Scotland has more distilleries than any other country. Almost 100 of them are scattered across the land, with single malts being the most distinctive of all Scotch whiskies. Single malts are distilled and matured in Scotland for 3 years minimally. It is a requirement that only oak barrels may be used. For it to be called a single malt scotch it can only be produced in one distillery (“single”) with malted barley as the only grain(“malt”) ingredient. Only copper pot stills may be used. This is a pricey process but the rewards are a richly flavored scotch whiskey that is unique in taste as it does not involve blends from other distilleries. Single malt scotch whiskey is usually more expensive than its blended counterparts which makes it a much sought after drink among aficionados.
Single malts vary in flavor depending on the region where it is produced. The Scottish Highlands will give you a firm, sometimes spicy taste where the Lowlands will produce a more subtle, gentle taste. The coastlines and islands will entice your palate with a more briny and smoky flavor.
Speyside is the heart of Scottish distilling. Almost half of the country’s distilleries are situated here, either on or close to the Spey River. Here, too, the flavors range from a full-bodied and rich scotch whiskey such as Balvenie and Macallan to the more elegant Glenlivet 12 year old.
Although the finest single malt scotch whiskey is quite literally on their doorstep, blended whiskies are still more popular. Enthusiasm for single malt scotch is a relatively new phenomenon that started roughly two decades ago.
The advantages of blended scotch whiskey is that it smooths out the edges and fills in the flavor gaps. Brands like Johnnie Walker, Chivas, Cutty Sark and Dewar’s are hugely popular despite blending several single malts together
A little known fact about blended scotch whiskey is that the biggest component of the blend is made from grain whisky and not single malt at all. Grain whisky is made similar to how vodka is made where different cereal grains are distilled in consecutive column stills. This process is less expensive but it still produces a quality product. These blends are light in flavor but full in taste.
It is a common misconception that all Scotch whiskies are smoky, when, in fact, only a few of them are. Peat fires (once the only fuel source for many distilleries) are used to dry malted barley which gives it its smoky flavor. Today it is used optionally as a flavor enhancer and has become quite popular.