Single malt whisky is better than blended whisky. Right? 


Well, in truth the answer to that question is: it depends. 

Which single malt are we talking about? And what blend? Also, better for what? Sipping neat… mixing… recreating the holy grail scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?

Our new campaign on the beauty of blends is now in full swing and a key part of it is trying to dispel the notion that blends are automatically inferior. 

So hopefully the following will help anyone who wants to understand the differences between single malt and blended whisky, while also demonstrating that there’s no good reason to write off blends. 

What is single malt whisky?

Single malt whisky is made from 100% malted barley which is distilled at a single distillery in pot stills and then aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years. That’s the Scotch whisky definition but the same is true in Ireland (although the wood doesn’t strictly have to be oak) and for the most part, the world over. The flavour of the whisky tends to reflect the unique characteristics of the distillery’s location and production methods, ranging from the length of the fermentation process to the shape of the still and how it was matured.

What is blended whisky?

Blended whisky is a mixture of different types of whiskies, typically malt and grain whiskies (more on that here). In some cases, you can include a small percentage of other spirits, such as in Canada, but that’s not true in the likes of Scotland, Ireland, and Japan. Blended whisky is the biggest category of whisky across the world, accounting for around 90% of the Scotch whisky market alone. The flavour is usually intended to be balanced and approachable but master blenders have a lot of room for variation and experimentation.

In Scotch whisky, you also have blended malt, formerly called vatted malts, which are a blend of single malts from two or more distilleries, as well as blended grain, a  blend of single grains from two or more distilleries. 

lakes distillery whisky

Whisky, whether single malt or blended, requires the marrying of a lot of spirit

Single is a tricky word

So the key differences between single malts and blends come down to ingredients and production. While you can only use malted barley for single malt whisky, blends can include grains like corn, rye, and wheat. Single malts hail from one distillery. Blends combine whisky from multiple sources. One is single, one is multiple. Except, that’s not quite right. 

That’s because single malt is also a blend too. Almost every single malt you see will be a marriage of various whiskies. All made from 100% malted barley in the same distillery, yes, but taken from many individual barrels. The whisky maker will still undertake all the same processes they would when making blended whisky to create the best product, namely balancing flavour to achieve a consistent character. A single malt comes from a single distillery, but not necessarily from a single batch or barrel. 

Not so different, you and I…

The received opinion is that single malt whiskies are more diverse, distinct, and complex, whereas blended whiskies are more simple. 

There’s two issues with this notion. One is that the character of the whisky is not the only thing informing this trend. Single malts have, for a long time now, been backed by extensive branding and marketing that implies superiority and quality. Ask somebody who isn’t really into whisky which is better – single malt, single grain, or blended whisky – and they’ll pretty much always say single malt, because that’s what they will have heard. 

Single malt is also more expensive due to its more limited production and singular characteristics, but also because of the strength of the single malt brand. That process then becomes cyclical. I’m paying more for single malt because it’s a better product, and because it’s a better product I’m willing to pay more for it… One informs the other. 

The other issue with this notion is that it suggests that the vast majority of whisky isn’t worth drinking. Not just blends, but grain whiskies too, which shouldn’t be overlooked. On their own single grains can be delicious and in a blend they provide the creamy, sweet backdrop that gives a platform for the personalities of the single malts in the blend to shine. 

Sandy Hyslop Royal Salute

Master blenders like Sandy Hyslop make marrying whisky look easy. But it’s not.

The beauty of blended whisky

As we’ve already established, single malts require blending themselves and the process is very much an art form. But now consider what someone like Sandy Hyslop does. As master blender for Chivas Brothers, he’s tasked with creating whisky for brands like Ballantine’s, Chivas Regal, and Royal Salute using whisky from across Pernod Ricard’s considerable portfolio of distilleries. Various styles of whisky from the likes of Glenlivet, Miltonduff, Strathisla, Longmorn, and Strathclyde arrive at his blending lab, where it’s his job to consider how they will harmonise together and make a whisky that is greater than the sum of its parts.

This is a wildly complex process. I’d urge you to give it a go right now. Get a few drams of single malt and single grain Scotch whisky and see if you can make a mini blend worth drinking. It’s really not easy. The combining of different malt and grain whiskies to create a drink that is enjoyed the world over is a remarkable skill. As Hyslop puts it himself on Chivas Regal’s website: “Blending whisky is like cooking: the ingredients are all unique but when those ingredients come together, you can create something extraordinary and complex.”

Once a profile of the is established the whisky maker is tasked with meeting those same characteristics time and time again. This is also true of single malts, of course. If we use Glenfiddich 12 Year Old as an example now, consider that millions of bottles of this are sold every year and batch to batch there is almost no room for error. 

Single malt vs. blended whisky – is it even a competition?

It’s not a matter of single malt vs. blended whisky for us. Both single malts and blended whisky are brilliant and have their worth and merits. So often the two are put into competition and that ends up undermining the reputation of blended whisky. 

Blends, for their part, can be complex, rewarding, challenging, diverse, and distinctive. They can also be simple and accessible in a way that brings people into the world of whisky. Comparing them negatively to single malts all the time only adds to how intimidating Scotch and whisky, in general, can seem to newcomers. Whether you prefer single malt or blended whisky ultimately comes down to personal taste.

There’s plenty of whisky for all of us and a lot of us who love our whisky. Instead of defining our relationship by what’s said about the whisky, let’s just enjoy it for what’s in the glass and appreciate that it can be good or bad regardless of whether it’s a blend or a single malt.