Ah, the single malt — that holy grail of whiskey. So many of us are so drawn to its position as the ne plus ultra of liquor, and yet do we really know what it means? Why is it better, if it is better, than a blended whiskey or whisky? (You lose the "e" in Scotland.)
Well, for a start, some blended whiskeys taste like paraffin.
At the age of 12, I asked my mother what whiskey tastes like — the priest, when he visited, liked a skosh, just as he liked to thereafter visit a number of other houses in the neighborhood, each, presumably, offering him a skosh, until the skoshes became a torrent, and he drove back to the vicarage in a motion resembling that of a sidewinding snake. (Bless you, Father, for you have sinned.) And if it was something the priest liked, why wouldn't I like it?
So my mother poured me a touch of Bell's, and made me drink it. Suffice to say, I didn't drink whiskey for another decade, so obscenely gasoline-like was its flavor. (I now understand that the fault was not entirely of the blend, but rather of the boy.)
The basic distinction is this: A blended whiskey takes contributions from any number of distilleries and places into a mélange with other spirits, while the rules for a single malt are more restrictive. Generally speaking, you can rest assured that the drink has been created in a single distillery via a certain process. (Malted barley is utilized, as are pot stills, and aging — three years and up — is a rule).
Blends tend to be cheaper than single malts, and, some might argue, less appetizing. But that depends on your palate, and also how and where you're drinking.
If you're warming the stool at a trendy cocktail establishment — you know, one of those places where the ice for your drink will need to be chiseled from a large block, and your bartender is attired in a serge suit of the color coriander with sleeve garters; a non-ironic pencil-thin tie; and plus fours (let's not even worry ourselves about the beard) — single-malt whisky, preferably from Islay, is the way to go.
Off of the eastern coast of Scotland, Islay is 240 square miles of peat, rain-swept birdwatchers, and whisky distilleries. The high phenol content sets them apart, even from other single malts. Local peat is slowly burned to help dry the malted barley, and the burn releases the phenol — aka carbolic acid — which helps give the drink its sharp, aromatic, smoky flavor (and which leads Dan Nosowitz on popsci.com to ask the question, "Why does Scotch smell like band-aids ... disinfectant, crude oil, sharpies [and] synthetic insulin?").
If, on the other hand, you're up for a whiskey and coke, definitely go the blended route. Be warned: Coriander Man may expire.
(Image credits: Nora Maynard)