When a person steps up to a bar counter and asks for a “single malt”, he probably means a malt whisky, otherwise they would have asked for a specific brand of single malt. An earlier article discussed that single malts are malt whiskies from one distillery where a distinctive house style is usually noticeable.
“Blended Malt” is the official term mandated by The Scotch Whisky Association for malt whiskies put together from more than just one distillery. Other unofficial terms used are, vatted malt, pure malt, 100% malt and all malt. Blended malt whiskies are every bit as good as single malts for richness of flavour and quality, but because of the meld the flavour characteristics of each distillery are not as easily identifiable. That said, the final quality of blended malt whisky is by design better than the sum of its parts and usually offer very good value over their single malt counterparts.
There is a second category of whisky, the grain whisky. The four whole grains namely corn, wheat, rye and barley are ingredients used for the production of grain whiskies. As they can be used either in their dry form or their germinated or malted state, we are presented with a possible combination of up to eight ingredients for our recipe. However, the malt of barley is almost always used in the mix as it gives the final whisky depth, weight and structure. For this reason, malt whiskies on their own tend to be fuller and richer whiskies. As with single malts, a single grain whisky merely indicates that it was distilled at one distillery.
So if malt whiskies are richer and more flavoursome, why then make other types of whiskies? The answer lies in cost. Barley is the most expensive of the grains and its conversion to malt even more so. It should be explained that in the early years of whisky production, malt whiskies were the most common form of whisky. It took the change of the Spirit Act of 1860 and cheaper production techniques used for grain whisky production that led to the creation of the third category of whisky - the blended whisky, which should not be confused with blended malt whiskies above.
Being a softer, palatable and more affordable category of whisky, the demand for blended whisky got an unexpected fillip when the phylloxera outbreak in Continental Europe brought wine production to a trickle and producers of blended Scotch whisky were only too happy to step in and fill the demand for a substitute alcoholic beverage.
Blended Scotch whisky was so dominant that most whisky drinkers never knew other categories of Scotch whisky existed until the 1960’s when the Glenfiddich distillery began to re-introduce whiskies made entirely from malt. Demand for malt whiskies grew slowly from then, but it was not until the Asian Financial crisis in the late 1990s when excess malt whiskies not taken up for use in Blended Scotch Whisky were marketed in its pure malt form to clear the overhang in stocks. The genie has been let out of the bottle again.
The whisky industry is currently experiencing a golden age never seen before and it’s not just about sales numbers. There is now a healthy appetite and eagerness for whisky knowledge similar to that experienced by wine industry two decades ago. Whisky drinkers are not merely asking for the age or brand of the whisky but are making educated enquiries on the distilleries’ use of barrels, filtration, fermentation and distillation techniques. All indications point to an enduring demand for whisky rather a short-term spike in volumes driven by fashion or fads.
By Lewis Mitchell
Le Vigne Pte Ltd
originally appeared in The Business Times