When we think of American whiskey, we usually think of rich, sweet corn-based bourbon, or perhaps spicy and grassy rye. Rounded and biscuity malt whiskies, especially the revered single malt, seem to be exclusively in the Scottish domain. But American distillers are increasingly bucking tradition and setting their sights on growing the fledgling category of American malt whiskey, with surprising—and delicious—results.
A Malt Primer
What makes a malt whiskey a malt whiskey? The answer, in a word, is barley. That noble grain, well loved in beer, bread, and tsampa, is also the essential ingredient in malt whiskey. The name 'malt' derives from the malting process, in which the grain is soaked in water, made to germinate, and then dried with hot air to prevent full germination. This process develops enzymes required to convert the starches within the grain into sugars, and we all know how central sugar is to fermentation. It's true that other grains undergo the malting treatment as well on their way to becoming alcohol (rye, spelt, wheat, you name it), but barley gets the nod as the historical king of the hill. So in the world of whiskey, when you hear malt, think malted barley!
While there's a range of different categories of malt whisky, the vaunted single malt—a malt whisky from a single distillery—reigns supreme.
Old World vs. New World
Scottish malt whisky is tradition-bound. The Scotch Whisky Association, an august body aiming to "promote, protect and represent the interests of the industry in Scotland and around the world," has historically taken a dim view on innovation in Scotch production practices. Perhaps it's a sensible stance (if it ain't broke...), but this position leaves room for growth around the margins.
American regulation, with its post-Prohibition roots, comes with limitations of its own. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) requires that malt whiskey must be "Whiskey produced at not less than 80% alcohol by volume from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent barley and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume in charred new oak containers." For those of you who just fell asleep, the key is that last phrase, charred new oak containers. This is an essential distinction from Scotch whisky, which only requires aging in oak containers. Scotch can be aged in barrels that are new or used (for aging Scotch or other spirits) or any combination. The TTB's requirement is a challenge for American whiskey makers: New oak containers bring a hit of focused wood flavor to the spirit —a note that can overwhelm the typical grain-focused flavors of a Scotch.
Toward a New Style
The most interesting result of this all this regulatory morass is the evolution of a new style of malt whiskey in the US. We currently have two breeds of malt whiskey dominating the American scene.
Some distillers have chosen to ignore the TTB, creating more traditional Scotch-style spirits by flaunting the requirement for new casks. Instead, they age their whiskeys in a range of new and used barrels. In an amusing twist of fate, these more traditional-style spirits have been stuck with the variously garbled labels of "Whiskey Distilled from Malt Mash," "Whiskey Distilled from Barley Malt Mash," or the whopping "Whiskey Distilled from a Fermented Mash of Peat-Smoked Scottish Barley." What a mouthful! We'll call them American Single Malts here.
Other distillers have taken the new oak limitation and run with it, producing a style of whiskey that's quite different from Scotch. This new breed—call it the New American Malt—is a whiskey that splits the difference between Scotch's reverence for clean, integrated grain flavors, and bourbon's bold barrel notes, with an interesting chocolate undertone pretty much universal across the board. Want to taste for yourself? Here are a few standouts from each family.
American Single Malts
St. George Single Malt
St. George Spirits, one of the grandaddies of the craft distilling movement, has been making fine spirits since 1982, and a single malt whiskey since 1996. The mash bill combines roasted barley with a portion of beech and alder-smoked barley, and the whiskey is aged in a variety of ex-bourbon, port, and sherry casks. Unlike many of their competitors, St. George has stocks of aged whiskey up to 15 years old that are included in the final blend for bottling. Fruit-forward, malty with a hint of cocoa, creamy, spiced, and lush, it's easily the most balanced American Single Malt on the market.
McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt Whiskey
Clear Creek Distillery is another pedigreed institution in the craft distilling movement. Founded in 1985 with a mission of converting the fruits of the McCarthy family orchard into fine brandies, they've also been producing a single malt whiskey for almost two decades. Paying homage to the Islay traditions, this is a peated whiskey, though it's not a smoke-bomb like some of the bigger names from that fabled isle. Rather, it's an interesting mix of smoky and sweet that is as intriguing as it is delicious. Aged three years, it is a young whiskey with the campfire hit of peat balanced out by oak and creamy malt, and a finish that lingers.
Lost Spirits Single Malts
We first covered Monterey's Lost Spirits Distillery back in 2012, when their Leviathan was one of the year's revelations. The trailblazing distillery hasn't lost a step thanks to mad scientist distiller Bryan Davis. Davis's obsessive passion for understanding the chemical reactions governing the evolution of flavor in fermentation, distillation, and aging, gets put into practice with an ongoing series of limited release spirits. Their range boasts an impressive diversity, ranging from the heavily peated Firedancer to the richly sherried Ouroboros. They even have some sea salt fermented whiskeys, called Umami and Seascape, that incorporate a sea salt solution during fermentation to raise the final alcohol level and generate more congeners (the chemical compounds such as esters, tannins, and others that give distilled spirits most of their pre-barrel flavor). Bryan draws inspiration from Scottish tradition with his aging program, but he moves beyond the typical sherry and bourbon casks, using barrels that previously held Port, Cabernet Sauvignon, California Semillon, and more. The flavors and aromas resulting from these varied production techniques are unapologetically enormous, and the whiskeys are as distinct from each other as they are from pretty much any other malt whiskey on the market. If you want a taste of the outer edge of malt whiskey, look no further.
New American Malts
Cut Spike Single Malt Whiskey
Flowing from Cut Spike Distillery of La Vista, Nebraska, this whiskey spends two years in new American oak barrels with varying degrees of char before it's blended and bottled. It's an impressive effort—for such a young whiskey, the vanilla and oak are well-developed and harmonized with the barley flavors. There is a strong alcohol presence, but it has the pleasant sensation of jumping back and forth between the rough, brash feeling of a young, oaky bourbon, with glimpses of a mature grain-focused Scotch.
Westland American Single Malt Whiskey
Westland Distillery uses five different strains of barley for their single malt: Munich, extra special, brown, pale chocolate, and Washington Select. They all get roasted and kilned to varying degrees, which contributes to this whiskey's darkly roasted profile. It's a Seattle whiskey with more than a hint of espresso and an intense chocolate background. The new-oak influence is front and center, with green woody flavors rounding out the experience. It's a tad aggressive, but the chocolate/coffee combo pulls you back for another glass time and again.
Balcones Texas Single Malt Whisky
Perhaps the most exciting of the New American Malts, Texas Single Malt Whisky from Balcones is a whisky that has it all. Leading with traditional Scotch-like aromas of honey, malt, and fruits, the flavor opens up with and oaky body, sweet caramel, and barrel spices. Finishing with a life of cocoa, it's the most convincing straddling of the Scotch-Bourbon fence on the market today. Balcones' Master Distiller Chip Tate first ages his spirit for two to three years in custom five-gallon yard-aged white oak barrels before marrying the small batches together for finishing in 53 or 60 gallon barrels. Aging the wood in outdoor lots preserves sugars and flavors that can get lost through faster kiln drying. Over the years, Tate's experimented with the types of wood used in finishing, as well as in final proofing of the whisky. His tinkering is ongoing—a testament of his dedication to his craft. While a taste of recent batch SM 14-5 doesn't seem like it could be improved, I'll happily keep drinking new releases in the years to come, just in case I'm proven wrong.
Tasting samples of all spirits provided for review consideration, with the exception of Cut Spike.