, I don’t remember hearing about single malt whisky but I learned about it now, my husband surely knows it. So from what I can see, you mostly recommend single malt than blended whisky, as it has a better quality. What about price, is the single malt more expensive too? What would be an average price difference.

    • July 11, 2019 at 12:05 pm

      That’s not exactly or entirely true. I recommend making up your own mind or perhaps do some research, read some tastenotes and see if they fit your profile. On average chances are indeed better to find a great single malt, but they also have more diverse taste profiles. For instance: not everyone is fond of peated whisky, or whisky that matured solely in first fill sherry casks and has heavy sherry influence.
      On average single malts are also more expensive, which is another reason to look for quality blends. Mind you the good ones are usually more expensive there as well. If you want a quality blended malt that is affordable I recommend Monkey Shoulder; It’s made by William Grant and sons and is a blended malt from Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie. If you don’t mind spending 40-60 euro/dollar every entry level blended malt from Compas Box or Douglas Laing are great as well. But you also have great entry level single malts in that pricerange.

  • July 11, 2019 at 12:05 pm

    Dave, The Whisky man!

    This was quite an interesting read, and surely a very interesting find! who would have ever thought that I would end up being schooled on the difference between different kinds of malt whiskys and their variations, although very colorfully bland, this thorough article got me wondering as if I was standing in the middle of a distillery asking myself: “what is a single malt whisky- just one drink?”

    Yeah, regarding Chivas Regal, it’s alright, it’s really not all that, but then again, not everyone is a whisky connoisseur, it is much more for gentlemen with a refined taste!

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge, 


    • July 11, 2019 at 12:06 pm

      You are very welcome.

  • July 11, 2019 at 12:14 pm

    Wow!  I was unaware that I say cask and make it sound like I’m taking a dump.  I’m also Irish and like my Wild Turkey whiskey.  I like Conjac as well, but prefer to drink Homebrewed melon/cranberry distilled with brewer’s yeast and Skyy Vodka.  

    I’ve also tried homebrewed apple wine…didn’t care for it quite as much as the melon/cranberry.  My three melon/cranberry was mixed with the Skyy Vodka and came out smooth.  Several friends said that they found it quite smooth and not bitter at all.   

    Thanks for the information on single malt whisky.

    • July 11, 2019 at 12:34 pm

      Truth be told it probably depends on what region you’re from but I still think Barrel sounds better with an american accent anyway. Cask in an Irish accent sounds sexy :p

  • July 11, 2019 at 12:27 pm

    A very interesting post, Dave, and you mention a couple of my favourite blends – Chivas Regal and Johnny Walker – which I favour over some malts, even though I tend to veer towards malts.

    Some of what you suggest, such as mixing malt and grain, would give the traditionalists a heart attack, but I agree with you that it’s well worth a try and is probably something that a younger generation of distillers would be willing to try. And it would ultimately depend on the Consumer, not to mention some clever marketing. I would hope that when / if that happens, the product would compliment the original, rather than supplant it.

    I think what ultimately makes a good, bad or indifferent whisky, be it a malt, blend, grain, etc, is down to personal taste. 

    80% of Scotland’s distilleries are in Speyside and I must admit the Speyside whiskies aren’t my favourites. I tend to favour the Highland whiskies. That’s a sweeping generalization on my part though since Blair Atholl – a Highland – is bottom of my personal preference list! 

    I’m generally not too keen on the Western Isles whiskies, but Jura for me stands out against the Islay whiskies, being completely different in character – not so oily, smoky or ‘seaweedy’. 

    I would say that my favourite is Old Poulteney from the Highlands followed close by Auchentoshan from the Lowlands. I’m not loyal to any particular distilling region – just my tastebuds!


    • July 11, 2019 at 12:40 pm

      I love me a good pulteney also. In fact I think the 12Y old is serious value for money and should be part of everyone’s whisky’s education. I also think it’s less than 80% in speyside these days with all these new distilleries starting up. If you like Auchentoshan do check my tastenotes on this one: 


      And do try some compas box expressions. They basically live to give traditionalists a heart attack. They do stuff like blending just a touch of 3 year old whisky with mostly very old whisky and intentionally call it 3 year old deluxe whisky … because that’s the law. And according to Scottish whisky law they are only allowed to state the age of the youngest whisky … even though it only makes up 1 % of the blend. Check these guys out at 


      (not an affiliate link I just really like them :p)

  • July 11, 2019 at 12:38 pm

    Hi Dave

    Thanks a lot for sharing this post about single malt whisky.

    This is a very interesting topic to write about. I’ve heard that single malt whiskey is very expensive?

    Is it true? why? Is it because it contains a lot different single malt?

    Thanks for taking your time and put all these together.

    I really appreciate it.


    • July 11, 2019 at 12:43 pm

      It depends on what you call expensive,  but most of the time it is. It has to do with demand I guess, if people want to buy it a lot you can sell it more expensively. It also has to do a bit with cost, if you mature a whisky for 10+ years, let alone 20 or more, it costs more money since it takes up a lot of warehouse space and time. A 20 year old blend is partly more expensive for the same reason. But also because they can, people will pay the price and they want more money 🙂


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