The Rise of American Single Malt Whiskey

By: Becky Garrison

While both Scotch and American single malt whiskey possess some similarities in terms of taste, their origins are quite different. Scotch is a spirit born of tradition and known for its heterogeneity and consistency, with brands distinguished by their geography (the Highlands, the Lowlands, the Isle of Islay, Campbeltown, and the Speyside). Furthermore, the majority of Scotch distillers are distributed by four companies: Diageo, Pernod Ricard, William Grant and Sons, and Bacardi. A similar vibe besets its cousin Irish whiskey.

  Conversely, American single malt whiskey possesses a more pioneering spirit and is distinguished more by the style of whiskey than any particular geography. While the TTB has not formalized strict criteria for what constitutes an American single malt, the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, founded in 2016, established a standard of identity for American single malt. Currently, over 140 distilleries have signed on as member producers of the ASMWC. 

  For a distiller to use the term “American single malt” to describe their whiskey, the ASMWC recommends that the spirit fit the following criteria:

•    Made from 100% malted barley.

•    Distilled entirely at one distillery.

•    Mashed, distilled, and matured in the U.S.

•    Matured in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 liters.

•    Distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof, or 80% alcohol by volume.

•    Bottled at 80 (U.S.) proof or more, or 40% alcohol by volume.

  While the ASMWC has not issued a specific recommendation on maturation time, producers are aging their American single malt whiskeys in barrels at a variety of ages, from three months to 10 years. Some American distillers get creative with the maturation process by experimenting with used casks from breweries, wineries and other distilleries. 

  Terms like “handcrafted” and “produced” may be found on a bottle by those distilleries engaged in producing mass-market spirits. Unless the bottle contains the word “distilled,” the product cannot be considered a product made from grain to bottle by a single distillery.   

  Before prohibition, one could find thousands of distilleries and breweries in the U.S., particularly along the Eastern seaboard. During this period, rye whiskey emerged as the dominant dark spirit. After prohibition, the whiskey movement took off in Kentucky and Tennessee, where bourbon became king. 

  While bourbon is part of the whiskey family, this product differs from American single malt in several ways. In addition to being made with at least 51% corn, the mash is distilled using a column still. The barley mash distilled for American single malt whiskey is typically done with a pot still, though a few distillers use a column still.

  Through consolidation and mergers, the quality and production of all American whiskey resembled that of mass-produced beer. However, the advent of the global food revolution in the 1950s and 60s, coupled with federal legalization of homebrewing in 1978, led to the implosion of the craft brewing industry. Concurrently, Americans became acquainted with beers, wines, and spirits hailing from Europe and the UK thanks to pioneers such as Charles Finkel, co-founder of Seattle based Pike Brewing Company, who introduced these products into the United States market. 

  Many distillers of American single malt, like Christian Krogstad of Portland, Oregon-based House Spirits Distillery and Jason Parker of Copperworks Distilling Company in Seattle, came out of this craft revolution, beginning their careers as brewers. Both distillers use a hundred percent malted barley and brew their wort using the same technique employed in brewing beer.

  While Krogstad waited for his whiskey to mature, he became known for distilling Aviation Gin. The first bottle of Aviation Gin came out in 2000, well before their first bottle of whiskey was released in 2008. In 2016, House Spirits Distillery sold Aviation Gin’s distribution rights so they could devote their energies to producing Westward American Single Malt Whiskey.

  Parker, Co-Founder and President of Copperworks Distilling, followed a similar trajectory of distilling gin and vodka until their single malt whiskey was ready for release. For the past three years, they’ve produced whiskey from single farm, single variety, and single vintage malts. Each batch is given a unique number and has a slightly different taste from other batches.

Traditional Scottish Style American Single Malt Whiskeys

  Other brands like McCarthy’s Single Malt Whiskey and Westland American Single Malt Whiskey are distilled using a traditional Scottish style. This style requires that the whiskey be made from a mash of malted barley, distilled at a single distillery using pot still distillation, and matured in oak casks.

