In terms of meet-cutes, this one’s pretty special. Picture the scene: Matt Hofmann, peat-obsessed, a Washington State-based distillery founder, is looking to set up a maltings. He’s explored – and exhausted – all options in his quest to make peated American single malt.
Simply, not one maltster in the entire US was equipped to produce peated malted barley – that is to say, malt that’s been dried with the aromatic smoke of slow-burning peat in a kiln. Instead of continuing to import this precious turf from Scotland, he decided to go it alone and make it himself, using local peat. What he needed was some barley farmers, so he went to an agricultural conference to find some.
“We were on a lunch break and sat down at some communal picnic tables, and introduced ourselves to the people on the other side,” he recalls. “No joke, they said they were there to start a malting company. I swear to you that’s how it happened. They were there because they had just created this pilot machine in a garage.”
This is significant. Up until Hofmann teamed up with the fledgling maltsters, there was zero infrastructure for the supply of peated malt in the United States, because peat – once ubiquitous in Scottish and Irish whiskey, though now most famously used by Islay’s distilleries – hasn’t traditionally featured in whiskey making across the pond. This, of course, is an issue if you’re a producer with a passion for the place you live and its local produce.
“The whole idea with Westland was to create something that is larger than us. To have a Pacific Northwest-style single malt,” Hofmann continues. The issue is if you’re buying in peated malt from elsewhere, or using other smoking techniques like mesquite, distillers miss out on that sense of place. Peat, formed from its surrounding landscape over tens of thousands of years, carries the fingerprint of a region. Using local peat to smoke the barley, at a maltings close by, was “absolutely a core part of the idea.”
This meet-cute paved the way for his dream to come true: 100 per cent American, terroir-driven single malt.
Overcoming the peat problem
Hofmann had the means to peat his malt. And, miraculously, he’d already found a peat source. “It’s not a romantic story of a big map unfurled on the table,” he opens. “We actually found out that there’s 50,000 acres of peat in Washington State. But there’s only one bog where you’re allowed to harvest it.” By chance, it’s an easy distance from the distillery. But it’s at the bottom of a lake.
Enter environmental concerns. Peat bogs are now well-understood to be a massive carbon store, not to mention providing a specialised habitat for various flora and fauna. Draining bogs and cutting peat ‘turf’ for any reason – horticulture use is by far the most common globally – has an environmental impact, which can vary in severity depending on how the land is managed before, during and after. Interestingly, the nature of Westland’s local peat bog means it’s substantially less impactful.
“There are two problems with harvesting peat,” Hofmann explains. “They’re both related to the same thing, which is draining bog terrain. When you drain the water from the bog, everything that relies on that water to be alive dies. The second part is that everything that’s died starts decomposing – that’s where you have a big release of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere, whether you burn the peat or not.”
It’s a bleak picture. And it’s right that draining peat bogs is controversial. “The upside of this bog is that they don’t drain it. They can’t. It’s situated on a spring.” Instead of cutting in the way we’re used to seeing, the peat is effectively scooped up from the bottom of the lake. “It’s 30ft deep, there’s nothing there,” he continues. “We only use two-and-a-half cubic yards of peat a year. The bog remains intact, and we only take what we need.”
Two hurdles cleared, one more to go
Back to that meet-cute. Hofmann has both a peat source and a fledgling maltster with whom to develop a means of producing peated malt. Through the partnership, the two pioneering companies were able to develop some incredibly efficient technology.
“That’s part of the fun,” Hofmann grins. “The guys at the maltings, they’re all engineers, so they’ve come at this with an engineering mindset.” And because no one in all of America has used peat in this way before, they weren’t led by traditional practices. “They approached it fresh, from the ground up.” This isn’t about drying, cutting into bricks and placing on a fire in a kiln. “They’ve worked out that they can pelletize and then powderise the peat, so it can be burned at a very precise rate. It allows them to maximise the efficiency of the peat as it’s being burned.” Simply, the engineers wanted to create equipment that uses peat in the most efficient way, while maximising flavour. And they succeeded.
