American Single Malt Whiskey is the newest category of American Whiskey, and the one most poised for growth. Unlike Bourbon and Rye, which are distilled from corn and rye and have long-established roots in U.S. history and culture, American Single Malt is history-in-the-making. It uses malted barley in the style of Single Malt Scotch, but then layers onto that a whole new bag of tricks from this side of the pond — adopting influences ranging from Pacific Northwest craft brewing, to Japanese plum liqueur, to Mesquite wood smoke, to water from the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“There are no ‘good old days’ in craft distilling––it’s the best it’s ever been right now,” says Joe O’Sullivan, the Master Distiller of Clear Creek Distillery and Hood River Distillers in Oregon that made America’s first Single Malt. “The ability to start with something brand new, with wide open possibilities –– we get to experience that in American Single Malt now.”
American Single Malt Whiskey only dates back to the early 1990’s, making it an infant spirit compared to Bourbon, which emerged in the U.S. more than a century earlier. The definition of American Single Malt currently working its way through legal approval is that it be made from 100% malted barley and distilled at one distillery. The barley can be imported, but the mash, distillation, and maturation (specifically in oak barrels) must take place in the U.S., with additional parameters for barrel size, proof and ABV.
American Single Malt Whiskey is a genre worth exploring. Whether you’re coming into American Single Malt as a Scotch drinker, a Bourbon drinker, a craft beer drinker, or even a Japanese whisky drinker, there’s something just for you among these seven whiskies.
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The first-ever American Single Malt, named after Steve McCarthy who released his first batch in 1996, this is the most Scotch-like on this list thanks to a base of peat-malted Scottish barley. The spirit is aged in Garry Oak casks, an oak indigenous to the Pacific Northwest that gives the whiskey a unique flavor. Gerry Oak has a more intense woodiness than White Oak, and the whiskey has sweeter notes of vanilla bean and burnt orange peel. McCarthy’s richness is well suited to sipping neat with a few drops of water, but it also stands up to drinking on the rocks.
A single malt from one of America’s original (and finest) craft distilleries, St. George Spirits, Baller is made from American barley that is pot distilled and aged in ex-Bourbon and ex-French oak wine casks. However, Baller’s defining flourish comes from the finishing process: first it is charcoal filtered for smoothness and a subtle smokiness, then it’s finished in Umeshu plum liqueur casks for a Japanese florality. Originally created for the San Francisco restaurant, Ramen Shop, Baller took off in popularity and became a permanent part of St. George’s portfolio. It’s excellent as a pairing for food, or in a cocktail like a Boulevardier (aka Scotch Negroni).
Westland is what happens when you combine the obsessions of craft beer making and craft distilling into one liquid. It’s distilled in Seattle from five different kinds of barley, then aged three years in new American oak and ex-Bourbon casks. The craft brewing influences include the complex five-barley mash bill, the use of Belgian brewer’s yeast and a slow fermentation. I lived in Seattle during the rise of craft beer, and there’s something about this whiskey that connects me to the city I knew and loved in the 90’s and early 2000’s. I would drink this as a sidecar for a pint of craft beer and as a pairing for pub food––preferably on a misty Seattle day.
Westward was founded in Oregon in 2004 by former brewer and winemaker Christian Krogstad, with a goal of creating a Single Malt inspired by the Northwest. They pride themselves on the idea that they “brew like a Pale Ale, distill like a Scotch, and age like a Bourbon.” They begin with making craft ale using locally malted barley, then distill it twice in pot stills, then age it in new lightly charred oak barrels which are “mingled” in small batches before bottling. It’s a nuanced whiskey that won’t blow out your palate if you sip it neat.
The flagship spirit of Waco-based Balcones Distilling, which launched in 2009 as the first legal producer of whiskey in Texas since Prohibition, Texas 1 Single Malt is made from 100% malted barley, pot distilled and aged at least two years in new American oak barrels. It’s a spicy and rich whiskey with a fair amount of heat if you sip it neat but mellows out very nicely on the rocks. It would also maintain its firm Texas handshake with other ingredients in a cocktail.
True to its name, this made-in-Nashville single malt uses three different malts smoked in three different ways: Cherrywood-smoked barley from Wisconsin, Beechwood-smoked barley from Germany, and peat-smoked barley from Scotland. Just like Bourbon, it’s pot distilled, and aged in new American charred oak barrels. The result is a rich and complex whiskey that would appeal to lovers of spicy Bourbon and peaty Scotch and stands up well to a big cube of ice.
Made by the Virginia Distillery Company in the Blue Ridge Mountains, this single malt got its name from the company’s founder, Dr. George Moore, who used to tell his son, Gareth, to “have the courage of your convictions.” Dr. Moore passed away before the distillery came to fruition, but Gareth named this whiskey for his father and continues to carry out his old man’s vision. The whiskey is made from North American barley and water from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. After distillation in stills imported from Scotland, it’s aged for a minimum of four years in a mixture of Bourbon, Sherry, and revamped European wine “Cuvée” casks. It’s balanced enough to enjoy neat or on the rocks, but would also hold its own in a Manhattan.