The world’s rarest and most sought-after single malts can fetch tens and even hundreds of pounds at auction and in private sales, but what is it that makes them so prized? Many of the finest single malts are made in Scotland, although they can be made anywhere in the world including Japan, Taiwan, America and even Sweden. What distinguishes a single malt from other whiskies is how and where they are made; if a whisky does not fulfill these basic criteria it cannot be labelled “single malt”.
The first clue to what constitutes a single malt whisky is in the name itself. Single malts can only be produced at one distillery. So, for example, a single malt from The Macallan must be produced on the premises of that named distillery. It’s as simple as that. Single malts can be blended from different selected barrels as long as they are all distilled and matured at the original distillery.
The other key ingredient in making a single malt whisky is listed in the second half of the name. Single malts must be made with a malted grain which is usually barley. Interestingly, this barley can be sourced from anywhere so Japanese distillers typically import barley from Scotland to make their single malts. A whisky is defined as a Japanese Single Malt if it is both distilled and matured at one single distillery in Japan.
An even more exclusive term is single cask whisky which applies to whiskies made at a single distillery from just one cask. This means there will be only 300-450 bottles, depending on the size of the cask and how much liquid has been lost to evaporation, of a particular single cask whisky. In contrast, a distillery might produce thousands of bottles of a single malt whisky. This is why single cask whiskies tend to be more expensive and more sought-after.
At the other end of the spectrum we have blended whiskies which make up the bulk of the whisky market. These whiskies can be blended across more than one distillery, are typically younger and are made in a more accessible style for immediate consumption. Blended whisky accounts for nine out of ten bottles of Scotch sold globally. While there are some good quality blended whiskies on the market, investment-grade whiskies are invariably single malts and single cask whiskies.