By Bruce Collier
What is American Single Malt Whiskey? A lot easier to say than to define, that’s what. The closest we have to an official government definition from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is one for “malt whisky” and one for “straight malt whisky,” both of which appear to mean scotch.
Enter the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission (a private organization), which has asked the Feds to adopt its “standard of identity”—it must be 100 percent barley mash bill; distilled entirely at one distillery; mashed, distilled, and matured in the USA; matured in oak casks not larger than 700 liters, distilled at no more than 160 proof; and bottled at 80 proof or higher. No word from TTB, so we’re still in uncharted territory.
American malt whiskies are currently distilled in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. That said, here’s a selection of American single malts, all but one of which are available locally. All were tasted neat, and with a few drops of plain, filtered water.
Barley imparts a distinct flavor to spirits – crisp, sharp, nutty, sometimes sweet and peppery. It can be polarizing, but it’s worth your attention.
90 Proof (45 Percent ABV), 100 Percent Barley
Unfiltered, aged a minimum of nine months in barrels in “Florida heat and humidity.” Slightly darker amber honey color, not cloudy. Nose is forward, grainy and spicy, with wood, grape and dried fruit trailing. Taste—toasted campfire marshmallow dominates at first; the toasty sweetness lingers. No sharpness or burn, just a nice warming feeling. Full-bodied and chewy, with continuing grain and dried fruit. Water softens the graininess of the nose and the sweetness of the taste. I prefer it without water, though adding water brings more of the grapiness. Made a Manhattan—or “American Rob Roy,” since it’s malt. Very smooth, well-balanced cocktail.
94 proof (47 Percent ABV), Non-Chill Filtered
Double distilled from a “proprietary blend of four barleys.” Fruity nose, followed by a sharp, crisp barley note, then pipe tobacco, waffles and syrup. Taste is dry, nutty, savory, like dry sherry. A little water added some sweetness with a vanilla, honey and smoky orange marmalade finish. The water really opens it up, just add a few drops at a time and taste as you go. A great session whiskey.
92 Proof (46 Percent ABV), Non-Chill Filtered
This is Westland’s “flagship malt,” representing the essence of the house style, 100 percent malted barley from Washington State. The label states that the spirit is matured “predominantly” in new American oak casks in steady and cool humidity in their “seaside home.” Aged minimum of three years. Medium amber honey color, not cloudy like some unfiltered whiskies. In the glass with some airing, the nose is more fruity and lighter than Stranahan’s, opens up sooner into lemon and orange peel. Just a scent of warm honey trailing at the end.
Taste—sweet opening, more scotch-like than Stranahan, and with a warm comforting heat at the finish. There’s a little raw grain at the edges that doesn’t detract at all. Water brings out more sweetness, and a hint of smoke (there’s that scotch), like fragrant pipe tobacco. The smoke lingers—and I’d never have tasted it without those drops of water. This could stand in for scotch in whatever cocktail you like.
80 Proof (40 Percent ABV)
Pot-distilled from cherry, beechwood and peat smoked barley. No age statement, non-chill filtered. Nose is mild, a hint of smoke, which gains strength and then some fruitiness with time in the glass; like sweet-cured beef jerky. Taste is low-key, on the sweeter side, more smoke, warm but no burn. Said to be crafted for cocktails—try it in a Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Toronto.
106 Proof (53 Percent ABV)
Aged in oak a minimum 22 months. Dark and slightly reddish color, almost like cognac. Nose is butter pecan, warm honey, vanilla and pear, some lemon zest at the end. Taste—it’s hot, but the initial heat brings toasted nut and caramelized banana. Full-bodied, chewy; water opens up more sweetness, vanilla, grilled pineapple, lightly charred tobacco at the finish. Sip this by itself. Just keep adding drops of water and see what comes next.