Single malts can be some of the most expensive whiskeys out there, especially in comparison to blends that in general, don’t tend to be as pricy. I wanted to find out why this was, and after doing some research I found twelve reasons why single malt whiskeys are so expensive.
1. They’re Made from High Quality Ingredients
The first reason why single malt whiskeys are expensive is because they’re made from high-quality ingredients, which is necessary because low quality ingredients will negatively impact a whiskey’s taste.
Whiskey is made from four ingredients:
- Grain(s) whose starches are converted into sugars and then alcohol.
- Water to cook the grain and dilute the alcohol.
- Yeast that causes the sugars to be converted into alcohol.
- Barrels whose wood gives whiskey 70% – 80% of its flavor.
High quality grain means they’re uncracked, clean and sorted so that foreign materials haven’t gotten inside and contaminated them. High quality water means it’s clean and pure for the same reason, and free of iron which reacts with alcohol and turns it bitter. The yeast also has to have as few impurities as possible so that it doesn’t impart any bitterness to the whiskey.
As for barrels, high quality can mean a journey of a few years as decades old Oak trees are carefully felled and dried in a way that preserves the character of the wood needed for maturation and ensures its heavy oils don’t spoil the whiskey. Finished barrels are toasted or charred so that the whiskey can access the flavors in the wood, and sometimes barrels are first seasoned with another spirit so that its flavors can be added to the whiskey.
2. They’re Made from Barley
Single malt whiskeys are expensive because they’re made from barley, which is the most flavorful but expensive of all grains used to make whiskey. And not with just a bit more barley, they’re made completely or mostly from barley. By law single malt whiskeys from Scotland and Ireland must be made from 100% barley, and while many American single malts are made in the same way, legally they only have to be made from 51% barley.
And not only is barley the most expensive grain used to make whiskey, it’s also the most expensive grain to process. That’s because other grains can be cooked to access the starches that will be converted in sugars and then alcohol, but barley has to be malted.
Malting is where barley is soaked in warm water and then spread out on the floor of the malting house and left to partially sprout or germinate. When the barley grain opens the germination process is stopped by spreading the barley on the grids of a kiln to dry with hot air from below.
As you can see, the malting process is lengthy and involved and certainly costs more than if the barley were simply cooked. Which is why single malt whiskeys being made from barley means two additional expenses.
3. They’re Distilled in Batches
Legally, Scotch and Irish single malt whiskeys have to be distilled in pot stills, which means they’re distilled in batches and are therefore more expensive.
There are two types of stills used for distillation:
- A pot still that has a bowl shape at the bottom and a narrow neck at the top.
- A column or continuous still that has the shape of a column.
Pot stills produce a distillate with more congeners (flavor compounds) than column stills, and therefore, more flavors. However, pot stills produce a distillate in batches, which is less economical than the continuous production process of column or continuous stills.
Not only that but producing whiskey in batches causes each run to have a slightly different flavor, and in order to maintain consistency different barrels from different batches have to be blended until the expected flavor is achieved. This means that certain barrels will not be able to be used (at least as intended) due to not blending well with other batches, which further increases production costs.
4. They’re Made from A Better Cut of Distillate
Single malt whiskeys are also expensive because they’re made from a better cut of distillate.
When whiskey is distilled, alcohol from the beginning and end of the run is not used because it contains undesirable (and sometimes dangerous) elements that give the whiskey an unpleasant flavor. The closer the alcohol is to the middle or heart of the run the better it is, and a distillery will therefore cut the distillate to collect more from the heart of the run and less from the beginning or end.
A narrower cut is obviously better as it removes more of the unwanted elements that give the whiskey an unpleasant flavor, but it also means that less distillate is used which increases the cost of production. A wider cut would decrease the cost of production by using more distillate, but it would also mean that the whiskey would retain more of the unwanted elements.
A narrow cut of distillate is enough to increase the price of any whiskey but more so single malts. That’s because as mentioned, single malt whiskeys are made in batches, so the distillate has to be cut for every run which means even more whiskey is left unused and even higher production costs.
