BUZZ: Hey Marnie, what's the deal with single-malt scotch? Aren't doubles and triples better than singles?
Marnie: In baseball, yes, but with scotch, not necessarily. Single malts are the premium tier; calling them "single" simply means they are the product of one distillery.
Garden variety scotch is a blend, where intensely flavored "malt whiskies" are added to a base of much more neutral grain whiskey. So when a scotch whisky is labeled "single malt," you know its flavor will be quite potent since it has never been diluted by blending.
Buzz: I was more potent when I was single, too.
Marnie: TMI, Buzz. Typically, when blended whiskies are made, multiple malt whiskies are used to add flavor, much the way a chef would use herbs and spices. Single malts have very distinctive flavor profiles, depending on each distillery's recipe and its location.
Buzz: Why does malt make it taste stronger?
Marnie: Grain whiskey, the neutral base of ordinary scotch, is made more or less like vodka: in highly efficient mechanized stills using any type of cereal grain, malted or unmalted.
Malt whiskey must be made the old-fashioned way by law, batch by batch in traditional pot stills.
Only malted barley may be used. This was historically dried over peat fires, which adds the smoky, mossy flavor peculiar to scotch.
These whiskies are then aged in oak barrels, a process that intensifies their flavor through evaporation and slow oxidation. This is obviously a much more laborious and expensive process.
Buzz: Why does each distillery's scotch taste different?
Marnie: They have their own distinctive traits. Some arise from variations in malting, peating or distillation. But environmental factors, from water to weather, influence flavor, too. Whiskies from coastal areas taste quite different from those made in the Highlands.
Buzz: If single malt is so great, why blend whiskies at all?
Marnie: More intensity isn't always a good thing. Too much seasoning in a sauce can be overwhelming. Many scotch drinkers prefer the milder, smoother taste of blended scotch.
Buzz: I'm kind of a smooth guy so I'll be browsing for a blended scotch.