American Single Malt is an emerging category. Grounded in Scotch traditions, it’s also defined by a U.S. spirit of experimentation. And as more distilleries release expressions — unique in their provenance and production —producers are collaborating to legitimize the category.
For consumers, a big appeal of American Single Malt is variety. U.S. distillers working outside the parameters of foreign single malts have created flavors unlike much else on the market. Consumers today want what’s new to them. Here’s a whole category of unique spirits they’ve likely not yet tried.
And besides, “bourbon is already so well made in America, and there’s so much of it, that distilleries don’t really need to make another,” argues Jason Parker, founder of Copperworks Distilling Company. “What’s not boring is to make a malt whiskey.”
Copperworks recently launched its American Single Malt Whiskey. Parker recalls his motivation. “The first whiskey I ever tasted that blew the paradigm apart was Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey [a single malt], about eight years ago. I realized there was a new type of whiskey, one that started with distilling a beer.”
“It turned out that quite a few of us were having the same epiphany,” he adds.
The numbers reflect his statement. Ten years ago, no more than five distilleries were making American Single Malt. Today, about 50 U.S. distilleries produce it. Four of them make nothing but the style.
What Is American Single Malt?
Scotch dates back to the 15th century. American Single Malt is much younger. But this lack of history can actually be a strength.
“With the success Scotch has had in Scotland, why would they change a thing? But we’re not hamstrung by the same cultural restrictions,” explains Matt Hofmann, Master Distiller of Westland Distillery, which produces only single malts.
While this permits experimentation (more on that later), it also poses a problem. “American Single Malt doesn’t have a definition,” Hofmann says. “The phrase doesn’t mean anything on the label.”
So a growing number of producers are working to correct that. Twenty-four distilleries (including Westland) are members of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission (ASMWC). According to its mission statement, the ASMWC wants to “establish, promote and protect the category.”
The commission spells out rules for American Single Malt. The spirit must be made from 100% malted barley, and distilled entirely at one distillery. These whiskeys must be mashed, distilled and matured in America, and aged in oak casks. They cannot be distilled past 90 proof, or bottled below 80 proof.
These guidelines are purposely broad. Basically, they’re the general rules for Scotch. The mission letter explains this similarity as trying “to meet the expectations of the marketplace in mind, align with the history of the term as used in Scotland and to allow for wide enough interpretation so as to not stifle innovation.”
The last word is key. Innovation. Members of ASMWC want to promote it. Their definition of American single malt gives distillers room for experimentation with different malts, yeasts and casks. This is what truly differentiates American Single Malt from foreign equivalents.
“One thing about American Single Malt,” says Paul Hletko, founder and distiller of ASMWC-member Few Spirits, “it does not taste like Scotch.”
Still, ASMWC founding members do not want to deviate wildly from preexisting expectations. “Some distilleries thought that we should include malted rye in American Single Malt,” Hofmann says. “We said ‘no’, because single-malt consumers expect malted barley only.”
In the wide world of single-malt whisky, distillers typically use one or two types of malts. This despite there being a wide range of malt flavors and terroir possibilities. So is the way of tradition.
American Single Malt is the exception. But breaking from Scotch traditions is not meant as an insult. “We don’t want to flip Scotch on its head and poke fun of it, but express who we are and where we come from,” says Hofmann.
This Seattle-based distiller is a pioneer in the category. Their flagship product, American Single Malt Whiskey is made from five different malts, including Chocolate Pale Malt and Washington Select Pale Malt.
“We have one of the best barley-growing climates in the world,” Hofmann says of the local grain in the mash bill.
Westland uses Belgian Brewer’s Yeast, which fell out of favor in Scotland due to lower yields and slower fermentation. Westland also uses roasted malts, uncommon in foreign single malt because they yield 20% less. “But we ask ourselves, what can we do to make the best whiskey?” says Hofmann.
Why not age in local oak? A limited-release of Westland whiskey rests in barrels made of Garryana, an oak found only in America’s Pacific Northwest. Westland also reaches into Washington bogs when making its peated single malt.
“We don’t want to innovate for the sake of innovation,” Hofmann says. “And we’re not local for the sake of local. The true narrative here is ‘This is what we have around us’. And that’s the Holy Grail right there. We’re single-malt whiskey from the Pacific Northwest.”
“In New Mexico they make smoked-mesquite American Single Malt,” he adds. “They have mesquite, we have peat bogs. The different U.S. climates give you a huge diversity of options.”
Single malt is a sensitive spirit. Unlike bourbon you cannot dump it in charred oak and move on. It requires thoughtful aging, but also opens the door for creative ways of affecting the spirit while at rest.
