Smaller in volume and far less mainstream than its famous sibling Bourbon, American single malt has nevertheless been on a steadily upward trajectory of its own. When the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission (ASMWC) was created in 2016, just nine producers counted themselves as members; in the five years since, that number has risen to nearly 200 distilleries, representing a wide swath of states across the country. Given the popularity of Bourbon, single malt Scotch, and other whiskies from around the globe, the ASMWC’s main intent is to educate consumers on what exactly American single malt is; to that end, it is also trying to push standards of identity through the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which it hopes will help further boost the category’s standing. None of the group’s members, however, want guidelines that stifle the rampant innovation and experimentation ongoing within American single malt as producers dabble in unique barrel finishes, local grains, and more.
The concept of terroir has also found a home in American single malt, with many distillers leaning heavily on regionality in promoting their products and overall ethos. In creating whiskies with a hyper-regional focus, or that highlight certain aspects of their area of origin, producers are differentiating not only from other American distillers, but from those in Scotland, Japan, and beyond.
Local, Local, Local
No matter where a distillery is located, when producing American single malt, a major point of focus is on expressing regionality. For Stranahan’s Distillery in Denver, which is owned by Proximo Spirits, the regional climate is key. “What sets Stranahan’s apart from a lot of other American single malts on the market is that dry climate, that mile-high aging, that Rocky Mountain altitude,” says brand ambassador Richard Edwards. “Our elevation really plays a unique character in our finished product—we have about an 8% angels’ share loss, as opposed to Scotland or Ireland where they’re getting about 2%-3%, and that pushes a lot of flavor through the barrel. I’ve gotten into a lot of conversations about regional differences and terroir, and what those really mean in whiskey, but for Stranahan’s, the climate absolutely makes a difference.” The core Stranahan’s lineup includes three whiskies—Original, Sherry Cask, and Blue Peak—as well as a number of limited releases, all of which are made with 100% Rocky Mountain-sourced barley and water.
On the West Coast, Westward Whiskey in Portland, Oregon is bringing Pacific Northwest flair to its production. “Whisk(e)y, more than most spirits or products, has an extremely strong sense of place and origin,” says Thomas Mooney, Westward’s CEO and co-owner. “It’s really a cultural product—people making something out of what’s growing where they are. In the U.S. in terms of grains, most of the great malting barley in North America grows in the American Northwest, so it made a lot of sense to focus on what’s distinctive about where we make whiskey, from a grain standpoint.” Westward uses locally malted barley in all of its single malts, among them three core whiskies: the flagship American single malt, Stout Cask, and Pinot Noir Cask.
Mooney also points to Westward’s proximity to the bustling brewing community that envelops Portland as intrinsic to the distillery’s identity. “Single malt makes sense for an Oregon distillery, in that we ‘brew’ our whiskey, and Oregon is home to one of the best beer cultures in the world—the difference is that we make that beer so that we can then distill it into whiskey,” says Mooney. “We’re not just making mash for industrial purposes; we’re making an amazing beer. And again, that’s very Oregon, and based on the agricultural production of our region.”
Just north of Westward in Seattle, two producers are at the forefront of regional whiskey expression: Westland Distillery and Copperworks Distilling Co. While both distilleries have leaned into the agricultural heritage of the Pacific Northwest, they’re coming at it from unique angles. Westland burst onto the scene in 2011 with an exclusive focus on American single malt, quickly amassing a fan base and eventually attracting the attention of Rémy Cointreau, which acquired the distillery in 2016. Above all else, Westland is committed to expressing a sense of place through its whiskies. “We’re leading American single malt in terms of a provenance-based philosophy,” says co-founder and master distiller Matt Hofmann, who points to the newly debuted Outpost series as manifestation of that mindset. “The Outpost range is where the soul of Westland resides. Our whole identity is wrapped up in the idea of seeking new possibilities and making a whiskey that’s evocative of our home, through both the agriculture and the subculture.”
The Outpost line will ultimately feature three whiskies: Garryana, which debuted in 2016 and launched the new range last November; Colere, which will roll out this spring; and Solum, set to debut in 2023. “The agriculture, or more precisely the raw ingredients, are expressed in the three different bottlings of the range,” says Hofmann. “The subculture is seen in how we take our Pacific Northwestern mentality of innovation; the Outpost range is a perfect combination of those two things, and it communicates that idea extremely well.” While Garryana—which uses native Garry oak in its maturation—has long been a part of Westland’s portfolio, Colere and Solum are both distinctly new. The former is derived from a new barley variety that uses more sustainable agricultural methods, while the latter will explore locally sourced peat.
Meanwhile, at Copperworks, a range of spirits is augmented by three distinct lines of American single malt, among them a series of single-farm, single-variety, and single-vintage malt whiskies. “If you think of the way wine treats grapes, we’re treating malt that way within these whiskies; we’re using one variety only, from one farm of one harvest season, and mingling the barrels together, to home in on those malt flavors,” says Copperworks co-founder and president Jason Parker. “One of the greatest and most interesting things about making a product that’s completely based off an agricultural good—in our case, malted barley—is that you can explore regional differences.” The latest release of the single farm series is set to debut later this year or early next, according to Parker.
Copperworks has also tapped into regionality via its peated American single malt, which makes use of Washington-based peat bogs. Parker credits Westland with doing much of the heavy lifting in securing a source for Washington peat, initially tapping into peat bogs in Shelton, Washington several years ago, and working with a local malting company to use the harvested product to dry barley. Copperworks, however, was first to market with its own peated whiskey when it launched late last year. “If we’re exploring the flavors of barley within this terroir, why wouldn’t we also explore the flavors of other components, like peat?” Parker asks. “There are almost 450 peat bogs in Washington State, and they have none of the flavor attributes found in those of Scotland. This peat has much more campfire elements to it, a smoky, gentle, subtle flavor. It’s extremely nuanced, and not a big up-front phenol hit like you’d find in peated Scotch.”