  After a damp trip to the Isle of Islay where he visited several local distilleries as a way to avoid the rain, Steve McCarthy returned to Oregon where he had the distinction of being the first distiller to bring an American single malt to market. His whiskey, distilled in 1993 using 100% peated barley from Scotland, was released in 1996. While the mash used in most Scotch is distilled twice, the type of still they use allows them to reach desired proof in a single pass. That still is often referred to as a “hybrid pot still” or “eau-de-vie still” as it has a short multi-chambered column above the traditional pot. 

  According to Steve Hawley, Director of Marketing for Westland Distillery, their distillery was founded in 2010 with the ambition to add a new and uniquely American voice to the world of single malt whiskey. “When we began, we adopted the same basic processes used for generations in the whiskey-making of the old world, but we don’t simply seek to replicate the results. Instead, we work to create whiskeys that reflect the distinct qualities of our time, place, and culture here in the Pacific Northwest.” 

Developments in American Single Malts

  According to Adam Foy, Vice President of Business Development for Skagit Valley Malting, “Barley grown for yield is about sameness, whereas, we grow barley for distinction by searching the globe for unique and distinct barleys that provide varietal nuances.” Connecting the origins of the barley used in the mash to a single farm or variety adds another dimension to the term “single malt.”

  Distilleries like Copperworks partner with Skagit Valley Malting and other like-minded companies to craft what Parker refers to as non-commodity malts. “Instead of measuring our efficiency from farm-to-bottle, we measure the flavor from unique malts to bottle, and share these flavors as different whiskeys, rather than a standard release whiskey.”

  Currently, Copperworks is maturing whiskey that was produced using locally-grown malt from the Skagit Valley and infusing it with smoke from Washington-sourced peat. They brewed the malt into a beer with no hops, distilled, and matured in new, charred American Oak barrels with a number one char, the lightest of chars, so as not to overwhelm the peat flavors.

  Currently, Westland is working with partners on a holistic barley program that focuses on flavor and includes breeding unique varietals suited to the Pacific Northwest region. “We’re malting them using innovative new technologies, and building a sustainable—both agriculturally and economically—model for bringing those barleys to market for use in distilling,” Hawley said.

  A few distilleries have begun to experiment with imparting smoke instead of peat into their barley through the use of cherry wood, mesquite, or scrub oak. In particular, mesquite lends a natural smokey and spicy flavor without adding artificial flavorings found in commercial cinnamon whiskey.

  Then comes Wanderback Whiskey Company, a distillery with a unique production focus. They partner with various single malt producers in the United States to make their whiskey using a bespoke grain bill that’s grown in the Pacific Northwest. Then they age, blend, and bottle small batch releases on their family farm in Hood River, Oregon.

Pushing the Boundaries with Innovative Cocktails

  While Scottish tradition maintains that one should drink Scotch neat, adding only a drop or so of water to help bring out the flavor, some American distillers are blazing new territories by creating craft cocktails. At events, such as PROOF: Washington Distillers Festival, participants can sample a range of single malts, as well as unique cocktails while sitting in on educational sessions. A trek to Tankard & Tun, Pike Brewing Company’s Seafood Restaurant, features beer cocktails made with spirits from Copperworks Distilling. Historical tidbit: Parker was the first brewer for the Pike Brewing Company when it opened in 1989.

  In addition to offering tasting flights, House Spirits Distillery serves up a range of cocktails including a Boulevardier (a Negroni for whiskey lovers). Also, during their repeat appearances at Feast Portland, they showcase their traditional side by featuring Westward at one of Feast’s signature BBQ events, Smoked. But then they’ll display their more flamboyant side by demonstrating how a quality spirit can enhance the cocktail experience. For example, at Smoked 2019, they featured a S’Mores Old Fashioned made with Westaward American Single Malt Whiskey, graham cracker honey, chocolate bitters, and toasted marshmallow.

  As members of the ASMWC continue to win national and global awards and competitions, this commission continues to push for the formal establishment of a “single malt whiskey” category. Already, the American Distilling Institute has established the “American single malt whiskey” category for those whiskeys made according to ASMWC’s proposed statement of identity.

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