5. They’re Stored for A Long Period of Time
One of the biggest reasons why single malt whiskeys are so expensive is because they’re matured for a long period of time.
Whiskey is matured in barrels so that it can pick up flavors from its wood. This happens because during the time the whiskey is stored, changes in temperature causes the barrels to expand and contract and the liquid to seep in and out of the wood, where it picks up flavors in the process.
The longer whiskey is matured the more flavors it will pick up, but this also makes the whiskey much more expensive. After all, it costs a lot of money to have a product that you can’t use for years, and even more to maintain storage facilities that provide the proper environment in which whiskey can age well.
All whiskeys have to be aged for a minimum of three years, but many are aged for 12, 15, 18, 21 years or even longer, with each year of maturation making the whiskey more expensive. Single malt whiskeys are almost always aged for a long period of time (12 years or more) especially single malt Scotch and Irish whiskeys that are matured in a slower aging environment than American single malt whiskeys.
6. Whiskey Is Lost During the Maturation Process
Another big reason why single malt whiskeys are so expensive is because a lot of it is lost during the maturation process.
That’s because wood is porous so whiskey can easily evaporate from the barrel. In fact, anywhere from 2% – 10% of the whiskey in the barrel (size, method of storage and climate of location dependent) evaporates per year.
And the longer a whiskey spends maturing in the barrel the more will be lost to evaporation. Whiskeys matured for 10 years will have lost 18% – 20% of their volume to evaporation and whiskeys matured for 25 years will have lost 30% – 40% of their volume to evaporation!
This loss of whiskey is called by the cute sounding name, ‘the angels share’ but that doesn’t stop it from causing whiskeys to be much more expensive.
Of course, as mentioned, all whiskey has to be matured for at least three years which means a significant loss of whiskey from the barrel, but many are aged for much longer which means a substantial loss of whiskey from the barrel.
And since single malt whiskeys are almost always aged for a long period of time, there will almost always be a considerable loss of whiskey from the barrel and so are almost always going to be more expensive.
7. They Have a High Alcohol Content Level
People prefer whiskey with a higher alcohol content level or ABV because alcohol carries flavor compounds, so the whiskey will have more intense and concentrated flavors. However, a higher ABV also means that more distillate was used, which makes it cost that much more.
Whiskey is distilled to over 80%ABV (country and type dependent), but before being placed into the barrels for maturation it’s diluted with water to closer to 62%ABV. After maturation it’s usually diluted once again and bottled at a minimum of 40%ABV, but whiskey can be anywhere up to 68%ABV.
Obviously, the higher the ABV and the less the whiskey from a given barrel is diluted the fewer the number of bottles that can be filled from it – which makes each one cost that much more.
This applies to all whiskey, but single malts are more likely to be bottled at higher ABVs (43% and 46% are very common). After all, they’re made from barley, distilled in a pot still and matured for many years to give them lots of flavors. It therefore makes sense to bottle them at a higher ABV so as not to dilute them.
8. The Government Collects a Tax on Alcohol
Another reason why single malt whiskeys are so expensive is because the government collects a tax on alcohol. The more alcohol in your bottle the more tax is collected, and the higher the price of your whiskey.
This applies to all whiskey as its minimum ABV is, as mentioned, 40%, which is significantly higher than many other alcoholic drinks like wine that’s around 16%ABV and beer that’s around 6%ABV, which therefore won’t have anywhere near as high a tax. The following table shows the ABV ranges for common alcoholic drinks:
|Alcoholic Drink||ABV Range|
|Whiskey||40% – 68%|
|Beer||4% – 6%|
|Wine||5.5% – 16%|
|Liqueurs||15.5% – 55%|
|Tequila||32% – 60%|
|Brandy||35% – 60%|
|Vodka||35% – 95%|
As you can see, whiskey is one of the strongest alcoholic drinks available, so it will be highly taxed.
And since single malt whiskeys are, as mentioned, more likely to have a higher ABV than the minimum – most commonly 43% or 46%, they will be taxed even more and therefore be even more expensive.
