There are whiskeys across the world that bear labels and flavors distinctive to their region. In the U.S., bourbon instantly comes to mind. It, however, is not the only uniquely American whiskey on shelves.
If you have been sleeping on American single malt (ASM) whiskey, this is the year to course-correct. The style is on the cusp of being given an official category, elevating its status and more strictly codifying the guidelines that define the style.
“Single malt” may conjure up peaty smells and picturesque Scottish highlands. But Christian Krogstad, founder and master distiller of Westward Whiskey, is quick to point out, “American single malt is not just Scotch in America.”
The style has actually been produced in the U.S. since the ’90s, but that remains young in whiskey years compared to the Gandalf-aged traditions behind spirits like Scotch or bourbon. So why should we be paying attention to it now?
What is American single malt whiskey?
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has laid the groundwork for American single malt to get an official category this year. This brings increased recognition and genre-defining guidelines that help keep any spirit with an “American single malt” label within the style.
“It’s just going to codify what’s already being done,” Krogstad says. “But what’s great about it is, it gives the weight of that official style, of that type of whiskey to the retailers, and to the competitions, and so forth, so that it’s being recognized in retail, liquor stores, and bars as a movement, as a thing.”
The guidelines include, most importantly, that the mash is 100% malted barley. It must also be distilled and aged at a single distillery in the U.S. at a distillation proof of 160 or less and stored in oak barrels at a maximum size of 700 liters, according to the proposed TTB guidelines.
However, distillers have been quick to point out that innovation is an essential cornerstone of the style. “It’s really an industry, a movement, that’s coming out of American craft brewing. And, arguably, we have led the world in beer innovation for the last 40 years or so,” Krogstad says.
American single malt is a broader style in some respects than similar guidelines that govern Scotch or Japanese single malts. “A lot of the innovation is happening around fermentation, around different yeast varieties, sometimes playing around with hops, or just working with different malt varieties,” Krogstad says. “And just really opening up the style, opening up the possibilities of what a single malt can be, and not being as tradition-bound as it is, say, in Scotland.”
Most often, ASM whiskies are aged in new American oak barrels. “As far as a major difference, generally American single malt producers are using new oak and in Japan and Scotland, they’re using used oak,” says Stephen Paul, co-founder of Whiskey Del Bac.
Though, he notes, that is not written in stone. Some ASM whiskies are aged in used oak, and many are finished in stout barrels, bourbon barrels, sherry casks, and a whole lot more.
“Whether that’s using regional wine barrels to age their whiskey, or smoking it over mesquite, there’s lots of room to put whatever your local stamp is on it—be it barrels, wet wood type, still type, using specialty grain, or using 100% pale malt,” says Owen Martin, head distiller at Colorado-based Stranahan’s “You can import that grain from Scotland and still make an American single malt with imported grain.”
What does American Single Malt taste like?
ASM whiskey does not have the peated flavor of Scotch, for starters. Rather, it doesn’t have to. Most American single malts are not peated. Though, there are certainly some that are, like McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey.
Distilleries have made ASMs that span many flavor profiles, but you tend to get fewer sweet notes than, say, bourbon. Though, American single malts forgo the big age statements you see on high-end Scotch and other whiskies. But, again, there’s a lot of room for variation. It is hard to throw a blanket over every expression of the style.
With the wide variety of climates in the U.S., regional styles have started to define themselves, as well. Some distilleries in the Southwest, like Whiskey Del Bac or Colkegan, smoke their malts with mesquite in a similar way to how Scottish distilleries use peat.
What’s the difference between bourbon and American single malt?
Bourbon has carved out a strong niche. American single malt is inevitably compared to the Kentucky classic since bourbon is the most recognizable American whiskey. Bourbon, however, carries a slightly sweeter profile due to having at least 51% corn in its mash. It is also aged in new, charred oak barrels. American single malts often use new oak barrels, but that is not a guideline.
Additionally, bourbon is regionally concentrated. Many bourbon producers are found in and around Kentucky. (Though, they do not have to be made in Kentucky.) American single malts are found all across the country, and that potential for regionality is part of what makes the style exciting.
“There are probably eight or nine different kinds of climate types [in the U.S.],” Paul says. Those variations can be tasted in the aging process, changing what the liquid goes through as it matures. “So, that coupled with the kind of innovation and kind of adventurous nature of American single malt producers, and really, in the craft spirits world in general, that sense of regionality already is big in the American single malt space.”
What are some of the best American Single Malt whiskies?
10th Street Distillery’s Distiller’s Cut Peated Single Malt
Maybe it’d be unfair to say this is a good introduction to American single malt for Scotch lovers. That’s a little simple since it’s peated. But at the same time, many American single malts made with peated malted barley go easy on the peat. 10th Street does not. It has a pretty strong, lingering peaty finish and nose.
Cedar Ridge’s QuintEssential American
Iowa isn’t the whiskey capital of America, but The QuintEssential is a beautiful whiskey. It is aged in ex-bourbon barrels before getting a mix of cask finishes. It pulls from the melange of casks—brandy, rum, sherry, wine, port, and rye—to create a warming drink with notes of vanilla, dried fruit, and leather.
Few’s Single Malt Whisky
As the name implies, the Illinois distillery produces a limited number of bottles in each style. Its single malt touts notes of caramel and coffee, as well as a unique taste derived from its cherrywood-smoked malted barley.
Stranahan’s Blue Peak
Stranahan’s is a great place to start a journey through American single malts. It lives up to the label that hypes itself as “rich and mellow.” The spirit uses the Solera process, more familiar to sherry and winemakers. The matured whiskey is put in oak foeders, which are never emptied, marrying it with younger whiskies.
Whiskey Del Bac’s Dorado
It’s a deep almost ruby color, yet it’s surprisingly smooth. The Dorado is a mesquite single malt. The unique malting method gives the whiskey a unique flavor, particularly in the aftertaste. In some ways, that smokey, malty flavor lingers a bit like Scotch, but it’s not overpowering. It’s a great example of how American single malt whiskies in the Southwest have started to forge distinctive profiles.
Bevridge’s American Single Malt Tasting Experience
This tasting kit comes with ten 50-milliliter tasting bottles from different distilleries, providing a hint at the breadth of American single malts available. The kit includes some of the big names in the style, including Balcones, Westland, and Westward. Balcones is a Texas distillery with a distinctly smoky aftertaste. Westland’s flagship is a complex single malt aged in a variety of barrels that include ex-bourbon barrels, oloroso sherry, and American oak. Notably, the kit also features a trio of Westward’s whiskies that are worth tracking down, including the much-loved Single Malt Stout Cask and the Single Malt Pinot Noir Cask.