What is single malt whisky?
What is single malt whisky?
The world of whisky is filled with many types, flavours, techniques and terms that can sometimes feel a little overwhelming. At Starward, we not only believe in crafting outrageously delicious whisky but also in helping you wrap your head around everything that whisky has to offer. Here, we’re shining a light on single malt whisky – a classic that continues to be one of the most popular styles globally.
To put simply, single malt whisky refers to a type of whisky that’s produced by a single distillery using a single malted grain (most likely barley). It can get a little confusing when you hear the name ‘single malt’ – sounds like it should come from a single barrel or single batch, right? Instead, these are various barrel-aged whiskies produced at one distillery; as long as the casks used are all from the same distillery, the final result or ‘blend’ is considered a single malt.
Let’s start with the taste and characteristics of single malt whisky
To understand the single malt variety, it’s a good idea to know how other whiskies differ. As we mentioned above, a single malt whisky is a blend of malt whiskies produced at one distillery from one type of malted grain. A blended whisky, as the name suggests, is a blend of malted barley and grain whiskies from multiple distilleries. As a general rule, this style doesn’t include grain whiskies. Finally, a single grain whisky is produced from more than one grain, including barley, wheat or corn, at one single distillery. The most well-known single malt whisky is Scotch whisky, but many others are made around the world, including Japan, Ireland, Canada, America – and Australia, of course!
When it comes to flavours and typical characteristics of single malts, whisky lovers and whisky curious alike can enjoy its nuanced and complex flavours, which are influenced by things like the type of barrel used to age the whisky, where the distillery is located and the length of the maturation period. The flavour and style of a single malt whisky are also dependent on the distillery and the techniques they employ to create the spirit. Each brand can have a unique flavour profile – from smoky and peaty to fruity or spicy. More specifically, you may also notice flavours of malt, oak, vanilla and dried fruits in a glass of single malt whisky – and it’s also often described as being quite smooth and silky.
How is single malt whisky made?
This first step involves taking the barley and helping it to germinate – this is called malting. The barley is steeped and drained several times over roughly a 48-hour period before it’s spread on a stone floor for up to seven days. The barley is turned regularly to maintain a constant temperature and to stop the grains from sticking together. When the barley has started to shoot, the germination is stopped by drying it in a kiln – if peat is used for drying, the peat smoke can influence the flavour of the final spirit. And what’s peat, you ask? Think of them as nature’s briquettes.
All about the base
After the malting, the barley is ground into a coarse flour ready to be mixed with hot water and stirred. We call this process mashing. The naturally occurring enzymes in the malt convert the starch into sugar making the mash very sweet. We then separate the sweet liquid from the grain solids by rinsing the grains with hot water. The liquid is called wort and is cooled and transferred into the fermenter. The leftover grains are used for dairy cattle feed.
Once the wort is in the fermenter, the yeast is added and fermentation commences. We now call the liquid wash. During this step, the sugars in the wash are consumed by the yeast to create a natural alcohol called ethanol or ethyl alcohol; fermentation is what creates the actual alcohol. This process takes at least 48 hours and the yeast also produces other flavours and carbon dioxide.
Distilling whisky involves purifying the liquid in a still (a copper container that has a firm seal and a thin cone-shaped vent on top) by heating and vaporising it, then collecting the vapour as it recondenses into a liquid. At this point the liquid is considered purer because impurities are removed when it evaporates – it’s also more alcoholic. Most single malt whiskies are double distilled, meaning the liquid travels through two separate distillation steps, increasing the alcoholic strength of the spirit and refining the flavour.
Ageing and maturation
At this point in single malt’s journey it’s placed in wooden barrels (oak being the most popular) for at least two to three years. In addition to a single malt whisky being made in a single distillery, it must also be aged in oak barrels for at least three years if it is made in Scotland.
All that hard work and time comes down to this point where the final product is placed into bottles, labelled and ready to be enjoyed.
The diversity of single malt whisky
There are plenty of whisky-producing countries and regions around the world that each impart their own unique characteristics. The top one that comes to mind is Scotland: their single malt Scotch whisky is definitely the best-known and must always be produced from malted barley alone – they’re also renowned for displaying regional characteristics and unique flavour profiles due to the hyper-local climate and distilling techniques. Generally, single malt from the Highlands is lighter; Islay single malts are typically smoky because of that peaty technique during the malting step; Speyside whisky is considered elegant, and whisky made on the Islands tends to be slightly salty from the ocean air. Over in Japan, their whiskies are made most commonly from barley and distilled in pot stills. The biggest difference between Scotland and the US when it comes to single malt whisky is that within Scotland, whisky is required to be aged for a minimum of three years whereas in America, there’s no minimum ageing requirement.
Starward’s take on single malt whisky
Of course, there’s also the single malt coming out of Australia; it’d be remiss of us not to mention that our Starward single malt is made using locally grown malted barley, brewed like a craft beer and distilled specifically to create our signature fruity spirit – and let’s not forget the wine barrels.
Our very own Head of Production, Sam Slaney shares which Starward products are single malt and why: “All Starward whiskies are single malts, with the exception of our wheat folded together with single malt whisky, Two-Fold. We like single malts as they really pack a punch with flavour and drive the intensity of the whisky, with more malt character and spirit flavour packed in,” he explains. In terms of typical characteristics of Starward’s single malts? “Orchard fruits and tropical fruits from the spirit, red fruits from the wine barrels, malty meets bready/biscuity from the malt, spicy from the French oak, vanilla and caramel from the American oak,” says Sam. Sam also suggests single malt is a great spirit for beginners, too. “If the flavour intensity or alcohol heat is too much, simply add a little bit of water until you find the flavour works for you. Our lower alcohol whiskies are more approachable, so Nova and Solera at 41% and 43% are a bit easier to get into than 100 Proof and our Projects Series.”
How to enjoy single malt whisky
Experts suggest that due to its unique and complex flavour profiles, single malt is best enjoyed neat to really enjoy everything it has to offer. You may also wish to add a few drops of water to it; doing this can release more aromas on the nose and open up more flavours on the palate. If we want to get a little technical here, start by giving the single malt a gentle sniff and swirl – your nose can identify an infinite amount of different smells, while your tongue can only detect a fraction: your nose will educate your palate. To avoid the burning sensation caused by the taste of alcohol, sniff gently and keep your mouth slightly open. After a few minutes of smelling your whisky, take a sip. Be sure to hold it on your tongue for a few seconds, and then let it spread throughout your entire mouth. Breathe out slowly through your nose. You may notice not only its taste but how it feels: creamy, rich, thin… typically a single malt will be quite silky. If you don’t want to try whisky like this that’s absolutely fine – can definitely choose your own adventure. Single malt whisky happens to be great in cocktails, like an Old Fashioned or a Coffee Manhattan. Sam says: “Whether you like your cocktail strong and boozy or long and spritzy – a single malt works with just about anything!”
That’s a wrap on our single malt whisky chat Here in Australia, we’ve got some great Australian made whisky and single malt whisky to choose from. And if you’re ready to discover even more styles of whisky beyond single malt, then may we suggest shopping Starward whisky if you have a moment.