9. They’re Imported from Scotland
While there are some American single malt whiskeys, most single malts are either single malt Scotches or single malt Irish whiskeys. Single malt Scotches are made in Scotland and single malt Irish whiskeys are made in Ireland, which means that any bottle of either bought in the United States was imported – which is another reason why they’re so expensive.
Shipping charges alone are significant when you consider that importing single malt whiskeys means bringing them more than four thousand miles all the way from Scotland or Ireland. And since shipping across the Atlantic Ocean is often done by plane because it’s faster, safer and more reliable than cargo ship, it costs even more.
And once they arrive in the United States there are additional taxes, tariffs and fees which all drive up the price of a bottle of single malt whiskey. All together the extra expense of importing single malt whiskeys, makes the same bottle significantly more expensive in the United States than it is in Scotland or Ireland, as you can see from some examples in the following table:
|Type of Single Malt||Price in the US||Price in the UK|
|The Glenlivet 12 Year Old||Scotch||$50||$35|
|Laphroaig 10 Year Old||Scotch||$65||$40|
|The Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year Old||Scotch||$75||$45|
|Macallan 12 Year Old Double Cask||Scotch||$80||$70|
|Bushmills 10 Year Old||Irish||$50||$35|
|Tullamore D.E.W. 14 Year Old||Irish||$80||$52|
10. They’re Well Branded and Marketed
The least liked reason why single malt whiskeys are so expensive is because they’re well branded and marketed. This means that part of the higher price is not a result of the higher production costs necessary to produce a better product, but rather the result of a wide-spread perception of extra value due to nothing more than good branding and marketing.
Brands that make exceptional quality whiskey for years become well-established and trusted, and an excellent reputation along with a huge PR apparatus that spends a fortune in branding and marketing, can turn a brand’s whiskey into a premium product that’s associated with luxury and success, and in some parts of the world, a status symbol.
Such branding and marketing is even easier to do with single malt whiskeys as they’re in any case more expensive and because there’s already the widespread perception that they represent the epitome of whiskey.
11. They’re In High Demand
One of the most ironic reasons why single malt whiskeys are expensive is because of a recent increase in demand and consequently the lowering of its supply.
Single malt whiskey has become more popular over the last few years. In 2022 its market size was valued at $2.83 billion, and it’s projected to reach $4.06 billion by 2030. While part of this growth is due to an increase in demand in North America and Europe, it’s also being driven by the demand from emerging and fast-growing markets, especially in Asia Pacific (source).
Unfortunately, when it comes to single malt whiskey, because it takes so long to make it’s not easy for the supply to keep up with the demand. Next year’s supply was determined years ago when the whiskey was barreled, and any increase in production today won’t affect supplies for years or even decades to come.
Where this has become a big problem, distilleries have responded in one of two ways. They have either lowered the ABVs of the in-demand expressions so they can fill more bottles than before, or they have increased the price of the bottles they do have. Which is why some single malt whiskeys are not only expensive, they’re also increasingly expensive.
12. They’re Rare And / Or Valuable
Some single malt whiskeys are more than just expensive – they’re expensively expensive. Or even more expensive than that – we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars and sometimes millions. That’s because they’re rare or valuable.
There are a lot of rare single malt whiskeys because distilleries are constantly experimenting with new expressions and creating limited editions to commemorate people, places or events important to them. Any that are very well received will instantly become rare because the demand will far exceed the supply, especially if the distillery is uninterested or even unable to produce further bottles.
There are a lot of valuable single malt whiskeys too, because a 250-year-old distillery that routinely ages whiskey for decades is bound to stash away some of its stock to appreciate in value. That’s why there are many 50-year-old single malt whiskeys, some of which have been sold for over $100,000. And why there are collections of such single malt whiskeys that together have been sold for close to $1 million.
And of course, in an effort to add even more value to single malt whiskeys, it was inevitable that someone would commission a famous artist to hand-paint a bottle and sell it for $1.5 million or put their single malt whiskey in a white gold decanter inlaid with diamonds and rubies and sell it for $6 million.
For more information about these and other similar examples, see the more detailed article I wrote about the most expensive single malt whiskeys, which you can find here.