We’ve noticed that a lot of people would like the answer to this question: what is the difference between malt whisky and grain whisky?
So we’re going to explain why these are two distinct types of whisky by demonstrating how their ingredients, production processes, flavour, and uses differ.
We hope you find the following helpful and don’t forget, as well as our blog we now have a comprehensive whisky guides page on our website for all your whisky information needs.
What malt whisky and grain whisky are made of
To make whisky, you need grains. Barley, wheat, corn, and rye tend to be the most commonly used.
To create malt whisky, you use malted barley. Hence the name.
Whereas grain whisky is made from a mixture of grains, which includes barley, corn, wheat, and rye. So grain whisky can contain malted barley, but it’s not the sole ingredient.
How malt whisky and grain whisky are made
Grain and malt distillation are different too. While both share production processes such as mashing, fermenting, and ageing in barrels, they are distilled in two types of still.
Malt whisky is distilled in pot stills. This traditional distillation equipment is like a large kettle where the fermented liquid is heated to a point where the alcohol evaporates and rises through the neck of the still before being condensed back into liquid form in a condenser. This process is done in batches, so each distillation produces a relatively small amount of spirit, but it also retains more flavour from the original ingredients to create a complex profile of whisky.
Grain whisky, however, is typically produced using continuous column stills, an efficient and more modern distillation apparatus. It consists of multiple vertically stacked columns, each with a specific distillation function through which the liquid is continuously fed (not in batches). As it moves through the columns, it undergoes multiple stages of vaporization and condensation, causing an efficient separation of alcohol from impurities that results in a higher-ABV, purer spirit in a shorter amount of time. However, the character of that spirit is lighter and less complex than the one produced in pot stills.
The flavour of malt whisky and grain whisky
The way that each spirit is made has a big effect on the way malt and grain whisky taste. There are various other factors that dictate how a whisky tastes, such as how long it’s aged in a cask and what variety that cask is, but if you were to taste a malt and grain whisky side by side that had undergone the exact same maturation process, you would be able to tell a difference in how they taste.
When compared to grain whisky, malt whisky will appear more rich and full-bodied, with a greater variety of flavour from fruits to spices. If it’s a single malt, it will have been made at one distillery so the whisky will reflect the characteristics of that distillery, for example it’s pretty easy to tell when you have Highland Park in your glass. This geographical footprint often extends to regions too, such as Islay, Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, and Campbeltown.
By contrast, grain whisky is usually very light and approachable. It has a creamy and sweet cereal characteristic and has two or three main flavour profiles, compared to the complexity of a malt whisky. Not all grain whisky is one-dimensional, however, and well-aged grain in particular represents super value in the current market. It’s also worth remembering that each grain has its own individual flavour. Corn is known to be sweet and creamy, as is wheat, whereas rye is regarded to be rich and spicy.
The uses for malt whisky and grain whisky
Malt whisky has three main purposes, either to be bottled as single malt, to be married with other malt whiskies to create blended malt, or to be mixed with grain whisky to create blends.
The majority of grain whisky is used precisely for these blends. Between the lower production cost and the more delicate, malleable profile it has, distillers regard grain as the perfect tool for use in blended whiskies, particularly as a relatively neutral, smooth base to build upon.
However, you can bottle grain whisky without mixing it with malt whisky to create single grain whisky, which in Scotch must come from a single distillery like single malt whiskies. It’s a superb and underrated category full of great whisky. There’s also blended grain, which is simply a blend of pure grain whiskies with no malt.
The laws of malt whisky and grain whisky
It should be noted that the definitions we’ve followed so far are rooted in Scotch whisky and there’s good reason for that. Scotland is the giant of global whisky and has a strict legal foundation that both guarantees quality and provides a useful framework to explain the differences between malt and grain whisky. But be aware that not every country uses the same definitions.
Even within Scotland there are anomalies. For example, Scottish rye whisky is a (re)emerging style and its producers argue that ‘single grain’ doesn’t do it justice. And then there’s Loch Lomond which produces a malt whisky in a column still but because the SWA argues that “the further category being floated does not reflect traditional Scotch whisky distillation and practice”, the distillery has to label it a single grain whisky despite being made entirely from malted barley.
The rules outside of Scotland aren’t always as strict. In Japan, there’s column distilled malt whiskies like Nikka’s excellent Coffey Malt, while Copper Rivet in England has also experimented within this category with its Masthouse whisky.
Tasty examples of malt whisky and grain whisky
Below are some picks from each category to help drive home the differences between malt and grain whisky and how both play together in blended whisky too.
We hope you found the above useful and please feel free to ask any questions you may have on the subject. Enjoy!
Single malt whisky: Glen Grant 10 Year Old Whisky
A super example of the joy of the single malt here from the Glen Grant Distillery. This 10-year-old Speyside single malt is so refined and elegant. It was aged in bourbon casks to allow all those light, malty notes to shine.
Single grain whisky: Beautiful Fruit 8 Year Old Whiskey
An eight-year-old single grain Irish whiskey, Beautiful Fruit was distilled in tall stills to create a light, estery spirit that was then aged in bourbon casks. As the name suggests, it’s packed with notes of stone fruit, lemon zest, and tropical tang.
Blended malt whisky: Nikka Pure Malt Red Whisky
A Japanese blended malt in a charming-looking bottle, Pure Malt Red is made up of malt whisky from the Nikka distilleries Yoichi and Miyagikyo. The result is a fruit, creamy, buttery, and slightly herbal whisky.
A cask strength edition of the amazing ampersanded blended grain whisky, this 30-year-old Scotch whisky was bottled at a hearty 58.2% ABV and is brimming with notes of toasted sugar and vanilla biscuits, resting upon dense layers of chewy old oak.
Blended whisky: Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition Blended Scotch Whisky
A super blend of malt and grain whisky. Prohibition Edition Blended Scotch Whisky from the famous Cutty Sark represents great value and is a bartender’s dream for how well it mixes. Your drinks cabinet should always have a whisky like this in it because it will never let you down.