The Beginner’s Guide to Single Malt Whisky, Part 1

by Keith Savage · 15 comments

Whisky Wall at Glenkinchie Distillery

My visits to Glenkinchie Distillery and The Scotch Malt Whisky Society over the past few days have honed my whisky knowledge and provided some new tidbits that somehow escaped me on my ten-odd previous distillery visits. One thing was polished to a high sheen: single malt whisky is a passion of mine. It’s one of the world’s great visceral pleasures along with wine, chocolate, coffee, and cigars. I want to share this passion, so this guide will arm you with an understanding of malt whisky and ensure your enjoyment of the drink whether you’re a curious dabbler or an aspiring expert. Much like wine and chocolate, whisky is full of nuances that reward the explorer. And wherever there is nuance there is also connoisseurship.

We all know that freakish someone who goes on and on about single malt whisky, about how he can smell broccoli and candy canes in the glass, or how the spirit swoops around his palate before caressing his esophagus in a dramatic goodbye. Please. I remember arching an eyebrow and spinning away from a similar scene at a bar many years ago, drinking my gin and tonic with both hands so one wouldn’t fly off and say hello to his nose. He sounded so pompous. I was annoyed, but it was mainly due to my own ignorance of the drink. It’s slightly alarming to know that “freakish someone” is now me.

There’s no shame in being confused: how many words have I already used that’ve left you scratching your head in wonder? Hopefully not so many that you’ve stopped reading – I’ll clear it all up soon. Promise.

The Problem with Whisky

Whisky’s got a bigger problem than the frustrations stemming from its lexical ambiguities: pop culture. It’s general knowledge that Scotch whisky is something worth savoring and appreciating. All stereotypes have truth in them, but just as all whiskey is not Scotch neither is all Scotch worth savoring.

Dram: A measure of Scotch whisky. Between 25 and 35ml.

Neat: The way of drinking Scotch whisky with nothing added (no water, ice, or mixers).

Some whiskies are made for mixed drinks and others are meant to be enjoyed straight. Ordering a dram of Clan MacGregor or Dewar’s neat and trying to nose and taste it as you would a single malt will end in frowns all around. I mean no disrespect to Clan MacGregor or Dewar’s; they are perfectly acceptable for use in mixed drinks, but you wouldn’t choose to drink them neat.

You could be in for a rude awakening even if your shot in the dark yielded a single malt whisky. Single malt whisky is divided into regions within Scotland that tend to share similar flavors and aromas. Some areas are better than others for beginners (more on that in a subsequent post). If for your first whisky you happen to order something from Islay, which is renown for its peaty, smokey essence and considered to be an acquired taste, you might catch the screw face. It’s this meeting of expectation and common ignorance that leads to many dashed hopes and unhappy experiences with whisky.

Whisky? Whiskey? Scotch? Single malt? Arrrghh!!1!@$#@

The first step on the path to appreciating whisky is understanding the damnably confusing terminology. “Whisky” derives from the Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, meaning “water of life.” Whisky and Scotch are synonymous (I’ll simply use “whisky” from this point forward). It is made from only three ingredients: water, yeast, and a grain. To be called whisky, the product must have been distilled in Scotland and aged for at least three years in oak casks in Scotland. No exceptions. Charlie, my guide at Glenkinchie, hammered this point home as we toured the facility.

In Scotland, you order a whisky and you get whisky made in Scotland; you’d never order a Scotch. Outside Scotland, ordering a Scotch is more descriptive than ordering whisky since the bartender might think you want American, Canadian, or Irish whiskey. That’s because the only difference in the name is a silent ‘e.’ Whiskey is the spelling used by American, Canadian, and Irish distilleries or anyone not distilling in the style of the Scottish. They might use different grains and have different or no aging requirements. For example, Kentucky Bourbon whiskey must be made from 51% corn and use new oak barrels. “At least we know how to spell it” is the saying I often hear from Scotsmen, their eyes twinkling.

That concludes the discussion of whiskey. I’m talking about whisky, specifically malt whisky. So yes, there are different types of whisky. The first distinction is between malt whisky and grain whisky. Malt whisky uses malted barley as one of its three ingredients. Grain whisky uses a different grain, usually wheat, corn, or unmalted barley. In general, malt whisky is sharper, harsher, and more challenging for the palate than grain whisky. Both are used to make blended Scotch whiskies like Johnnie Walker and Famous Grouse, though the proportions are kept secret.

