How does American single malt whisky compare to Scotch Whisky? It’s a question commonly asked at tastings while educating those interested in the American single malt category.
WHAT IS SCOTCH WHISKY?
Learn about the official documents that define Scotch, The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009. Feel free to read this 83-page PDF, but for a cliff note version, Scotch can be generalized by the following seven rules:
- Made from water, malted barley, and yeast
- Distilled to no more than 94.8% ABV
- Matured in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 liters
- Mashed, distilled, and matured in Scotland
- Matured for more a minimum of 3 years in an excise warehouse or a permitted place
- No substance added except water and plain caramel coloring
- Bottled at or greater than 80 proof (40% ABV)
Scotch Whisky also has a number of subcategories, with the two popular subcategories being Single Malt Scotch Whisky and Blended Scotch Whisky.
Single Malt Scotch Whisky is defined as a single malt whisky from Scotland produced at one distillery using 100% malted barley. Many iconic Scotch brands are single malt producers, including The Balvenie, Bruichladdich, The Dalmore, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Highland Park, Laphroaig, The Macallan, and Talisker to name a few.
Blended Scotch Whisky is defined as a whisky combining one or more grain whiskies with one or more malt whiskies. Many iconic Scotch brands are blended Scotch producers, including Ballantine’s, Chivas Regal, Dewars, The Famous Grouse, Johnnie Walker, Whyte & Mackay, and William Grant & Sons. Blended Scotch is a huge industry: 90% of the final whisky produced in Scotland is classified as Blended Scotch Whisky.
Other subcategories of Scotch include Blended Malt Scotch Whisky (formerly known as “vatted”, containing a combination of only malt whiskies from different distilleries), Single Grain Scotch Whisky, and Blended Grain Scotch Whisky.
Scotch is a classic example of a product that’s well-known internationally. When you think of Scotland, you might think of the Loch Ness monster, bagpipes, and Scotch. Needless to say, Scotch is a huge export of Scotland and a significant part of Scotland’s economy. That’s why it’s very important for them to protect the definition of Scotch.
SIMILARITIES & DIFFERENCES OF SCOTCH AND AMERICAN SINGLE MALT WHISKY
The subcategory of Scotch that most closely matches the proposed definition of American single malt whisky category is Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Both products come from a single distillery using 100% malted barley. The process of distillation and maturation are often very similar. Cask types used in Scotch and American single malt whisky often include ex-Bourbon casks, but can also include a variety of others, such as sherry, port, and wine casks.
As there are Scotch brands that are world-famous for their peated whiskies, Scotch is sometimes associated with peat. Several well-known peated Scotch producers include Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Talisker, and Bruichladdich.
However, it’s a misconception that all Scotch is peated, and that peated expressions are only found in Scotch. It’s true that a handful of Scotch brands are world-famous for their peated expressions, but not all Scotch is peated by a long shot.
Alternatively, there are instances of peated American single malt whiskies: Westland Distillery’s Peated American Single Malt Whiskey and Sante Fe Spirits’ Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey (mesquite-smoked whiskey), are standout expressions. But peated American single malts aren’t nearly as popular and widespread as peated Scotch Whiskies.
Another difference between Scotch Whisky and American single malt is age statements. It’s very common to see an age statement on a bottle of Scotch that tells you how old the whiskey is inside the bottle. Glenfiddich 12, Lagavulin 16, and Glendronach 18 refer to whiskies that are 12, 16, and 18 years old respectively.
In the American single malt category, age statements aren’t that common for two main reasons. First, the climate of the United States is much different than Scotland. The temperature ranges from season to season are much more dramatic in the United States than found in Scotland. As a generalization, this difference in climate allows whisky in the United States to mature more quickly.
Second, it’s a matter of timing. American single malt whisky is still a new category. You’re not going to often find whisky that has a 10+ year age statement simply because many of the American single malt producers in the United States started after 2010.
To comply with TTB standards (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), you will see some American single malt products adding age statements that might contain whisky matured less than 4 years.
It’s a common misconception that the longer the whisky matures in a cask, the better it is. Learn more in the ‘Pertaining to Age Statements’.
A TASTE COMPARISON OF SCOTCH AND AMERICAN SINGLE MALT WHISKY
Scotch and American single malt may be similar in makeup, though there are a wider range of Scotch products available in relation to American single malt products. Scotch Whisky identity extends to five (six, if you separate the islands) specific regions, which are noted for distinct styles: the Lowlands, the Highlands, Campbeltown, Speyside and Islay.
- The Lowland’s smooth malts offer lighter notes of grass, honeysuckle, toffee and cinnamon.
- The Highland region, which generally includes the islands apart from Islay and formerly held Speyside, showcases a range of lighter whiskies all the way through salty coastal malts.
- Campbeltown whiskies are typically robust and flavorful. Fruit, vanilla and toffee notes are often accentuated with a hint of salt and smoke.
- Speyside is Scotland’s most densely populated region of distilleries, with whiskies known for moderate to zero peat. Typical expressions showcase soft caramel, fruits, vanilla and spice.
- Windswept Islay’s whiskies are recognized the world over for the influence of peat, even though many of Islay’s distilleries obtain their malt from other regions of Scotland.
These geographically focused designations have yet to be set in the United States, even though the geography and climate in the United States is more diverse than what can be found in the United Kingdom. American single malt producers have been able to showcase a wide array of styles thanks largely to dramatic temperature swings, humidity impacts and a unique selection of aging techniques.
American single malt distilleries such as Texas’s Balcones Distilling highlight the shorter aging time needed thanks to their intense, hot summers. West coast single malt producers like Washington state’s Westland Distillery have been known to utilize unique regional elements such as peat or region specific wood for their barrels. At Virginia Distillery Company, we’ve been tracking seasonal climate impacts on barrel aging in Virginia’s humid, subtropical climate. These distinctive production elements contribute to a concept of provenance that makes its way into the whisky’s aromas and taste.
Many American single malt distilleries have been known to utilize new oak, in contrast to the used oak favored by Scottish distilleries. Some American single malt producers, such as Tuthilltown Spirits’ Hudson Single Malt age their whisky in small American Oak barrels to further decrease aging time and significantly play up the new oak wood notes in their whisky, a striking contrast to Scottish single malts.