MALT WHISKY

malt whisky with barley

Malt whisky is the easiest type of whisky to define because it derives from only one kind of grain, barley. That’s it, 100% malt, pretty straightforward, right?

While the world associates most malt whiskies with Scotch, distillers anywhere in the world can make a malt whisky. However, only a whisky distilled, aged, and bottled exclusively in Scotland can be labeled a Scotch malt.

There are many malt whiskies including several produced by Irish distilleries, including Bush, Teeling, Knappouge, and Tyconnel. There are also many American malt whiskies, especially those produced at craft distilleries. Again, malt whisky is simply a whisky derived only from barley. Oh if it were only that simple.

Legal Definitions

You see, American laws stipulate that an American malt need only contain 51% malt whisky. Other countries may have different parameters, so a little due diligence goes a long way when selecting a malt whisky.

Here is an excellent place to address the use of the word “single” in describing a whisky. The term single implies only one distillery is responsible for making and maturing the whisky contained in the bottle. It does not mean the whisky in the bottle comes from a single cask or even a single type of grain. If it were from a single barrel, it would be labeled “single cask.”

To confuse things a wee bit further, there is a unique type of Irish whisky termed Pot Still Whisky.  For that, distillers use a combination of malted and unmalted barley in a traditional pot still. In some cases, it may contain a small percentage of raw oats or wheat. Again if the label reads a Single Pot Still Whisky, it implies one distillery manufactured it.

The take away is that if whisky is labeled a “Malt Whisky,” it is only safe to assume that a significant portion of the mash derives from barley unless again, it is a Scotch malt whisky which must be 100% barley.

GRAIN WHISKY

Technically, grain whisky refers to any whisky made with grains other than barley. This definition would include standard grains such as corn, rye, and wheat. But, also grains such as oats, millets, and even brown rice.

However, when it comes to grain whisky we are generally talking about a mix of corn, rye, or wheat. Note, most grain whiskies also contain a small amount of barley, 3-5%, to aid in scarification.
Distillers vary the percentage to achieve different flavors and character profiles. In America, according to law, if a grain whisky contains 51% or more of a particular grain, it assumes the name of that grain. For example, a grain whisky with a mash bill of 51% rye, 35% corn 10% wheat, and 4% barley classifies as a Rye whisky.

A mash bill with corn in the rage of 51-79% ranks as a bourbon. At 80% and above, it classifies as a “corn whisky.” The same would go for wheat, and as we noted under malt whisky, if its 51% barley, it ranks as a wheat whisky. On the other hand, if the mix is 49% barley, 37% corn, 10% wheat, and 4% rye, it would simply be called a grain whisky. As with malt, a “single grain whisky” implies one distillery is responsible for making the whisky.

However, it’s worth noting here that to classify as a whisky; the ABV must be less than 94.8%. If it exceeds 95% ABV, the spirit ranks as a “ grain neutral spirit” (GNS) or rectified alcohol. Most countries prohibit the inclusion of neutral spirits in whisky. The notable exception is India, where they allow a small percentage in blended grain whiskies.

grain spirits and bags of grain

BLENDED WHISKY

Generally speaking, blended whisky is a mix of two or more types of whiskies. Blended whiskies may or may not contain additives such as coloring or flavor agents. For example, a Blended Scotch comprises of a certain percentage of malt whisky with a grain whisky. The same would be true for Irish Blends, such as Jameson’s Blended Whiskey.

The practice of blending whiskies began in the 1800s after the introduction of Coffey’s column still. The column still enables distillers to produce large volumes of grain whisky faster and at a cost cheaper than they could produce malt whisky in a traditional pot still.

Mass production became critical to meeting the rising demand for whisky in the late 1800s. The Scotch quickly learned that by blending the cheaper grain whisky with their traditional malts, they made a whisky consistent in taste and character and appealed to foreign consumers.

Blended whiskies soon overtook the world market, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that malt whiskies, especially single malts, regained a foothold. Marketing has diminished the value of blends in some consumer’s minds, but blends still account for almost 90% of whisky sold worldwide.

Blended Scotches include famous brands such as Dewers, Johnnie Walker, J&B, and Cutty Sark. Irish blends include Jameson’s, Bushmills, Powers, and  Tullamore D.E.W.

I should note that it is also possible to create a “blended malt.” However, a blended malt consists only of malt (barley) whisky but from one or more distilleries. At one time, such whiskies were known as “vatted malts.”