Blended whisky is a product that contains whisky from multiple distilleries, some from as many as 40 different distilleries! A master blender personally conducts the mixing, nosing the product until the brand’s character has been achieved. Dewar’s, Cutty Sark, J&B, White Label – these are all blended whiskies you’ll see in most bars for mixed drinks. Blended malt whisky and blended grain whisky, which use only malt or grain whiskies, aren’t common but do exist.

Distilleries sell most of their product as blended whisky with only a small fraction being sold as a single malt or single grain whisky. These whiskies come from a single distillery, not from a single harvest or cask. Single grain whiskies are not very common, and I’ve never had one myself. Let’s stick with single malt whisky.

Above I mentioned that malt whisky is often harsher than grain whisky. This is why malt whiskies are often aged for a minimum of 1o years. The aging in the wooden barrels removes the edge and develops the flavors that are so highly prized and sought after by aficionados. I was fascinated when Charlie told me that in the old days they had to pass a law that allowed the blending of the sharp highland malt whiskies with the easier to drink lowland grain whiskies. It was the genesis of blended whisky.

Flavors of Love

Hopefully that wasn’t too dry(!) for you. Even at this stage of the guide you are better equipped to order the right kind of whisky for your tastes. Now we’ve got the lay of the land and our target: single malt whisky. It’s a style with a huge variety of flavors and aromas, and attempting to try them all is what makes this a worthy lifelong pursuit. In part two I’ll talk about the process of making single malt whisky and where the flavors come from.

I hope you enjoyed this – stick around! In the meantime, what whisky questions do you have? Continue on to part 2.

Shanna SchultzNo Gravatar February 12, 2012 at 9:33 AM

I had never considered myself a Whisky drinker before our first trip to Scotland. That trip was an education for my palette, and now after much tasting a trying, I consider myself a real whisky lover!

I am always amazed at the many flavors in a good single malt. One of my favorite whisky trying experiences was in the tasting room at the Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye. I was captivated by being able to taste the salt of the ocean nearby in the whisky. Whisky to me is a distillation of the air and the water and the earth from whence it came.

Thanks for putting together this guide. I wish I had read something like this before we started trying whisky; it would have clarified a lot of conclusion and pointed us in the right direction straightaway (although I have discovered no real WRONG direction when it comes to whisky, just some that are more pleasing to my tastes than others 😉

Matt | ExpertVagabondNo Gravatar March 18, 2011 at 12:16 PM

This post has me all amped up to go try some whisky! Thanks for the lesson. 🙂

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 18, 2011 at 5:39 PM

My pleasure…literally. Stay tuned for the next installment.

ultimatewhiskyNo Gravatar March 15, 2011 at 11:58 AM


You say you’ve honed your whisky knowledge by visiting The Scotch Malt Whisky Society yet you very briefly mention the true wonder of the whisky world the single cask – perhaps you could expand?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 15, 2011 at 3:15 PM

In due time, in due time. Single cask whisky truly is one of the whisky world’s great pleasures, but it’s a very specific style that I’ll elaborate on more in future parts of this series.

TonyaNo Gravatar March 15, 2011 at 10:20 AM

Thats some serious info on Scotch, especially for a new found scotch lover like myself 😉 Thanks for the great post! I will have to bookmark this one and refer back to it! hehe

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 15, 2011 at 3:01 PM

My pleasure, Tonya. Stay tuned for the next installments.

Bluegreen KirkNo Gravatar March 15, 2011 at 7:52 AM

I have never really been a Scotch person but its not for the like of trying but rather the lack of knowledge. Apparently having been trying to savor Scotch that should have been mixed. Thanks i will look to try your approach and see how it works but it makes a lot of sense.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 15, 2011 at 2:56 PM

Good luck! I think you will find much success 🙂

ConnieNo Gravatar March 15, 2011 at 3:30 AM

Wow, I never thought about the intricacies of whisky! Thanks for the crash course! Actually, I was just in a whisky bar the other night and thought to myself, “My, that’s a lot of bottles of alcohol!” Shows you how little I knew then! =)

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 15, 2011 at 4:37 AM

I found it all to be very confusing and somewhat intimidating before I was introduced to single malt whisky by my father. Pretty sure that’s where I found my initial interest, too.

StephanieNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 4:58 PM

I think the key to learning is to just start drinking.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 5:49 PM

Please, by all means, drink. You just need a little study with this guide on the side.

KatherinaNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 7:32 AM

Thanks for guiding my way through the knowledge of whisky! It’s a fascinating world, and much bigger than I ever expected!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 3:48 PM

It’s big enough to keep you trying new whiskies for the rest of your life.

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