Solum is born
With the release of Solum – a name which, charmingly, translates from the Latin word for ‘soil’ – Hofmann’s seven-year vision of a 100 per cent American, smoky single malt was realised. It was back in 2016 that Westland started laying down spirit made in this way. Of course, whiskeys from Westland have been released during this time – with a focus on Belgian saison yeast in fermentation, and both new and used oak casks. This alone is innovative. Whereas other American single malt makers had focused on deriving flavour from maturation, Hofmann’s approach is all about barley varietals and fermentation. Solum is no different.
“We want the cask influence to be much more balanced,” he explains. “So, in a lot of our whiskies, we use some new oak, but we are also very careful to make sure it doesn't overpower the distillate, which is the most important thing.” And with Solum, that smoky distillate is the star of the show.
“What we’ve learned that the result is that it’s more subtle,” Hofmann says of their ‘powdered peat’ approach to barley smoking. “It’s not as phenolic as Scottish peat, but it’s got a cool complexity of flavours.”
From the casks already laid down, there’s a spectrum of flavour. “Each year we were experiencing slightly different versions. To be honest, there was more variation than I think I would have liked.” It was a question of figuring out what is going on at each stage of the process and where the flavours are coming from – it’s a mystery he hasn’t quite solved yet. But the variance has become part of the Solum spirit’s charm.
“For Solum batch one, when we were putting it together, we settled on distillate from two different years, 2016 and 2019,” he details. “The objective here was that we wanted a whiskey that meets people’s expectations for what that means. So, there are classic iodine notes, the medicinal stuff. But we want these other things too.” He reckons it’s peated to about 15ppm – in line with the Westland philosophy, he didn’t want any aspect to overpower the core distillery style — even Solum's unique peaty flavours.
It’s immediately apparent from the nose that Solum is a very different kind of peated whiskey. There is a familiarity, and the conventional peaty notes are easy to pick out. But there are two other flavour groups too. There’s a profound ‘greenness’: think smoked herbs, bell peppers, and asparagus. It’s almost like a mezcal. And then there are wonderfully earthy notes, like mushrooms and smouldering leaves on a newly lit bonfire.
“I’m biased, but I do think we did it,” Hofmann says with a smile. “This is what Solum is. It’s got some things you’ll recognise. But most importantly, it’s got flavours you don’t expect. For us, that’s quite fun, what we’ve ended up doing stylistically.”
A huge part of this is down to the sense of place. The lake itself. The flora and fauna surrounding it. But, as is often the case with whiskey, there’s a little mystery surrounding the source of the flavour compounds. “I want to attribute it to lots of things,” Hofmann muses. “But the reality is, I’m not totally sure why the peat flavour is that way.” It’s clearly different to peat harvested in Scotland. “There’s a lot growing around the lake. There’s moss. There’s a plant called Labrador tea. If you walk around the bog you’ll notice it because you step on it and you can smell the herbaceous, floral leaves breaking underfoot.” He also lists wild cranberries, crab apple, cedars among the local flora. All this life, over tens of thousands of years, has broken down in the anaerobic, water-logged environment and, now, is contributing to Solum.
For all the romance, there’s a significant story here. “To the best of my knowledge, peated malt has never been made in American history commercially until the project that we started here,” he says. It’s quite the feat. And now we can taste the Pacific Northwest like never before.
In February 2023, Westland Solum - Edition 1 was named Best American Single Malt by the judges of the World Whiskies Awards — the world's most respected whisky competition. It is now available to buy in the UK from Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange.
Name: Westland Solum
Producer: Westland Whiskey
Total Bottled: 4,044
Minimum Maturation Time: 41 Months
Grain Bill: Skagit Valley Malting Peated Malt
Yeast strain: Belgian Brewer’s Yeast
Fermentation Time: 96-144 Hours
Cask Types: Cooper’s Reserve New American Oak, Cooper’s Select New American Oak, First-fill ex-Bourbon