Almost all whiskies are all blends (or vatted)There is a common misconception that the single in single malt means that the whisky is the product of a single cask of whisky but this is absolutely not the case. The single in single malt instead refers to the single distillery of origin rather than the cask.
The Long Read
A standard distillery expression is actually the result of blending, or to use the proper term vatting. The industry legally recognises a blend as the mixing of liquid from more than one distillery. Vattings at a single distillery are still called single malt!
Vatting is the process of combining multiple barrels of whisky together in order to achieve a consistent flavour. All whiskies unless these are explicitly single cask (and even then on occasion*) are the result of vatting. The words vatting and blending were traditionally used synonymously however for reasons we’ll discuss in this article they are differentiated by the source of their casks.
- Vatted - Combining barrels from the same distillery
- Blended - Combining barrels from more than one distillery, often malt and grain
The word vatting is derived from the word vat.
What is a vat
A vat is a large vessel or tub used for holding, blending and treating whisky. Within the vat dilution, filtering, proofing, taste testing, and the addition of E150 colouring (if allowed by law) will occur.
Why are whiskies vatted
Whiskies are vatted to provide uniformity of flavour between different casks and create a signature or standard brand style. Whisky casks are all unique so after decades of maturation identical spirit will taste distinctly different when drawn from different casks - this is what makes single cask whisky so popular amongst whisky fans. Unfortunately this means that any distillery trying to release a standard expression must blend or marry together different casks to create a uniform and consistent taste.
Likewise some distilleries rely on a combination of differing cask types and sizes to produce their standard expressions. This standardisation, or McDonaldisation of whisky is what gives rise to processes such as:
- Chill filtration
- Colouring with E150A
Blending versus vatting
The term vatting was traditionally synonymous with blending however today the word blending is used to refer to a vatting of whiskies from more than one distillery. If the resultant blend is made of 100% malt whiskies sourced from different distilleries it’s called a blended malt.
Famous blended malts
Formerly known as vatted malts, blended malt are the result of combining of two or more whiskies from different distilleries. Unlike in more generic blended whisky, no grain whisky is included. Famous expressions include:
- Johnnie Walker Green Label
- Teacher’s Highland Cream
- Naked Grouse Blended Malt
Although nowhere near as popular as blended malts category the blended grains are the result of combining of two or more whiskies from different grain distilleries. That beinf distilleries either using continuous distillation over batch distillation, or using something other than malted barley within their mash bill. Examples of blended grain include:
- Grant’s Elementary 8 Year Old
- Circumstantial Mixed Grain
By far the most famous type of blended whisky blended scotch is created by combining two or more whiskies from different types of distilleries. Most are comprised of a single grain base, and numerous malt whiskies to provide flavour enhancements. Famous examples of blended scotch include:
- Johnnie Walker Black Label
- Johnnie Walker Blue Label
- Dewar’s White Label
- Famous Grouse
Blended at birth
Although far from normal practice it’s also worth introducing the concept of blending at birth, the act of taking both malt and grain spirits and blending these as new make and allowing these to to harmonise as a blended whisky during maturation. The origin of this practice is unknown but was championed by Joseph Hobbs who famously used this approach for his Lochside and Ben Nevis blends; Macnab’s and Dew of Nevis respectively. This was far more common during the multi-purpose distilleries boasting both Pot and Coffey (column stills).
Vatted malt versus blended malt
The first Vatted Malt was produced by Andrew Usher senior in 1853. His first creation was the “Old Vatted Glenlivet” - which would nowadays be considered a single malt according to the latest definition of the Scotch Whiskey Association, as all the components of came from the Glenlivet distillery. The most famous Vatted Malts are:
- Ballantine’s Pure Malt
- The Famous Grouse Pure Malt
- Long John Pure Malt
- Johnnie Walker Malt
The Cardhu Pure Malt played an unrewarding role as a short-term replacement of the single malt from the Cardhu distillery and ultimately came to change the rules around vatting versus blending. Diageo decided to blend Cardhu with 12-year-old malts from other Speyside distilleries as it could no longer meet foreign demand for the single malt. The vatted blend of Cardhu with other whiskies was virtually imposible to distinguish from the single malt in appearance except for the words Pure Malt, was the trigger for heated debates and a new definition of the Scotch groups by the umbrella organization Scotch Whisky Association.
In the future, the vatted malt and the vatted grain will become the blended malt and the blended grain - in addition to the well-known blended scotch. Out of concern that these ambiguous definitions were more likely to contribute to consumer uncertainty. The designation Pure Malt or 100% Malts also refer to such a malt mixture.
Single casks can be vatted
It sounds absurd at first glance, the existance of a single cask should mean that a whisky is explicitly not vatted but the issue arises due to the lack of requirements about what makes a whisky a single cask whisky. Any whisky bottled from a single cask can be labelled as such but this includes finishes. If a distillery was to vat two small bourbon matured whiskies together and leave the resultant liquid in a single sherry cask for any period of time this could then be bottled as a single cask. It’s impossible to say how prevelent this is, however at least one of two independant bottlers have admitted to the practice in the past.
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