WHAT'S A SINGLE MALT? IT DEPENDS ON WHERE YOU ARE.
What is a “single malt?” in whiskey terminology? Like so many things in whiskey, it all depends on where you are.
SO MANY SINGLES
Understanding the role of the word “single” in whiskey starts in Scotland, where the style has been perfected to an art. Single malt Scotch whisky is one of the most heavily regulated styles of whisky in the world.
Among many other rules, it must be made entirely from malted barley, distilled on a copper pot still, aged for at least three years in oak containers, and bottled at no lower than 40% alcohol content, all on Scottish soil.
In Scotland, the word “single” can only be used to refer to a whisky that was distilled at one single distillery. If a bottle of whisky contains a mix of malt whiskies produced at two or more different distilleries, it’s called a blended malt Scotch whisky (the older term--and one we love--is “vatted malt”).
Grain whiskies--which are Scottish whiskies that don’t meet the stringent definition of single malt--can be singles, too. Single grain whiskies are grain whiskies distilled at a single distillery. When malt and grain whiskies are mixed together, the result is called blended whisky. While single malt whisky is Scotland’s most famous style, blended whisky still comprises the lion’s share of whisky production in the U.K.
Of course, distilleries can also release single barrel or single cask whiskies, which are the bottled contents of just one oak barrel. You might also see the words “single batch” on a label, which doesn’t have a legal definition but usually refers to a one-time special release (every single one of Barrell Craft Spirits’ releases falls into this camp).
BUT WHAT ABOUT STATESIDE?
In the United States, the term “single malt” isn’t legally defined at all. Instead of single malt and blended whiskies, American whiskey’s two most important categories are bourbon and rye, which are defined along with a kaleidoscope of other, less common styles by the federal government.
Yet American whiskey makers still use the term single malt. American single malt, which generally hews loosely to the Scottish definition, is one of the fastest-growing (and, we think, most exciting) categories in American whiskey.
“Some of the most passionate distillers in the country are the single malt producers,” says Will Schragis, National Director for Barrell Craft Spirits. He thinks that’s partly because the process of making single malt can involve more variables than almost any other style of whiskey making. “They’re making beer, they’re making decisions about grain that bourbon producers don’t make, and they’re making malting and fermentation decisions that are more akin to brewing.”
American single malts have a wide range of flavor profiles, from classically clean and malty styles clearly inspired by Scotland, to unusual whiskies made with mesquite-smoked grain or aged in unusual varieties of North American oak. At Barrell Craft Spirits, the incredible diversity of the American Single Malt style inspired the release of our American Vatted Malt in 2019.
“Barrell Craft Spirits Vatted Malt is probably the most ‘serious’ whiskey we make, in that it has the most hidden layers,” says Will. He thinks that’s a function of just how distinctive each of the seven American single malts that went into the blend are on their own. To make it, we sourced whiskeys from every corner of the country, from Brooklyn, New York, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, then carefully balanced their flavors with our painstaking blending process.
The result is hugely complex, with layers of savory smoke, briny coastal peat, warm vanilla, and toasty malt. “It’s a great outdoor whiskey,” says Will. “The mesquite smoke comes off as this kind of smoked paprika note that’s delicious. It just matches with outdoorsy food really well.”
A FUTURE OF AMERICAN SINGLE MALT
“Single malt” might not be an undefined term in the United States for much longer if the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission has anything to say about it. This trade group is working to establish a legal definition of single malt in the U.S., as well as promote the new category to consumers. Barrell Craft Spirits is cheering them on.
“Because I come from the wine world, categories that ensure a level of quality are always very exciting to me,” says Will. “In America right now, not only do we not have a definition for single malt whiskey, but we have this ridiculous “malt whisky” category that precludes you from calling single malt ‘malt whiskey’ if it’s not aged in new oak. Really, the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission is just asking for the regulations to catch up to the industry. The industry’s there already.”
We’re optimistic about the world of American single malt. Just as Scotland’s independent bottlers play a key role in the industry, we’re excited to continue elevating the best of America’s single malt whiskey producers as the industry continues to evolve.
“Our hope is as the American single malt category grows, there’s space for blends like Barrell American Vatted Malt in a way that will help the small distilleries doing single malt distillation,” says Will. “Someday, we want to be the Johnnie Walker of America.”