Single Malt and Blended Whisky — What's the Difference?

From Scotland and Japan to India, the United States, Australia, and beyond, great whiskey is produced around the world.

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to blend my own single malt Scotch whisky using components that were sent to me by Bruichladdich, whose famously un-peated flagship expression, known as The Classic Laddie, is a staple in my own home. When I told friends and family about the blending exercise, one question came up more than any other: How can it be a single malt if you’ll be blending multiple components?

Of course there was confusion; Perhaps no other category of whisk(e)y is as full of misapprehension and confusion as single malt. What defines it? Does it have to come from Scotland? How is it different from blended whisky in general and blended Scotch in particular?

Discussion of the subject always reminds me of the cringingly awkward scene in the 1996 movie “Swingers,” in which John Favreau’s character, in an effort to seem more sophisticated, places this uninformed yet gloriously pretentious drink order at a Las Vegas casino: “I'll have a Scotch on the rocks, please. Any Scotch will do, as long as it's not a blend, of course. Single malt. Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, perhaps…any ‘Glen.’”

What’s the Difference Between Single Malt and Blended Whisky?

Single malt Scotch whisky, by definition, is produced entirely from malted barley and no other grains, in pot stills (as opposed to column stills), and at a single distillery. In the United States, whiskeys labeled as “American Single Malt” have to follow those same rules, and also be distilled up to a strength of 160 proof and aged in oak of up to 700 liters. Single malts are also produced in Japan, Australia, and beyond.

Blended Malt Scotch Whiskey, on the other hand, can be made of a blend of single malts from multiple distilleries; and Blended Scotch Whisky is a blend of Single Malt Scotch Whisky and Single Grain Scotch Whisky.

Two whiskies on the rocks

Alexey Lysenko / Getty Images

Is Single Malt Whiskey Better Than Blended Whiskey?

There is a lingering perception, as the scene from the movie demonstrated so well a quarter century ago, that single malts are always superior to blends. This is not correct, as fans of Johnnie Walker Blue Label will be quick to attest. Rather, they’re just different, and there are plenty of great and not-so-great examples of both. Part of the shade that gets thrown at blended whisk(e)y is likely a result of its sheer volume: There are far more blends on the market than there are single malts, and therefore more underwhelming examples of the latter than the former. But the good stuff—Johnnie Blue, Dewar’s 25 Year Old, any of the ones below – is every bit as pleasurable as its single malt counterparts.

To get back to that blending exercise I did in crafting my own single malt Bruichladdich, it turns out that there was no conflict in definition or terminology: All of the components that I was sent had been distilled by Bruichladdich entirely from malted barley and water; they all had just been aged in different types of oak (first or second fill Bourbon, second fill Pauillac, etc.) and for different periods of time. Blended all together, they still resulted in a single malt Scotch.

Complicated? Absolutely. And that’s not even addressing the amazing single malt and blended whisk(e)y produced in Japan, India, Australia, the United States, and beyond. But understanding the difference between all of these different types of whisk(e)y is important, especially as the world of Scotch, Bourbon, and the rest continues its expansion.

11 Best Single Malt and Blended Whiskies to Try 

10th Street American Whisky Peated Single Malt

Distilled and bottled in San Jose, California, this is crafted entirely from peated malted barley and then aged in first-fill bourbon casks. The result is a terrific American Single Malt, redolent of peat smoke and subtle touches of iodine, a distinct salinity that makes this very versatile with food, and flavors of brown sugar caramel and marshmallows charred over a bonfire.

Clonakilty Bordeaux Cask Finish Single Grain Irish Whiskey 

Part of Clonakilty’s series of unique cask-finished whiskeys, this delicate, complex liquid nonetheless boasts serious muscle beneath the surface, with lemon blossoms, clover honey, Seckel pears, and suggestions of fresh cherries,  white tea, cracked peppercorn, and mineral through the finish.

