The Beginner’s Guide
to single malt scotch

You never forget your first. Of course, I’m referring to your first single malt scotch. If you’re a whisky drinker and new to single malts, you are in for a treat.

Whether you are trying a Glenmorangie, a Lagavulin, or a Macallan (the favorite of Harvey Specter if you are a Suits fan), you will experience flavors that will have you eager to try more. We’re not talking fruity drink flavors; these are heavier, smoky flavors to treat your taste buds.

There’s nothing wrong with blended scotch. Johnny Walker, Chivas, and Dewars are a few popular blended whiskies. But if you want to have fun exploring different styles and flavor profiles, you will want to try some single malts.

What does “Single Malt” mean?

You may have heard the term “single malt” before and not understood what it means. Typically, single malt refers to scotch and describes a malt whisky made from a single distillery, but not all single malts are scotch. There are distilleries from other countries that make single malt. For example, some American whiskey producers make a single malt whiskey, often using malted rye.

Let’s take a minute to address what you may have thought were typos. First, there are two spellings for “whisky” or “whiskey.” The term “whisky” is used for Scotch, Japanese, or Canadian whisky. The word “whiskey” is used by American and Irish distillers. For some, the different spellings may not mean much. But for the enthusiast, it’s an important distinction.

Related: How is Bourbon Made?

The term “malt” refers to malted barley, and according to the official regulations, called the Scotch Whisky Regulations, single malt scotch whisky must be made using malted barley.

Single malts must also be aged for at least three years in oak casks, though typically, they are aged for much longer. Some distilleries will introduce single malts eight or ten years old, while others may start with twelve-year-old whisky. From there, they will often offer a variety of aged whisky that can be 18, 25, or even 35 years old. As you might imagine, older whisky typically demands a higher price.

The Flavor

Scotch whisky gets its flavor from barley and a particular malt drying process that gives it a distinctive smoky taste. That smokiness is more intense with single malts.

The typical flavors associated with single malts are often referred to as:

  • light and delicate
  • peated
  • lightly peated
  • heavily peated
  • oily and coastal
  • young and spritely
  • sweet, fruity, and mellow
  • spicy and dry
  • spicy and sweet
  • dignified
  • deep, rich, and fruity
  • juicy, oaky, and vanilla-notes

The flavor and character of single malts tend to be influenced by the regions in Scotland where it’s made. Each single malt has its unique character, and that is part of the fun of discovering the whiskies.

Regions

There are six regions in the world of single malt scotch, though some may say there are only four official regions. These regions are protected by UK law to ensure the scotch is made in that region.

It’s similar to champagne. For a sparkling wine to be called “champagne,” it must be produced in the champagne region in France. So goes the ways of single malt scotch.

The six regions are:
  • Speyside
  • Highlands
  • Lowlands
  • Islay
  • Islands
  • Campbeltown


Speyside

While Speyside is the home to the most distilleries in Scotland, it’s not an “official” region. Instead, it’s a subdivision of Highlands.

Therefore, unlike some of the other regions, the character and flavor of Speyside whiskies have more to do with the distillery’s style than the actual region.

Related: Best Whiskey Cocktails for Summer

Some of the more well-known Speyside single malts include Aberlour, Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glenfarclas, and Macallan. If you want a compelling but less well-known Speyside whisky, try Mortlach or Glenfarclas.


Highlands

The Highlands is a vast region and is home to the second-most distilleries. Here you will find the most significant variations of characters and styles. These single malts are more influenced by their region and tend to be lighter-bodied and dry.

A few of the best-known houses in the Highlands are Dalwhinnie, Glen Goyne, and Glen Morangie. If you want a classic lighter-bodied Highland whisky, try Oban.

Lowlands

The whisky made in the Lowlands tends to be smooth and light. These whiskies are traditionally triple-distilled and are similar to Irish whiskeys.

These tend to light in color, dry, and mellow. Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie and Interleven are the more familiar houses in this region.

 

Islay

Islay (pronounced eye-luh) whiskies are not for the light-hearted. Most of these whiskies are described as “peat bombs,” as the surface in Islay consists of peat which has a strong influence on their single malts. In addition,

Islay whiskies are often described as smoky, oily, salty, and medicinal. The big names in Islay scotch are Ardbeg, Bowmore, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig.

 

Islands

The Islands region is just that, the isles off the coast of Scotland. Like Speyside, they are not an official region but another subdivision of the Highlands.

These whiskies are a bit peaty (but not like the Islay whiskies) and considered “coastal.” Highland Park is probably the most well-known distillery from the Islands and a go-to pick.

 

Campbeltown

Campbeltown is the smallest whisky region in Scotland, producing whiskies that are deep and full-bodied. Some might also describe them as salty.

The more notable names from Campbeltown are Glen Scotia and Springbank.

How Do I Start?

The easiest way to get started is to buy a bottle and give it a try. That said, single malts tend to be more expensive than other whiskies, which might be a little intimidating. And these aren’t likely to be your “party all night” kind of drink.

If you are lucky, you can find local scotch tastings in your area. Some tastings are private and a great deal of fun if you can manage an invite to one.

Often you can find local bars known for their scotch selection and can order a flight of whiskies to sample. And if you just want to enjoy the experience in the comfort of your home, you can buy single malt scotch online and have it delivered to your door.

If mixed or blended cocktails are your thing, single malts may not suit you. Hardcore single malt drinkers will tell you that you should drink them straight up.

Others swear that a few drops of water open up the whisky. And others love their single malts over a few cubes of ice. There are no hard and fast rules other than you should enjoy what you are drinking and drink responsibly.

Cheers and Stay Gold.

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