For many years there has been some confusion among buyers about the different types of Scotch whisky available. Recent legislation, as of 2009, has sought to clarify and standardise the system but it can still be confusing and difficult for the novice whisky buyer to understand exactly which type of product they are buying.
There are three main categories of Scotch whisky now available on the market under the new system: Single Malt, Blended Malt and Blended. You'll also come across whisky production "regions" mentioned on the bottle, such as Islay, Speyside or Highland. In this article I'll explain what these terms mean so that you can buy your whisky like a pro.
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
This is regarded by most connoisseurs to be the height of Scotch whisky production. A Single Malt Scotch Whisky is the product of a single distillery (the "Single" part of the classification) and must not be mixed with whiskies from other distilleries. It must be made only from malted barley (explaining the "Malt" part) rather than the mixture of malted barley whisky and grain whisky that straightforward "blends" are usually made of. The "grain" in grain whisky refers to the fact that it can be made from a "mash" of many different types of cereal grains. Just to be clear: there is no "grain spirit" in a Single Malt.
The Glenlivet and The Macallan are examples of a Single Malts.
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
The picture gets a little trickier here. Most distilleries don't dedicate the bulk of their output to Single Malt. They will often sell off large quantities for mixing together with malt whisky from other distilleries to produce Blended Malt Scotch Whisky. The results are often excellent because Blended Malt is composed only of malt whisky. Yes, there may be several different malts in there but they are all of a certain standard and, if blended skillfully, can compliment each other to produce some unique and satisfying results. There is no "grain spirit" in Blended Malt.
The issue of Blended Malt can be confusing because, prior to the new regulations of (enforceable as of 2011), different producers often used different names to describe it: some called it "pure malt" while others used the term "vatted malt". These terms all mean the same thing as "blended malt".
Blended Malt whisky often costs a little less than certain Single Malts but still a fair bit more than a straightforward "blend". There are many innovative new producers of Blended Malt Scotch Whisky in Scotland.
An Sgailc and Poit Dhubh are examples of Blended Malts.
Blended Scotch Whisky
So what does this mean? Well, we've mentioned grain whisky (or grain spirit) several times in this article and here's where it finally comes in. A blended whisky can be made of a mixture of different malt and grain whiskies. The "deluxe" brands will tend to have a higher malt constituent whereas the cheaper blends will have a high proportion of grain. The results of this process vary. There are many very drinkable and highly respected blends on the market, such as the ones I mention below. On the other hand, those at the cheap end of the market can taste quite "raw" and really don't do anything to enhance the prestige of scotch whisky.
The Antiquary and Johnnie Walker Red Label are examples (very good examples) of Blends.
I have mentioned the three main categories of Scotch Whisky above but, as the evolution of whisky continues, two other categories now exist: Single Grain and Blended Grain Scotch Whisky. You should be able to work out, from the information on the other types, what these categories mean. Remember that "Single" refers to the product of a single distillery and does not mean that Single Grain is made from only one type of grain. Blended Grain refers to the blending of Grain whisky from more than one distillery.
Some pioneering firms are now getting excellent results by experimenting with high quality grain whisky. So don't assume that grain whisky must always taste harsh. It's all down to the quality of the ingredients.
Age Statements on Bottles
You'll often see a number on Scotch whisky bottles e.g. 8 or 12. This number specifies the minimum age of the whisky/whiskies in the bottle. So, for example, if you see "12 years" on the bottle this means that there is no whisky in that bottle aged less than 12 years - some of it may be older than that but none will be younger.
There are three main whisky regions and two "protected localities" in Scotland defined under the Scotch Whisky Regulations: the regions Highland, Speyside and Lowland; the localities Campbeltown and Islay. The "Islands" area of the Inner and Outer Hebrides in now considered part of the Highland region under the SWR.
These regional/local identities can be used on whisky labelling but they must be clear and not confusing to the buyer. So, correct references to areas of production on whisky labels might read: "Highland Blended Malt Scotch Whisky" or "Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky".
I hope you have found this quick guide useful and that you now have a clearer understanding of scotch whisky categories, ages and regional/local identities. Next time you're sitting by an open fire with your feet up, sipping a nice glass of malt whisky, you can wax lyrical to your companions about the merits of the different whisky regions. You'll sound like a pro. But don't overdo it - pros don't slur their words!