Compass Box Orchard House Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

A fascinating blend of whiskies from around Scotland, some of them sourced as new-make spirit that Compass Box has aged themselves and others already matured, this sweetly fruited dram showcases dried peaches and nectarines, dehydrated yellow apples, and a hint of Honey Smacks cereal in the best way possible. 

Nikka Days Smooth & Delicate Blended Whisky

From Japan but not technically “Japanese Whisky,” this blend of grain whiskies and what the brand calls “slightly peated malts” is terrifically easy to drink in volume: Notes of hay, dried flowers, autumn orchard fruits, lemon marmalade, and very subtle spice make this a delicious and affordable everyday sipper.

Paul John Christmas Edition 2022 Single Malt Whisky

From one of India’s top producers, this sweet, generous whisky has been aged in ex-bourbon, brandy, and peated Oloroso casks, resulting in a liquid of generosity and decadence, with caramel popcorn, honey-coated hazelnuts, carob, and bergamot that all linger through the balanced, powerful, gently smoke-kissed finish.

Penderyn Madeira Finish Single Malt Welsh Whisky

This finds an excellent balance between savory and ripe fruit notes, with salted honey candies, dehydrated orange peels, and cinnamon, as well as hints of caramel lingering through the elegant, almond-blossom-kissed finish.

Starward Octave Barrels Single Malt Australian Whisky

Matured in 100-liter barrels that previously held Yalumba Octavius Barossa Shiraz, this is concentrated and lengthy, with crushed blackberries and black cherries, licorice, carob, sachertorte, and sweet spice that all lead to a finish flecked with bergamot, rooibos, and toasty brandied cherries. Another fantastic expression from the Melbourne-based producer.

The Glenlivet The Sample Room Collection 25 Years of Age Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Finished in first-fill Pedro Ximenez sherry and ex-Cognac casks from Tronçais, this stunning whisky embodies just what connoisseurs of extra-aged whisky look for: It’s elegant and layered yet full of subtle power, and the flavors of white raisins, dried apricots, baked pears, white figs, and woodsy spices are informed by the spirit’s time in oak but not defined by it. Lingering through the finish are suggestions of dried tropical fruit and sweet spice, as well as a hint of orange sherbet and apricot conserve, all of it anchored by marzipan through the impossibly long finish. The 21 Years of Age expression, on the other hand, is finished in first-fill Oloroso sherry, Tronçais Cognac, and vintage Port casks, and drips with kirsch, melted dark chocolate, dried black raspberries, brandied cherries, cooked honey, and hints of hazelnuts tha vibrate through the finish.

The McLaren Vale Distillery MVD Single Cask Single Malt Whisky 

Aged in American oak that previously held 22-year-old tawny from Dutschke, this blockbuster whisky is sweet and generous, palate-filling, and impeccably balanced. Toast dances with melted chocolate, black licorice, Amarena cherries, and brown sugar caramel before a toasty finish of white raisins and ganache-coated honey candies lingers with subtle spice.

Waterford Single Farm Origin Irish Single Malt Whiskey “Rathclogh Edition 1.1”

Impossible silky in texture and unfurling in layer after layer of flavor, this terrific whiskey comes in waves of orange marmalade countered by hints of mushrooms. There is a serious creaminess to the texture, which also carries subtle hints of woodsy spice and chocolate-coated malt balls. The Single Farm Origin “Dunbell Edition 1.1,” on the other hand, is defined by its orange sherbet flavors, with cracked peppercorns providing a fantastic sense of framing, and Triscuit crackers lending a sense of impressive depth.

Wemyss Malts Spice King Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

Creamy in texture and with a spine of peppercorn, the orange pastry cream and pie crust notes of this whisky are defined, as the name implies, by the subtly smoky spice. “The Peat Chimney,” on the other hand, leans more heavily on smoke, which lends a nice counterpoint to pear fritters dusted with cinnamon.

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