What is malt whiskey? Apart from a question that leads you to the best whiskeys in the world. And then drinking them. Cause anything else would just be missing the point. Put simply, malt whiskey is whiskey made from barley that has undergone the malting process.
Put less simply it’s whiskey made from malted barley that also complies with all the other rules and regulations for the whiskey making process. These laws vary from country to country.
There are different types of malt whiskey. There’s single malt whiskey, there’s blended malt whiskey and there’s simple blended whiskey which is malt whiskey blended with grain whiskey.
We’ll also deal with the more important question of why malt whiskey is so special? It’s not more expensive for no reason. It’s all to do with its flavor.
Which is the usual answer for all similar whiskey questions.
What Is Malt Whiskey? Being More Precise
The truth is that malt whiskey should really mean whiskey made from any grain that went through the malting process but since barley is the grain that’s usually malted and if another grain is used the whiskey is called after it, for example rye malt whiskey or buckwheat malt whiskey, when no grain is mentioned malt whiskey means whiskey made from malted barley.
The Malting Process
Malting is the first stage of the whiskey making process. Without getting too involved, whiskey is made by extracting starches from a grain, converting it into sugars and then into alcohol. The alcohol is distilled to increase the alcohol content and then aged in wooden barrels.
The starches are accessed either by grinding them into meal in a gristmill and cooking them with water to break down the cellulose walls that contain the starch granules, or by malting.
Malting is when the grain is soaked in warm water and spread out on the floor of the malting house where it’s left to partially sprout or germinate. It’s turned regularly to maintain a constant temperature so that all the grains germinate equally. This takes about five days.
When the barley grain opens the starches can now be accessed. They also now secret the enzyme amylase which in the next stage of the whiskey making process (called mashing) will convert the starches into sugars.
The germination process is stopped by spreading the barley on the grids of a kiln to dry with hot air from below. The dried malt is then, like other grains, ground down into a coarse flour or grist in a mill so it’s ready for mashing.
How Peat Is Used in Malting
Peat is soil made of decayed moss matter that’s sometimes used to fuel the fire of the kiln in the drying part of the malting process. Many Scotch whiskeys are made this way probably because large parts of Scotland are covered with peat bogs.
And because peat smoke is pungent so the barley becomes infused with it giving the final product a smoky, peaty flavor. The level of peatiness a whiskey has will depend on how long the barley was dried in a peat-fuelled fire. As this varies from whiskey to whiskey so will the intensity of its peaty flavor.
The Point of Malting
As mentioned in passing, the point of malting is to release the enzyme amylase, which during mashing, turns starches to sugars.
That’s why most whiskeys contain a small amount of malted barley. This does not make every whiskey a malt whiskey because as we shall see, that depends on the amount of malted barley a whiskey contains.
Why Barley Is the Grain That’s Malted and Not Any Other
Any grain can be malted but it’s usually barley. There are four reasons for this.
It Was the Most Widely Used Grain in the Past
Scotland was the first country to produce whiskey and they have continued doing so for 500 years. They used barley because it thrived better than other grain crops in Scotland’s more challenging growing conditions.
Barley Is Easier to Malt Than Other Grains
All grains can naturally germinate given the right conditions, but barley, because it germinates easily in low temperatures, is the best grain suited for the somewhat artificial and technical version that is malting. It’s also the best grain for converting starches into sugars.
The Scots are very lucky that the best grain for malting is in such abundant supply.
Barley Has a Proper Husk
This helps separate the solid particles from the liquid as the wort (the liquid produced when the starches are turned into sugars) is drawn off at the end of mashing. When the barley grains were cracked after malting, large husk particles were created which now helps filtrate the wort. Don’t forget with lots of grains there are lots of husks so this is more plausible than it may seem at first.
Barley Possesses the Best Flavors
It’s really that simple. I don’t need to say any more. Except that the Scots are really lucky that the grain that happens to grow well in Scotland’s less than perfect conditions is also the grain that’s most suited for malting and is also the grain that possess the best flavor.
Other Laws That Help Define Malt Whiskey
While the most important point about malt whiskey is that it’s made from malted barley there are other laws that it needs to adhere to if it’s to have that label. Some of these laws are general laws that apply to all whiskeys but nonetheless without complying and being made from malted barley, it cannot be called malt whiskey.
Of course, these laws vary according to country.
Malt whiskey must be made from malt barley and no other grains.
It must be distilled, twice, in pot stills to a maximum of less than 94.8% ABV.
It must be aged for at least three years in new or used oak casks.
No additives are allowed except water and caramel coloring.
It must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.
