It’s true – you don’t have to know anything about single malt scotch to enjoy its many layers of flavor. What’s also true, is that you will enjoy (and appreciate) those flavors even more after learning some basic single malt facts.
We’ll share five of those facts with you, then it’s bottoms up!
The name is misleading
Many persons assume the “single” in “single malt Scotch” either refers to the ingredients or suggests that the whiskey was made in a single cask (or barrel). Neither is correct. The term actually means that the whiskey was made at a single distillery.
Blended whiskey, on the other hand, is typically produced from whiskeys from several distilleries. Furthermore, whereas single malt Scotch is made from barley, blended whiskey sometimes contains different whiskeys from other types of grain.
The process is centuries old
The earliest references to whiskey are from 15th century Scottish and Irish writings. In both instances, it is referred to as “aqua vitae” meaning “water of life.” The process for making whiskey has changed little since that time.
It starts with malting: soaking and germinating of the barley grains. The malt is then dried, ground, and mixed with water to extract its sugars. Fermentation with yeast is next, then distillation, after which the whiskey is left to age for at least 3 years before bottling.
The wood adds flavor
It is often said that most of a whiskey’s flavor comes from oak. That is understandable, since the whiskey spends at least 3 years in the cask during the aging process and the law dictates that the cask must be made of oak.
The casks used are so important to the final product, that some whiskey distilleries run their own cooperages (cask-making operations).
Firstly, according to the Scotch Whisky Regulations, single malt Scotch whiskey must be made in Scotland – otherwise it is something else! Secondly, where in Scotland the Scotch whiskey is made affects its flavor.
There are five distinct flavors of Scotch whiskey related to the five whiskey-producing regions in the country: the Lowlands, the Highlands, Campbeltown, the Isle of Islay and Speyside. The difference in flavors is said to be due (at least in part) to differences in how the malt is heated during the drying process.
Age matters, too
While the law says single malt Scotch must be aged for at least 3 years, most are in fact aged much longer. Some single malts, like the glenfiddich 21, are aged over 20 years. As the whiskey matures, its flavor is said to develop more character.
Interestingly, the longer the whiskey ages, the less of it there is when bottling time comes around. That’s because the wooden casks it is aged in are porous and some of whiskey evaporates over time. The “lost” whiskey is affectionately called “the angels’ share.”
As you savor the flavors in the next dram of your favorite single malt Scotch, keep in mind how carefully its unique taste was produced. Remember, too, to give a few others a try – you might just find a couple of new favorites for your palate to enjoy.