By: Eric Twardzik
Why must the Scots have all the fun?
With all due respect to the men and women behind Macallan, GlenDronach, Glenlivet and too many other mellifluous names to count, Scotland isn’t the only country producing great single malt whisky. Many drinkers got wise to this fact in the last decade, scooping up Japanese single malts until the casks at Suntory and Nikka had nearly run dry. Today the single malt renaissance is world-wide, with makers from Italy to Israel distilling the good stuff.
America, however, has remained the land of bourbon and rye. But that’s beginning to change, as a new crop of American whiskey distillers are breaking from tradition and convention to create the great American single malt, whatever that may be.
A quick refresher: single malt whiskeys are generally defined as a whiskey distilled from 100% malted barley at a single distillery. Of course, that leaves room for plenty of creativity, allowing the makers below to bottle something distinctly different—and distinctly American.
An early standard bearer in the American single malt movement, Seattle’s Westland distills from a five-malt recipe and ages its whiskey in new American oak barrels—something rarely done in Scotland, which tends to rely on ex-bourbon barrels for its aging. The result is a whiskey that matches rich malt to the familiar woody lick of virgin American oak.
Westward hails from the craft beer capital of Portland, Oregon, and distills its whiskey from a scratch-made American Ale that’s brewed from local barley (and good enough to drink on its own). It’s aged in new, lightly charred American oak barrels, so that the earthy barley flavor Westward worked so hard to cultivate isn’t outshined. When I visited Westward, their distiller likened the whiskey to a “barley eau de vie”—which sounds strange, but tastes delicious in practice.
Virginia Distillery Co.
VDC distills malted barley in the Old Dominion, but takes a page from the old-world playbook and uses a variety of casks to produce its Courage & Conviction single malt. The whisky is aged for at least three years in a blend of sherry casks, cuvée casks and ex-bourbon casks pulled fresh from Kentucky. The result matches the rich, woody vanilla of bourbon to the dark fruit flavors of sherry and the dry, tannic hit of a good red wine.