When you hear the term “single malt whiskey” your brain immediately goes to Scotland, where the whisky is aged in used barrels as part of a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.
But after today, we are hoping that when you hear the terms “single malt whiskey” your taste buds will immediately go to Portland where the whiskey is put into new barrels, as part of a tradition that started less than a decade ago.
Yes, in case you hadn’t heard Americans are making single malt. And no, it’s not like Bourbon but then it’s not like Scotch either.
It is as yet, an undefined and officially unregulated area of the spirits world. But then the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, which now has over 120 member producers, are seeing what they can do about that …
In the meantime, American Single Malt has developed quite a cult following, with the unwritten rules of the category being that its made from 100% malted barley, its produced at a single distillery, its matured in oak barrels and is bottled at 40%ABV.
Rules or not, American Malt Whiskey is a style that has caught on with the ever-growing whiskey drinking masses. “It’s a hybrid of styles and I think in that way it covers a lot of people’s tastes,” said Miles Munroe, head brewer for Westward Whiskey.
“It’s made as a scotch but aged as a bourbon so there is a lot of characteristics throughout it that can appeal to most whiskey drinkers, if not all.”
Westward Whiskey, which is owned by House Spirits, distils in the American Pacific Northwest. When they opened their doors in Portland in 2015, they became the largest independent distiller of American single malt.
In the past year, Westward has picked up a Gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, received high praise from Whiskey Advocate, earned a 94-point rating from Wine Enthusiast and a 93-point/Excellent rating at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge.
“We have always been an innovative distillery,” continued Munroe, “and we wanted to approach whiskey with the idea that there are still new ways to innovate. We didn’t want to make something that was too similar … too close to the whiskeys already in the market. There are still ways to take this old established spirit in a new direction.”
We believe in maturity over age … our whiskey is ready when it’s ready.
One of the ways Westward Whiskey will tell you that they are innovating is through the yeast. Westward Whiskey is fermented with American ale yeast for outstanding flavour.
“The particular kind of ale yeast that we have selected is known for its very robust fruits, honey and floral characteristics that are produced during fermentation, explains Munroe. “We produced those in a bit of a hotter temperature than yeast is typically used for in ales, so we promote a lot more of those flavours, a lot more of those aromas and taste that actually come out during the fermentation process.”
Generally, there are three things that people know about Portland – it rains constantly, there are more strip clubs per capita than anywhere else in the continental USA and the city basically runs on a beer economy. There are currently 84 breweries in the Portland metro area.
It is therefore not surprising that Westward uses beer yeast and that almost all of their staff are ex-brewers.
“Any good single malt is a beer first, essentially,” explains Munroe, “so for me that meant I became a brewer first, studying fermentation, studying the aspects of brewing, studying fermentation at a much closer level would I thought make me a better single malt distiller.
“We essentially make what you could call a strong golden ale, if you had to put it in beer terms, that’s 8-9% or so and at that point, we are as close to making a craft beer that we can pot still and turn it into a whiskey.”
Bring together the very best of the American whiskey and craft beer traditions is what Westward is about and they believe they see about 75 to 80% of the Whiskey’s overall flavour characteristics coming from that ale yeast fermentation.
Keep in mind, these guys are no strangers to baulking at tradition and applying a distinctly new American slant. After all, these are the same guys who thought it might be a bit of a lark to make some Gin while they waited for the Whiskey to age. That Gin got an unofficial style name ‘new American’ and the brand was called Aviation.
But for westward, it’s more than just innovation. Sure, their beer background plays a large part in their ethos but also ensuring that their product is truly grain to glass. They pride themselves that from start to finish, their whiskey is always in their hands.
Made from scratch from Pacific Northwest two-row barley, fermented, as we have mentioned, with American ale yeast, then double pot distilled. Yet it is the fact that it is matured in new American oak barrels, that brings it back to its American Single Malt roots.
“We are you know still part of this new world whiskey category that we feel is something that should showcase the raw materials a lot more,” said Munroe. “Rather than just oxidation and a lot of the oak from the barrel itself, we prefer to give the natural flavours a fighting chance.
“We want the final product to be a bit younger, so we can still actually focus on those fermentation and grain flavours. I think has a lot to do with new barrels, putting new make into those barrels that play with those malt flavours with that char that will yield more distinct coffee and chocolate in the finish.”
Using new Oak barrels may echo the ways of Bourbon production but there is a very good reason for this. Oak contains several compounds like tannins, lactones, vanillin, and hemicellulose, all of which diffuse into the spirit to lend flavour and colour.
The more the barrels are used, the less of these colours and flavours can be extracted. As Scotch distillers describe it, they ‘loose their virtue’. As these compounds are poured into bottles along with the whiskey, used barrels have less flavouring capacity than new ones.
“The use of new, virgin American oak barrels, allows American Single Malt to differ quite a bit from a Scottish Single Malt. Those new barrels have a lot more to give as far as barrel character goes, with a strong sweet vanilla and a little bit of baking spice. I think it’s in the finish with its chocolate and coffee notes that new barrels stand out.”
But this doesn’t mean that every expression produced by the brand will follow exactly the same barrels purity. Westward have gained quite a reputation for their willingness to ship used barrels off to collaborators and vice versa.
Most of these collaborators are breweries, where they are looking for some different flavours to integrate int their different beer expressions. ‘We are inextricably linked to the craft brewing in Portland and around the States, so we’ve started trading barrels back and forth with brewers.
“Brewers absolutely love whiskey barrels and so when they are done with these barrels we have actually started taking some back and experiment with the whiskey we then age in them.”
While the world may only just be discovering Westwards Single Malt, the brand are already experimenting with their second expression. Only just released in the US, Westward have made a single malt that has been finished in casks that have been used to age Stout. While they haven’t made a lot of this expression yet, the plan is to expand production and soon release it to the world.
“Those stout characteristics – roasted grain, coffee and chocolate – those just match incredibly well with the overall flavour profile of Westward, said Munroe. “To finish the whiskey for 8-12 months in one of these barrels that have just held stouts just makes excellent whiskey … those stout characteristics elevate the whiskey itself and promote a lot more of those flavours.”
Just over 6 years ago, Munroe was the only production distiller, so they were making on average four barrels a month of single malt. Since that time the brand has grown rapidly. Munroe estimates that the brand has almost 200,000 proof gallons of Westward ageing right now.
And how long those gallons will be there, will depend very much on taste rather than time. As part of their dedication to flavour and the new-world-whiskey-way of doing things, Westward can add ageing to their list of unconventional methodologies.
“We believe in maturity over age,” Munroe points out. “This means that we are looking for a certain balance to the whiskey itself. This means we don’t just stick to the idea of emptying casks at 3 years or 5 years or 6 years. We believe that our whiskey is ready when it’s ready. So we’ll empty a cask only when we think it is good to go.”
There is a lot to the way that Westward makes their whiskey that traditional whiskey drinkers may find unconventional or strange but there is also a lot will be very familiar. And it is these uniques combination of methods that is producing some amazing whiskey that is like no other.
So if you want to go on a bit of a whiskey adventure where something new and a little bit different is what your palette has been craving, then it might be time to go Westward.
After all, like the city that birthed it, Westward seriously intends on keeping it weird.
Westward Single Malt Whiskey is available at oakbarrel.com.au and other speciality liquor outlets