Can Americans Make Single Malt as Well as the Scots?

In 2012, an American single malt whiskey from Balcones Distillery in Texas defeated nine other world-class single malts from around the world and gained international attention.

Henry Phillips

The basic premise of American single malt whiskey is simple: re-create a beloved liquor associated with Scotland and perhaps Japan, single malt whiskey, in the United States. But a look into its list of rules — and how they differ from other whiskeys (and whiskies) — can quickly make your head spin.

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Of course, American single malt must be made solely in the US. The mash bill must consist of at least 51 percent grain, typically malted barley, though most distillers use 100 percent barley. (This is similar to Scotch, which must use 100 percent malted barley, and different from American whiskeys, which tend to require some combination of corn, rye, wheat and malted barley.) It must be produced and aged entirely by one distillery (which is also true for single malt Scotch whiskies, but not for most American whiskeys). It must be aged in new charred oak barrels (just like bourbon, rye and the like, but unlike Scotch, which largely relies on pre-used bourbon barrels in a strange symbiosis with American whiskey). Scotch has a minimum age of three years. Bourbon tends to be at least two. American Single Malt can be as young as distillers like. It follows other American guidelines for maximum strength entering the barrel (62.5 percent alcohol) and minimum strength entering the bottle (40 percent alcohol).

“It’s a little bit like the Wild West. Everyone’s trying to figure out what works. They’re working at identifying, as distilleries, that this is what American single malt is supposed to taste like.”

This style of whiskey is just emerging from its barrels, so to speak, in the US. The reasons for its nascency here, delayed relative to many other parts of the world, are essentially twofold. One is simply historical momentum: the heartlands of American whiskey distilling, and therefore the palates of American whiskey drinkers, have always focused heavily on corn- and rye-based whiskeys. That influenced the second reason, which is that the Scottish have always held such a strong grip on single malt whiskey that it didn’t seem plausible to compete with them.

The first dissenter to this line of thinking emerged 80 years ago, when Masataka Taketsuru brought Scotch whisky to Japan by founding Suntory Distillery (and later, Nikka Distillery) and began that country’s miraculous reimagining of the liquid as Japanese whisky. Today, their single malt whisky is considered some of the best in the world. Taketsuru and the Japanese distillers are easy inspirations for the new American distillers, their ambitious ventures having created the inroads that whiskey makers around the world are still following today.

“For me the conversation is even larger than American single malt,” said Emerson Lamb, the former co-founder of Westland Whiskey, based in Seattle, Washington. [Ed. Note: During the writing of this article, Lamb still worked for Westland; he’s since left the company.] “It’s world single malt whiskies, which now 80 years on [from Japanese whisky] are coming to the forefront of whiskey culture. You have great examples in Tasmanian whiskey, in South Africa, great distilleries up in Sweden. It’s breaking down the idea that you can’t make single malts outside of Scotland — that there are different regions and terroirs in different places that are worth it.” Lamb believes his home state of Washington, with its two world-class barley-growing regions, great water sources and excellent aging climate, might be better suited to single malt whiskey making than Scotland is.

Other Great American Single Malts

Ranger Creek Rimfire, San Antonio, TX
Hillrock Estate Single Malt, Hudson Valley, NY
Colkegan Single Malt, New Mexico
Few Single Malt, Evanston, IL
Balcones Texas Single Malt, Texas

For distilleries like Westland and others, the dive into the style is paying off. Stephanie Moreno, Spirits Director and Editor of the whiskey review and sales app and website Distiller, first saw American single malt in 2010. She couldn’t keep it on the shelves. American single malt distilleries have doubled in the US in each of the past several years, riding a wave that’s buoyed American whiskeys — especially bourbon — since the early 2000s.

American single malts have also been helping themselves. In 2012, after Balcones distillery in Waco, Texas beat nine other world-class Scotch, Irish and Japanese single malt whiskies in a blind tasting of experts called Best In Glass, the Americans were suddenly thrown into the international spotlight. Westland, which makes only single malt and began bottling in 2013, has already expanded distribution to 38 states with plans for even more breadth soon. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, American single malt revenue increased by 9.2 percent in 2014 to a total of $645 million.

Balcones’s Texas Single Malt beat nine other world-class single malts in a 2012 blind tasting.

American distillers’ booming product is, like Scotch, a wide-ranging spirit that belies easy description. “It’s more robust, at times smoky, at other times fruity”, said Moreno. “It’s kind of difficult — like trying to identify a single flavor profile for Scotch whiskey.” And then, after more thought: “I don’t think you can say as you can with most bourbon, ‘Well it’s gonna be rich and sweet and vanilla.'”

