Styles of Scotch Whisky - dummies

By Perry Luntz

The Scots produce two broad categories of whisky: single malt whiskies (one whisky from a single distillery) and blended whiskies (a mixture of two or more whiskies from two or more distilleries).

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) is the trade organization representing the people who distill, blend, and export Scotch whisky. In 2005, the SWA issued a new set of names for five styles of Scotch whiskies.

According to the SWA,

  • Single malt whisky is one whisky from one distillery, distilled from 100 percent malted barley.
  • Single grain whisky is one whisky from one distillery, distilled from one grain or a mixture of grains, commonly up to 20 percent malted barley and up to 80 percent other grains, such as wheat or corn.
  • Vatted or blended malt whisky is the traditional Scottish blended whisky, consisting only of single malt whiskies, which may come from more than one distillery.
  • Blended grain whisky is made of a mixture of grain whiskies from more than one distillery.
  • Blended Scotch whisky, a more recent innovation, is a blend of whiskies, commonly made of 20 to 40 percent single malt whisky plus 60 to 80 percent grain whisky, usually from several distilleries.

Although these categories are technically correct and so important for distillers, most Scotch drinkers are just fine dividing their favorite whisky into two broad groups: straight (single) malt whiskies and blended whiskies.

Regardless of type, by law, Scotch whisky must be aged for three years. However, many distillers age their whiskies for longer periods of time to continue the smoothing process that adds flavor and color to the product. For example, most single malts are aged from 8 to 15 years. Some special products may be aged as long as 21 years — old enough to be able to order a drink themselves at any American tavern, bar, or watering hole.

The milder blended whiskies have become increasingly popular, accounting for more than 90 percent of the Scotch whisky sold worldwide. But the Scottish single malts remain distinctive products, valued by connoisseurs who recognize each as an individual product of a specific whisky-making region in Scotland.