Malt whiskeys were always historically made throughout the United States. Common whiskey is the name for the ‘throw whatever is left over in the pot’ method of preserving crops in early America and undoubtedly much of that was from grains that had already been malted. Later, people would make malted whiskey on purpose as the commodity product became more of a commercialised product, but much of this tradition was killed off by Prohibition, along with the other brewing, wine-making and distilling heritage that was lost to that 13-year ‘Noble Experiment.’
As smaller, craft-sized distilleries began to come online after the start of the Bourbon boom, each worked to distinguish itself from Kentucky Bourbon by pushing the limits and challenging consumer palates. The Northern and Northeast regions once again turned to rye, and distillers across the United States began to toy with the idea of a new and undefined category of American single malt.
Some distillers stuck with the tried-and-true peated malted barley approach, with some going so far as to import barley malt. Others began to experiment with different kinds of smoke. Copper Fox Distillery founder Rick Wassmund spent time at distilleries in Scotland, before returning home to his ‘Aha!’ moment. What if, he thought, instead of peat he smoked the barley malt with local fruitwoods instead? The experiment has paid off and his peachwood smoked American single malt is an unparalleled experience that reflects the natural materials available to him in the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the nation’s Southeast region.
In the Pacific Northwest, barley is the grain that grows the best. For distillers there, the local craft beer community means that there’s already plenty of barley growing, and a few more acres is no problem for the growers. It makes sense for distillers in this area to take advantage of the existing agriculture of the region. Westward Whiskey does just this, using the area’s abundant barley supply to distil one thing and one thing well: American single malt.
The American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, which aims to establish, promote and protect the category, has gone through the painstaking process of trying to define American single malt whiskey, which has no official classification in the TTB’s Standards of Identity. By their proposed definition, an American single malt whiskey should be made of 100 per cent malted barley; distilled entirely at one distillery; mashed, distilled, and matured in the United States of America; matured in oak casks not exceeding 700 litres; distilled to no more than 160 proof; and bottled at no less than 80 proof.
Perhaps the single greatest difference between American single malt whiskeys and single malt whiskies from the rest of the world is the common practice of using brand new, charred oak barrels. It’s a decidedly American spin on a world whiskey category known for using various types of used cooperage. The result is a bold and flavourful whiskey that often lacks the sweetness of its corn-based counterparts but still possesses a delicate array of fruit and floral flavours, leatheriness, candy notes, earthiness and more.
If you’ve not tried an American single malt whiskey yet, I would like to challenge your palate. There are a wide variety of flavour profiles available on the consumer market, from those finished in different casks (including beer) to those smoked with different fruit woods. Many of these offerings are being exported across the world. A side-by-side tasting of your favourite malted whisky alongside a new and different one is surely going to be a delightfully eye-opening and interesting experience.