What is Single Malt Scotch Whisky?
The word whisky evolved from the Scots Gaelic word uisge-beatha, which means The Water of Life. Only three natural ingredients are used in the production Single Malt Scotch Whisky: malted barley, water and yeast. The whisky must have been distilled at a single distillery using a pot still distillation. A single malt Scotch must be distilled in Scotland and matured in oak casks in Scotland for at least three years. (Most single malts are matured longer).
While Scotch single malts exclusively use malted barley, blended whiskey (such as Johnnie Walker, Balentine´s and Chivas Regal) usually contain corn, rye and even wheat as their base. Blending whiskey allows for the use of cheaper grains, and does not require anything like the same amount of time to age in comparison to single malts.
So, why do scotch malt whiskies have such a wide variety of different colours, aromas and flavours?* As you might imagine, that's quite a profound and complicated question, but I'll try to be as brief a possible. Well, there are a multitude of reasons, to name a few : the source and purity of spring water used, the barley variety, the yeast strain, how the malt is dried (with or without peat), the size and shape of the pot stills, whether it is double or triple distilled, the breadth of the cut, the type of oak used in the cask, the cask size, what the cask had previously held (bourbon, sherry, port, wine, rum etc), storage location, and length of whisky maturation.
*If you're interested in this topic, please sign up to one of our exclusive Scotch Malt Whisky Tasting Experiences to learn more, and taste the difference for yourself!
Single malt is known as the ‘original’ whisky of Scotland, although it can be made in any distillery across the world. Some people assume the word ‘single’ means that it comes from a single barrel or cask. But, in truth, it refers to the fact that it is produced in just one distillery. The second word, ‘malt’, refers to the fact that it is made using malted barley. This barley can be sourced from anywhere and is responsible for giving single malts a deliciously light and sweet flavour.
Origins of the Amber Nectar
The history of whisky is a long, adventurous story, and many extraordinary people fought to keep the drink evolving to get to where we are today. The art of distillation is thought to have been established in ancient Mesopotamia around 2000BC. The origin of whisky began over 1000 year ago when distillation made the migration from mainland Europe into Scotland and Ireland via travelling monks. The Scottish and Irish monasteries, lacking the vineyards and grapes of the continent, turned to fermenting grain mash, resulting in the first distillations of modern whisky. The first written record of ‘Scottish Whisky’ appears in a record in the Exchequer Rolls of 1494 where King James IV of Scotland granted a large amount of malt “To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae.”
The Birth of Single Malt Whisky
The general public started making whisky only after King Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries, forcing the disillusioned monks to try to earn money. Distillation was the obvious solution. In 1707 the Acts of Union resulted in the merging of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland, creating Great Britain, and causing taxes to rise dramatically. This seriously threatened the production of whisky, and led to the most Scottish distilleries heading underground and beginning production at night, giving whisky one if its finest nicknames, “moonshine”. In 1823, the United Kingdom brought illegal production to an end, when they gave Scottish distilleries an option to legalize their operations by paying a nominal fee.
Scotch Whisky takes over the World
The first Scottish distillery came into ‘official’ existence in 1824 and thereafter many of the more far-sighted distillers came over to the right side of the law. As the Single Malt distilleries went from strength to strength, Scottish grocers such as Tommy Dewar, James Chivas & Johnnie Walker (who was, ironically, a teetotaller) began producing their own blends of whisky. These would become some of the most famous and most widely distributed brands of Scotch whisky in the world. Using their entrepreneurial spirit, these men and many like them, took whisky out to the British Empire and far beyond, creating an enduring love of Scotch in every corner of the globe. In the 1880s, the phylloxera beetle ravaged French vineyards, and after a few years, not a drop of wine or brandy was to be found anywhere. The Scots were quick to take advantage of this, and by the time the French industry had recovered, Scotch Whisky had replaced brandy as the preferred spirit of choice. Today, Scotch Whisky is loved by people in 175 countries around the world. Each second, 42 bottles of Scotch are shipped from Scotland across the planet.