And right now, Moreno said, distillers in America are using what leeway they have in the single malt category to expand it with vigorous joie de vivre. “They’re within the rules for what qualifies as American single malt, and otherwise are doing what they can to skirt [those rules]. It’s a little bit like the Wild West. Everyone’s trying to figure out what works. They’re working at identifying, as distilleries, that this is what American single malt is supposed to taste like.”

This involves navigating issues caused by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, whose regulations require that all American whiskeys be aged in new American oak barrels. This is a problem, since new oak can be damaging to the flavor profiles of malted barley, something that Scotch and Japanese whiskies avoid by using oak barrels that previously held bourbon, sherry, port and other spirits. “The honest truth is that it’s a case of an arcane rule”, said Lamb. “It’s a stupid rule that malt whiskey got classified with other things as having to go into new oak. They don’t specify how long, so it’s a bit unenforcible.” Westland and other distilleries have responded by using more robust barley mash, putting their whiskeys in new oak for very brief stints, or sometimes, rebuffing the TTB and not using new oak at all.

Other variations don’t need to skirt distilling laws. Since American rules don’t regulate what type of smoke can be used for the malting process, distilleries are burning everything from peat to mesquite to cherrywood. Ditto aging methods not involving barrels. Balcones’ highly ranked Texas Single Malt is aged in different-sized barrels which are then blended together. Another distiller, Ranger Creek in San Antonio, Texas, makes their Rimfire Smoked Texas Single Malt by distilling their own Mesquite Smoked Porter beer, sans the hops, before aging it for six months in new oak barrels.

“In the US, climate varies so drastically, far more than in Scotland. Between two American single malts, Westland and Balcones, Texas versus the Pacific Northwest, there are massively different climates that affect the whiskey in big way, aside from local water and local grain. It makes a huge impact on what ends up in the bottle.”

Westland’s most straight-to-the-style whiskey, their American Single Malt, offers a good mid-field example amid this chaos. (They also make a peated version and a sherried version, completing what Lamb calls their “trinity of whiskey”.) The ASM is made using five different types of malted barley, 90 percent of them grown in Washington, and uses Belgian brewer’s yeast. At 46% ABV it’s no lightweight, but on the nose it’s particularly eye-watering due to its new-oak aging — and yet the rim of the bottle smells like a caramel chocolate bar. Sip it and that heat is largely gone, replaced by strong, continued milk chocolate and caramel. (Tasting note: a mouthful of milk duds.) It has a big ridge of sugary sweetness, similar to a bourbon, and then a quieter finish of more chocolate, oak, nuttiness and a small bit of rye pepper.

This profile is a result of what Lamb calls a house style, which he says “has a lot to do with maturation techniques, and the American bourbon aging style. That maturation is bringing to bear a more American palette: more sweeter flavors, vanilla, chocolate. It’s grain rich, and you definitely are understanding the grain the whiskey comes from because of roasted malts we’re using.” If you ever wondered what bourbon aging applied to a Scotch’s ingredients would taste like, this is it: the deep, singular flavors of Scotch melded with the slow, smooth, sugary burn of bourbon.

Westland’s American Single Malt is a useful case study, but it’s in no way indicative of what American single malt distillers are producing elsewhere. Mikael Mossberg, the cofounder of Distiller, urges potential drinkers to imagine the range of Scotches produced in Scotland, all with the same set of rules — “Just barley, water, yeast and oak”, as Lamb puts it — in order to imagine what a Pandora’s box of single malts a country as vast as America could potentially be. “In the US, climate varies so dramatically, far more than in Scotland”, Mossberg said. “Between two American single malts, Westland and Balcones, Texas versus the Pacific Northwest, there are massively different climates that affect the whiskey in big way, aside from local water and local grain. It makes a huge impact on what ends up in the bottle.”

While the drink remains intensely regional, as it mostly is now, Moreno said, an explosion of single malt on the level of bourbon isn’t likely to happen. Other hurdles include the TTB’s regulation on new oak barrels, and prices that soar well into the $70 to $100 range, equal to and even more expensive than many beloved entry-level Scotches.

Moreno is convinced that the number of single malt distillers will continue to double, bringing popular new American single malts to new parts of the country. “Alabama, Michigan, DC, Nebraska are all getting great distilleries. I hope everyone knows that every state is distilling right now — but still, people wouldn’t think, ‘Nebraska. I’m gonna get a single malt from there.'” When she drinks such a whiskey, Moreno said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna get. But I’m excited to try it.”

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