Ireland has pretty much the same regulations as Scotland, except its malt whiskey is often distilled three times. It also produces something called pot still whiskey, which although it’s made primarily from malted barley also contains unmalted barley and so cannot be called malt whiskey.
Malt whiskey must contain at least 51% malted barley.
It does not have to be distilled in pot stills. The maximum ABV at distillation is 80%.
It must be aged in new charred oak barrels. If it’s aged for at least two years, it’s called straight malt whiskey.
It may not contain any added flavoring, coloring or neutral spirits.
It must be bottled at a maximum of 40% ABV.
There is no maximum limit on the alcohol level at distillation.
They have to be aged for three years but there’re no restrictions on the type of barrel that can be used.
They may contain caramel or flavoring.
They must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.
As there are only two basic types of whiskey malt and grain, comparing the two will give us a better understanding of malt whiskey.
Grain whiskey is whiskey that’s not malt whiskey. Yes, that’s not very helpful and it’s slightly annoying but it’s just how it is. Since malt whiskey means whiskey made from malted barley, grain whiskey means whiskey made from any other type of grain apart from malted barley.
And because the definition of malt whiskey varies from country to country, so will the definition of grain whiskey.
Therefore, in Scotland and Ireland, grain whiskey is whiskey that’s made from any amount of grain other than malted barley. In the US, grain whiskey is whiskey where more than 50% of the grain it’s made from is something other than malted barley.
Typical grains used include but is not limited to, corn, wheat and rye.
Grain whiskeys usually contain some malted barley, and if produced in Scotland or Ireland have to by law.
They are usually distilled in a column still and because that allows them be distilled so many times (sometimes even 20) it results in a higher percentage of ABV and less flavor than if it were distilled in a pot still. Which is why grain whiskeys are usually blended.
What Does Single Malt Mean?
Although other countries do produce single malt whiskeys, this usually refers to malt whiskey made in Scotland at a single distillery.
Despite being called single malt and coming from one distillery it nonetheless contains more than one whiskey. This is because a single malt is a blend of the same whiskey from different casks and years. This is done because the taste of every run is slightly different and so must be blended in the above way to ensure a consistent and recognizable taste.
The only exception to this is if your single malt is also single cask / barrel whiskey which means it comes from one cask and is not blended even with the same whiskey from different casks and years, so it will have a completely unique taste.
What Is Double Malt Whiskey?
There’s no such thing as double malt whiskey. But the mistake is understandable. If single malt whiskey is malt whiskey from one distillery then you might have thought that whiskey made from a blend of malt whiskeys from two distilleries is a double malt whiskey.
But you’d be wrong. It’s known as blended malt whiskey.
Blended Malt Whiskey
This is whiskey made from a blend of two or more single malt whiskeys from different distilleries.
This a mixture of one or more single malt whiskeys with one or more single grain whiskeys (grain whiskey made at one distillery). This is real whisky blending where sometimes even 50 different whiskeys are combined in precise, formulaic and highly secret proportions so that a brand can produce a whiskey of definite and recognizable character and taste. Most whiskeys are blended.
What’s So Special About Single Malt Whiskey?
Single malt whiskeys have the reputation of being the best whiskeys in the world. Of course, the truth is … that they are the best whiskeys in world.
Unless you like a blended whiskey better, because personal preference is the most important thing when deciding whether to drink your favorite whiskey or one that someone else tells you is the best in the world.
The impression of single malt whiskeys as being special, may come from the fact that blended whiskeys are quicker and cheaper to produce. Since each whiskey in the blend is not needed for its own flavor per se, but as part of a blend to balance multiple, diverse flavors, they don’t need to be aged for as long. Also, when demand is high, distilleries produce whiskeys that can be made more quickly.
However, the reputation of single malt whiskey does have some legitimacy. Single malt whiskeys are made to achieve the very distinctive flavors and characteristics that exemplify a particular distillery’s style. They are aged for longer so they will have more of that unique and distinct flavor.
So whereas blended whiskeys may have more diverse flavors, single malts have more of a given flavor. Both of course have their place, but we can see why single malts are special.
So what is malt whiskey? It’s whiskey made from barley that is malted to release an enzyme that helps in the whiskey making process. Barley is used because it’s abundant and has the best flavor. Of course, there are other laws that help define malt whiskey in terms of how its distilled, matured and bottled, which varies between countries.
Some malt whiskeys become single malt whiskeys, some become blended malt whiskeys and others are mixed with grain whiskey to become blended whiskeys.
While single malt whiskeys are considered special because being aged for so long they have the most flavor, blended whiskeys comprise 90% of whiskeys sold so they must be pretty good too.