Rising with the tide of a booming bourbon industry, American single malt whiskey craft distilleries are popping up around the country. Bound by slightly different rules than single malts from Scotland or Japan, American whiskey-making companies are being forced to innovate. Free from following strict tradition, they have carved out a flavor profile distinct to their pots and the American climate. These are five quality examples of the style that, unlike bourbon with its characteristic sweetness and Scotch with its peaty flavors, still hasn’t quite established itself in our minds or behind American bars.
Of course, it 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 single malt Scotch, which must use 100 percent malted barley, and different from American whiskies, 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 whiskies. 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).
Balcones Texas Single Malt
The Heavyweight: Despite a falling out among the owners, American Single Malt owes much to Balcones Distilling, begun in 2010 out of Waco, Texas. They arguably launched the segment onto the national stage in 2012 when they beat out nine of the world’s best single malts (including the Balvenie and the Macallan) in a blind tasting challenge called “Best in Glass”. Their Texas Single Malt is a big, dark, malty, mellow beast at 53% ABV; what’s in the bottle is actually the denouement of many small batches aged in small barrels outdoors for two to three years before being combined for a final aging.
Tasting Notes: Noticeably sweeter and darker than the other whiskies, with strong notes of honey, caramel and fruits. Some corn on the nose is reminiscent of bourbons, but Balcones carves out an entirely unique flavor profile, proving the complexity malt can produce in American pot stills.
Westland Peated Single Malt
Classic Smoke: In his junior year at the University of Washington, Matt Hofmann abandoned his economics degree to go on a road trip through Kentucky with his high school best friend Emerson Lamb. Shortly after touring numerous distilleries, they founded Westland Distillery, with a focus on gin and whiskey. They’ve since refocused entirely on the latter, a commitment that has paid off, both in their seemingly overnight expansion to 38 states since 2013, and in the quality of their bottlings, out of which their peated single malt stands as an unfamiliar twist on a familiar style.
Tasting Notes: Light in color, this whiskey cuts closest to the Scottish style of single malts, with a mild peat smoke among creamy notes of agave and tequila, before ending with a little spice and leather. If you are entering American single malts as a Scotch drinker, this is your best bet.
Easy and Approachable: Not to be confused with Westland, Westward whiskey has been produced by parent company House Spirits Distillery (makers of Aviation Gin) in Portland Oregon since 2012. Westward combines local Northwestern barley with ale yeast for a distinctive flavor. The single malt itself is dubbed “Oregon Straight” (which doesn’t mean much) but it is aged two years in charred new oak and clocks in at a just-right 45% ABV. Our only caveat? $50 for a 375ml bottle is tough to swallow.
Tasting Notes: Alcohol, vanilla and copper on the nose give way to light, creamy flavors of toffee and cloves. The leather and wood flavors of the malt dominate over any peaty and smoky notes, making this a good entry point to a traditional American single malt.
Colkegan Single Malt
Alternative Smoke: Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey eschews peat smoke for mesquite in an American twist. The single malt’s flavors are further influenced by a barrel-aging process that takes place 7,000 feet above sea level in the high desert. This unique climate produces a smooth, mellow, and balanced hint of smoke that’s distinctly Santa Fe.
Tasting Notes: Where Balcones gets inventive with sweet dark fruit flavors, Colkegan brings a unique smokiness to their bottles. The single malt starts sweet like a rum, with brown sugar and raisins dipped in port wine, but then gives way to a unique mesquite smokiness, like a barbecue instead of a campfire. It’s one of our favorites for its American inspiration alone.
Northeast Contender: This whiskey is produced from “field to bottle” in the Hudson Valley by Master Distiller Dave Pickerell, who headed quality control at Maker’s Mark for 13 years. Despite the distillery’s appearance — a restored Georgian house rising out of fields of barley and overlooking the Berkshire Mountains — inside it’s packed with state-of-the-art, custom-built copper stills and mash tuns. Hillrock grows and malts their own barley on site and fills each bottle by hand, giving them control over all aspects of their product; perhaps this is a large part of the 95/100 rating they received from The Beverage Testing Institute in 2014.
Tasting Notes: Similar to Westward, this whiskey forgoes strong peat flavors for the subtle sweetness of the malt and wood, reminiscent of a great bourbon, before finishing with a rye-like spiciness.