The ASMWC allows distillers room for aging experimentation. Many members take advantage. For an example of the cutting-edge creativity that defines this category, consider the aging techniques employed by Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery (pictured atop) of Iowa.
After twice distilling North Dakota barley, Cedar Ridge ages the distillate in oak for two-to-three years. Then the magic begins, explains Cedar Ridge founder Jeff Quint. “The way we make single malt is not the most simple.”
The barrels are emptied and the aged whiskey goes into one of three types of casks. These include ex-bourbon/-rye/-wheat barrels, ex-wine casks (port or brandy) and ex-rum. After one-to-two years in these secondary casks, all the whiskey is married into one large solara tank, along with another single-malt made in the peaty style.
This diverse whiskey mixture sits in this tank for another four months. Then the tank is bottled halfway down and refilled. The tank never empties. It’s a combination of spirits of various ages and finishes.
“I think this is what gives our Single Malt Whiskey its complexity and depth,” Quint says.
Inspiration for this method comes from Glenfiddich 15, which is married in a big vat and bottled, and how Balvenie Double Wood goes through different barrels before bottling.
“But we do both, and with extra steps,” Quint says. “I haven’t seen anyone else do that. It’s time-consuming and adds to the cost, but it makes our product unique.”
Quint sees his methods as reflective of the innovation driving American Single Malt’s emergence. “In America, distillers will experiment more,” he says. “And it will only continue. You have a lot of entrepreneurially minded distilleries coming online these days and they all want to differentiate.”
That Quint lays down barrels in the climate of Iowa alone provides a differentiator. Summers in this state can top 100 degrees, while winters dip below freezing.
As much as any whiskey, single malts are sensitive to climate. The spirit can taste differently if it’s aged in the inclement weather of New England, the heat of Texas, or the oceanic climate of the Pacific Northwest.
Craft Beer’s Influence
The drive for innovation that defines American Single Malt derives in part from another category. Many of these distillers have a background in brewing.
“Brewers have a lot of experience selecting different malts for their beers,” he explains. “All malts come from barley, of course. From there it depends on the degree that they’re dried and roasted, and at what temperatures. This imports all sorts of different flavors.”
Brewers know from many years of experience how different specialty malts will taste in their finished beers. Distillers remain largely in the dark.
“There’s no precedent to using these specialty malts in whiskey,” Parker says. “We have to guess how the distillate will turn out. That’s why we’re still in a sort of green field of innovation now.”
For the beer they need for distillation, Copperworks has partnered with the local Pike Brewing Company and Elysian Brewing Company. “It’s really economical to do it that way,” Parker says. “And brewers are discerning that their field is crowded, and they have this obvious brand extension by working with distillers. They have what we’re missing.”
Others go about it differently. Newport Distilling Co. of Rhode Island makes Sea Fog American Whiskey. They don’t have to look far for their beer. The distillery is owned by the same company that operates Newport Storm Brewery.
“If you’re starting a distillery, you likely don’t have a whole brew house setup for this,” says Colby Brent, distiller and founder at Newport Distilling. “We can use a brew kettle as an intermediate tank. We have a 30-barrel brew house here, so we can use non-traditional methods.”
American Single Malt has already enjoyed a big global moment. In 2012, category-pioneer Balcones Distillery, of Texas, beat nine foreign single-malt entries in the Best In Glass blind tasting. But despite this victory, the category remains a ways off from broader appeal.
The reason? Time needed for aging. After all, this remains a young category. “It’s going to take a long time for the single malt industry to develop in the United States,” says Quint, of Cedar Ridge. “If you barrel today, then you’re six-to-eight years out.”
To help bring more consumers into American Single Malt — and bring the young category into the mainstream — Hofmann and his ASMWC peers are asking the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to define and legitimize the category.
“Getting an official designation is really important,” Hofmann says. “Establishing a standard of identity is the first step towards consumer clarity and education.”
“Plus, distributors and retailers don’t know where to put American Single Malt on the shelf,” he adds. “This would solve that and help give them something to talk to the consumer about.”
Hofmann believes the TTB will respond favorably. The bureau acts when product designations are not keeping pace with what consumers like and want, he says. And that ASMWC has already established an industry consensus on what defines American Single Malt should also help move the TTB.
“We want to show ourselves globally and allow customers to know what they’re getting when they go out and buy the U.S. version of single malt,” Hofmann says.
Which can depend on where the single malt is made, and by what distillery. Creativity and provenance define this category.
“The ability to do new things and think about things progressively,” says Hofmann, “that’s what American Single Malt is all about.”
Kyle Swartz is associate editor of Cheers magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org