When talking about a Scottish Whisky (Scotch), there are two main categories of product – blends and single malts. The difference between the two is simple. A single malt is made entirely by distillations from a single producer at a single site, whereas a blend is created by mixing distillation from multiple producers.
Blends are typically also a mix of malt and grain whiskys (though there are exceptions), whereas a single malt is obviously only made from malt whiskys.
Blended whisky was first produced in the mid 1800′s, and the main goal is to produce a consistent marketable product. Typically the bulk of a blend is made up of grain whisky which is cheaper to produce, lending itself to a more cost effective product. The grain aspect is an unmalted cereal such as wheat or maize and it lends itself to a harsher flavour than whisky from malted grains. One thing to note is that over time, the availability of the base components of a blended whisky might become unavailable (either the distillery closes, or it decides to longer provide the malt whisky product to the blenders), causing quite a challenge to the blender. Good examples of popular blends are Bells, Grants, Teacher, Famous Grouse and Dewars.
Confusion can often arise when talking about a single malt. The term single actually refers to the fact that it is sourced from a single distiller and the end product is a crafted blend of malts of various ages. The goal here is to retain the character of the product while retaining as much consistency between batches as possible.
One important thing to note is that if a single malt is aged (for example, Aberlour has a single malt product aged at 10 years old), by law no whisky in the product can be younger than that age. Therefore a 10 year old might be a blend of 10 year olds, 12 year old, 16 year old and higher (each maybe from multiple hogsheads). The reason older products are used is often to give heightened character and sophistication to the younger product.
There are two more rare classes of product worthy of discussion – often referred to as single single malts, and single single single malts.
A single single malt denotes a malt whisky that comes from a single distillation from a single producer. It might still be a blend across hogsheads to obtain a level of consistency from batch to batch, but it typically gives a much better representation of the product you might obtain directly from a single cask.
More exclusive is what is sometimes referred to as single single single malt, although I prefer to refer to it as a direct bottling or whatever term is used by the bottler (such as Blackadder’s use if Raw Cask). This is a bottling from a specific barrel and the selection of this barrel is carefully considered in order to be representative of the distilleries regular product. Independent bottlers might also buy casks from a distiller and release such a product - an example of which would be the Blackadder products in my collection – although these products might be much more random in flavour as the barrels are rarely custom selected by the signitory or master distiller.
Given that the fewer components that are in a particular bottle usually means a more careful selection of those components, the best way to get a high quality product is to move up to single single malts, or the direct bottlings. Even here in New Hampshire there is a good selection available and as always it is worth looking out for new items at the liquor store or specialty spirit/whisky shop.