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What is a “Malt”?

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When I was first getting into whisky tasting, I’d look at the different whisky bottles at my local liquor store and often come across references to a “Malt”.

Sometimes the whisky was labeled as a “Single Malt” or a “Blended Malt”, whereas other times just some reference would be made to the whisky being created from malted barley. Sometimes, “Malt” wouldn’t be referenced at all.

As a new whisky drinker, this made me wonder, what exactly is a “Malt”?

The short answer, in the world of whisky, Malt generally refers to malted barley as the primary grain ingredient used to make whisky. In American whiskeys, malted rye can also be used.

In any event, barley (or rye where applicable) is malted by being soaked in water in order to release more sugars. This is a process called germination. Thus, when the term “Malt” is used for a whisky, it is referring to the fact that barley or rye is used as the base grain ingredient for the whisky, and it is germinated and then dried prior to being ground up to begin the whisky creation process.

Malted Barley Whiskies

Taste difference – Whiskies that use malted barley will normally have a sweeter taste (since the malting process is used to bring out the sugars of the grain), however the whiskies will also often have a smoky and/or peaty taste. This may depend on the region the whisky is made in, and will heavily depend on how the malted barley is dried prior to mashing.

Examples of whiskies made from malted barley – Any Irish or Scotch whisky labeled as Single Malt will use malted barley. Some popular Single Malt Scotches include Glenfiddich, Macallan and Laphroaig, whereas some popular Single Malt Irish whiskeys include Tullamore Dew Single Malt and Tyrconnell.

Some popular American Single Malt (barley) whiskeys include McCarthy’s and Stranahan’s.

Unmalted Barley Whiskies

Taste difference – Whiskies that use an unmalted barley will generally have a more earthy (and less smoky or sweet) taste to it. I’ll note that whiskies that use unmalted barley as an ingredient will also often include some malted barley was well, even though this isn’t a requirement. This is often done to take advantage of some of the sweet and smoky tastes of the malted barley and mix it with the earthier notes of the unmalted barley.

Examples of Whiskies made from Unmalted Barley – Irish whiskeys often use a combination of malted and unmalted barley to create their whiskey. Jameson is one popular example who advertises using both types in order to create a more “balanced” drink.

Have any questions or comments on whiskies made from malted barley or rye? Have any particular preference? Let us know in the comments below.

1 comment… add one
  • Alvaro says:

    How does the process of producing alcohol (fermentation) works for unmalted barley? From what I understand, malting is necessary to convert the starch in sugars, and therefore produce alcohol from the sugars, via fermentation. If the starch is not broken into sugars, how will we get alcohol is the mash?

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