Around the world, when most people hear “single malt whiskey,” they think of Scotch. But just like champagne has to be made in France, and Geuze has to be made in Belgium, Scotch has to be made in Scotland. So what do you call a single malt whiskey that’s not made in Scotland?
Westward Whiskey in Portland, Oregon, is one of the distilleries helping define the answer. They produce a double pot-distilled whiskey from 100% malted barley — a single malt, but not a Scotch. A better appellation would be “American Whiskey,” but that’s not specific enough. Just as most people think “Scotch” when they hear “single malt,” most people think “bourbon” or “rye” when they hear “American whiskey.” But Westward’s whiskey, while American, isn’t bourbon or rye.
“Bourbon has to be made from 51% corn or more, aged in new oak, and for at least two years,” said Miles Munroe, head distiller at Westward Whiskey. “Most bourbon is made in column stills, most fermentations are hot and fast, in open-top tubs. Most bourbon is also produced in the South which has a very extreme climate.”
In contrast, Westward produces their whiskey with a slow, cool process. They age in new oak but with a low char wood, and Portland’s wet, cool winters and hot but dry summers provide a different climate entirely than the American South.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to call Westward Whiskey not just American Whiskey, but American Single Malt — indeed, Westward’s co-founder Christian Krogstad is on the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, which is helping the new category create a standard of identity. But until they settle on a definition, the terminology represents a fascinating new frontier in a category dominated by a strict adherence to tradition. Unlike Scotch or bourbon, the rules of American single malt are still being defined, which allows for creativity and experimentation.
“I wrote a book called Whiskey America, and it’s a six month lead time to publish,” said Dom Roskrow, author of eight books on whiskey and the former editor of Whisky Magazine. “Already, it’s out of date.”
In the United States, the single malt tradition is so young that it doesn’t have a set of defined rules, and so distillers are free to make their own. The same thing can be seen in craft beer, where American brewers shook off years of strict Belgian and German tradition to pioneer new styles like the hazy IPA. However, Roskrow acknowledges the danger of a category that’s still finding itself.
“I was recently in Las Vegas and I had a local champagne,” he said. “Really?”
The solution seems to be a careful balance between creativity and tradition, where creativity is used to scope new territory, but only insofar as rules eventually get made. Over time, the result is a new spirits category. This is how Scotch came into existence, and bourbon, and it’s how American single malt will eventually become defined.
“Standards can be stifling to creativity in many ways, but I do think that some need to be in place to give consumers an idea of what to expect,” said Munroe. “There are myriad ways to configure a whiskey style. Using just water, grain, yeast and barrels, we’ve seen so many flavors come to the market which is terrific. But we need a way for people to understand identity when discovering new spirits.”
Other distilleries making American Single Malt include Stranahan’s Distillery, St. George Spirits, and Andalusia Whiskey Company, among others. Currently, there’s no hard-and-fast definition to the category, but that’ll come as Westward and others continue to make great product, and the style becomes increasingly popular.
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