Single Malt’s Dirty Little Secret

I was having a discussion about whisky (I know, weird) with a bartender. We were discussing Johnnie Walker Blue Label and The Dalmore King Alexander III. He pointed out that of course Blue Label was a blend and, well, The Dalmore was a single. It was pure Scotch. I didn’t really have the heart to tell him that King Alex could be considered just as much a blended Scotch as Blue Label.

What blasphemy doth I speak?!

You can find a more in-depth discussion about the types of Scotches here, but I’ll give you a quick recap. A blended Scotch has a mix of malt and grain whiskies from different distillers. A single malt contains only malt whisky from a single distiller. On the surface it sure sounds like a single malt is more, well, singular. Oh, what a tangled web of marketing we weave.

Take the aforementioned King Alex. Yes it is distilled only from malted barely, but it is a blend (or vatting, to be WC [whiskey correct]). Let me explain.

The vast majority of single malts are not from a single barrel, and if they are, the bottle will boldly proclaim it to be so. Most single malts are from a wide variety of years and barrels. An age statement (if provided) only describes the youngest whisky in the mix, many age-declared whiskies have much older components than what is labeled on the bottle.

Back to the royal dram in question. King Alex is a vatting of six different barrel types across an unspecified age range. The folks at The Dlamore took whiskies that had been aging in bourbon barrels, Matusalem oloroso sherry wood, Madeira barrels, Marsala casks, port pipes and Cabernet Sauvignon wine barriques. Quite a range! But the whisky that went into those used barrels was distilled at The Dlamore and aged in their warehouses (not necessarily the same facility) so it is a “single” malt.

The Dlamore is certainly not an exceptional case. Some single malts contain an even greater range and variety.

Glenfiddich has taken an interesting approach for their 15yr Solera Vat expression. Aging for 15 years in bourbon barrels, sherry barrels, and virgin oak, these whiskies are then dumped into a huge vat (the Solera Vata, duh) from where it is then bottled, but the vat is never emptied completely. The new whiskies entering the vat are *ahem* blended with the older whisky mix to help create a smooth flavor experience. Every infusion creates a more nuanced blend vat.

For most people, the illusion that single malts are superior is from total ignorance. Some with a little more knowledge will say its because the grain whisky in blends is only there because it’s cheaper. And we all know more expensive is always better.

The truth is, no one who actually knows whisky will ever discount a blend just because it’s a blend. But this attitude is probably the quickest way to spot a whisky douchebag!