On the other side of the country, Virginia Distillery Co. is experimenting with different types of casks to mature its American single malt. The distillery’s flagship expression, Courage & Conviction, debuted last April, and featured whiskey that was aged 50% in ex-Bourbon casks, 25% in ex-Sherry casks, and 25% in what it calls cuvée casks—American oak red wine casks that have been shaved, re-toasted, and re-charred. “The new releases highlight what these individual cask types contribute to the flagship whiskey,” says CEO Gareth H. Moore. “The Bourbon cask finish is certainly a lot more grain-forward, while the Sherry and cuvée casks bring more sweetness out, and you’ll be able to see those influences in the flagship.” The new Courage & Conviction line extensions—Bourbon Cask, Sherry Cask, and Cuvée Cask—are rolling out now.
At F.E.W. Spirits in Chicago, founder and master distiller Paul Hletko is setting his American single malt apart through the use of cherry wood-smoked malt. “We’re very much leaning into the American part of American single malt—we want to make sure that our whiskey is differentiated from everybody else’s, and strays as far from single malt Scotch as it can,” he says. “So, to that end, we use a bit of cherry wood smoke in the malt, giving this nice balance between smoky and non-smoky. You get some smoke, but it’s not the smoke that people are used to in a single malt whiskey—that’s what helps us stand out, and add to the conversation of what American single malt is.” F.E.W. debuted its single malt in 2016; Hletko notes that volume remains limited for the expression, though he’s optimistic about the future of the category as a whole.
Waco, Texas-based Balcones Distilling has also made moves in single malt experimentation via its Lineage label, which launched last year and features a mash that makes use of both Scottish and Texas-grown barley that’s then aged in a combination of refill and new oak barrels, playing homage to single malt’s Scottish roots. “With Lineage, we’re hoping to attract more drinkers to the category,” says master distiller Jared Himstedt. “We not only wanted to make it as accessible as possible in price, we blended it and proofed it to 47% abv to be as approachable as possible.” The Balcones portfolio also includes “1” American single malt, which has long served as a leader of the style. Later this year, the distillery is set to release American single malts that are finished in Texas dessert wine casks. “We’re excited to shine the light on some of Texas’ best wineries, and are thrilled about the results thus far,” Himstedt adds.
Stranahan’s has been active with innovations of its own, releasing the oldest age-stated American single malt, Mountain Angel, last year. “This is really the first American single malt to go a full ten years in new American oak over the No.-3 char; a lot of other American single malt distilleries don’t yet have the stock sheet to release a 10-year-old whiskey,” says Edwards. He also points to Blue Peak, originally released late last year, as a key example of ongoing innovation at the distillery; unlike the rest of the Stranahan’s portfolio, the whiskey is chill-filtered and bottled at 43% abv. Blue Peak is also unique in that it’s entirely focused on cocktails. “We want to elevate consumers’ favorite cocktails with this whiskey,” says Edwards. “Blue Peak is where tradition meets innovation at our distillery, and I think we’re going to have a lot of movement with it once restaurants and bars are fully open.”
Even as producers laud the creativity within American single malt, many lament the lack of an official set of guidelines, the likes of which govern Bourbon and single malt Scotch. One of the primary purposes of forming the ASMWC in 2016 was to eventually solve this conundrum; while producers are hopeful that legal standards will soon be set, the process has thus far been slow going. “I’m excited to get an official designation from the TTB, because right now there isn’t a definition of American single malt whiskey,” says Virginia Distillery Co.’s Moore. “The idea isn’t to stifle innovation in any way, but to be formally recognized, so that we can take that definition and bring it to consumers.”
Parker from Copperworks is also buoyed at the thought of TTB recognition, as it will set the category apart and give consumers a more innate understanding of its differences. “The general public doesn’t have much of an understanding of whisk(e)y as a whole, and all of its subcategories,” he notes. “With the 2,000 small distilleries in America now, and hundreds of them making single malt whiskies, there’s no understanding of what you’re going to get if you walk in, and even where to find it. Designations will be most useful for consumers, and our industry—then it’ll be a category that you can find on shelves. First it’ll start with one shelf, but that’ll grow and eventually encompass a whole section, and maybe someday there’ll be stores that are devoted to just American single malt whiskey.”
As American single malt receives more recognition, even more distillers are jumping into the fray. High West in Utah offers the distillery-exclusive High Country American single malt that will roll out nationwide by the end of this year. “This is a product we’ve been planning almost since High West’s founding,” says master distiller Brendan Coyle. “We’ve long appreciated the great malt whiskies of Scotland, and are proud to add our own take on this style to the world of single malts. You’ll find character from several different barrel finishes—new, used, charred, and wine-finished—and a variety of malt types in High Country, making it unique compared to other American single malts out there.” High Country uses whiskies made at both of High West’s Utah distilleries, which blurs the line of “single” in the ASMWC’s definition, but Coyle maintains that the whisky is a single malt because it was made by a sole entity.
For early adopters like Hofmann at Westland, the future of American single malt is brighter than ever. “What’s so unique and promising about the category of American single malt is the possibility for creativity and innovation,” he says. “There were early signs of the category exploring new possibilities in a country free from the conventions of the Old World, but in just the past couple years we’re really starting to see that trend expand. Beyond that, the style is being recognized globally as a major player in the growing world whisk(e)y category, gaining interest far and wide from consumers that are looking for something new. We really believe American single malt is the next big thing in whisk(e)y.”