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Your Guide to American Single Malt Whiskey

In "Spirit Guide," Wayne Curtis demystifies the ever-shifting spirits landscape one bottle at a time. This round: American single malt whiskey.

The first rule of American single malt whiskey is that there is no American single malt whiskey. At least not in the eyes of the federal government. At least not in those exact terms. And at least not yet.

But that’s on the cusp of changing, as American craft distillers continue rolling out whiskies made wholly from malted barley, some of which are turning the heads of those weaned on whiskies from Scotland and Ireland. American palates that have made room for bourbon and rye may now need to find room for a new distinctive spirit.

But single malt whiskey itself isn’t new. Scotch is typically made from malted barley, and Irish whiskey is distilled from a mix of malted and unmalted barley. A single malt means that it’s made entirely at one distillery—that is, it’s not a blend of distillates from several sources, as is the case with the more common blended whisky. Most bourbon and American rye also contains malted barley (typically about five to 10 percent).

However, the difference ten percent and 100 percent malted barley in the mash can be the difference between burlap and silk. Barley spirit often comes off as big, soft and round, and that may be why Irish whiskey has been one of the fastest growing spirit categories in America; it’s an easy, entry-level spirit.

American malt whiskey not only mimics popular styles from abroad, but is a revival of sorts. In the 19th century, “malt whiskey” could be found from New York to California, drunk by the thirsty and consumed by the ailing, since it was hawked as a cure for indigestion and “weak lungs.” (After the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, producers stopped making health claims and relied instead on suggestion. For instance: Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey advertised in 1913 that, “Barley is a very old grain. It was an important article of food in the primitive days when men were strong.”)

The current federal government definition of “malt whiskey” requires that it be made of at least 51 percent malted barley—other grains can comprise the rest. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is on the cusp of opening a public comment period to revisit its class and type definitions, and is inviting suggestions from the industry and consumers. The category of “American single malt” appears to be high on the list of contenders to be rewarded with a whole new category.

That’s in large part thanks to the formation last year of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission. This group of some 50 craft distilleries have joined as a unified voice in calling for a new definition. The group has asked that American single malt be defined as whiskey made entirely of malted barley, produced at a single American distillery at a still proof of no more than 160 proof and matured in oak barrels (no larger than 185 gallons). Note that it’s not calling for new oak barrels, which bourbon and rye require, as does the current federal definition of malt whiskey. The change would open the door for once-used bourbon barrels to be repurposed for American single malts.

What’s more, the growing number of producers making single malts in America has shed light on the use of regional malts to establish terroir for many of these spirits. Climate and soil vary from Virginia to Washington to Texas, and the products vary accordingly thanks to grain and weather. But among whiskey drinkers in general, the category is still a bit misunderstood and vague. With some clarity emerging with a new TTB definition, it’s poised to make a welcome move from the shadows to center stage, joining rye and bourbon in creating a new ruling triumvirate of American whiskey.

The Pioneer

Clear Creek McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt

Craft distilling pioneer Steve McCarthy, who started Clear Creek in Portland, Oregon, in 1985, was among the first to see the potential for a domestic single malt. He started distilling peated malt barley in the 1990s, aging it three years in casks made of Oregon oak. While the distillery was best known for its fruit distillate, including its justly celebrated pear eau de vie, the single malt, with its big, smoky phenol flavor, attracted a contingent of die-hard fans.

McCarthy sold his distillery to regional stalwart Hood River Distillers in 2014, but as of yet there’s no indication that the current owners have veered far from McCarthy’s initial mission. The peated malt is imported from Scotland, then mashed at Widmer Brewing. It’s then shipped to Clear Creek for distillation and aging.

This is a big, sophisticated, peaty single malt with a touch of Laphroaig-like smoked rubber that can make it a challenge for the uninitiated. Expect a dense, smoky entry, followed by a bright burst of grain on the mid-palate and a clean and fairly rapid finish.

  • Price: $50
  • ABV: 42.5 percent

The Aristocrat

Hillrock Estate Single Malt Whiskey

Hillrock started distilling whiskey in 2011 under the guidance of master distiller Dave Pickerell—formerly of Maker’s Mark, and currently consultant to dozens of craft distillers. Hillrock got a lot of press for its “solera” bourbon, but it was also early to fully embrace the grain-to-glass ethos with its malted whiskey. The distillery is located on the grounds of an 1806 farm two hours north of New York City, where the barley goes from seed through harvest—malting, mashing and distillation on a pot still. The estate’s stream water is even used in production.

The distillery is currently offering a mildly smoked, 100 percent single malt finished in oloroso and Pedro Ximénez barrels. One might expect a big Scotch-like hit from the sherry casks, but the taste profile skews more toward bourbon, with a front-loaded entry that’s assertive with notes of caramel and creamed corn, plus a slight graininess on the mid-palate, with a brisk and lean finish. Hillrock’s single malt makes a good crossover whiskey for those looking to explore their way out of bourbon jungle and into the light of a newly emerging category.

  • Price: $100
  • ABV: 48.2 percent

The Renegade

Balcones "1" Texas Single Malt

This Texas-made whisky—and, yes, they’ve opted for the Scottish/Canadian spelling—is less a product of the foggy moors than of the parched, mesquite-covered hills of central Texas. It was initially crafted by since-departed founder Chip Tate, and has fairly seamlessly transitioned to being made by head distiller Jared Himstedt.

It’s a distinctive whisky, and could reasonably be suspected of being the love child of Scotch and bourbon. It’s a 100 percent malted barley product, and goes through a somewhat elaborate wood-aging process. Because the dry, Lone Star heat steps up evaporation and interactions between oak and spirit, the distillery blends from various barrels ranging from larger, longer-aged casks to smaller barrels that all but flash-age in the heat. (As a result, there’s no age statement.) So you get some of the quality of each—the big estery notes of a matured spirit, along with the a slightly bready mid-palate punch of its younger cousin. It’s non-chill filtered, which allows layered flavors to come out, but also means a bit of haze.

  • Price: $90
  • ABV: 53 percent

The Party Crasher

Stark Spirits Peated Single Malt

A little old whiskey from Pasadena? Well, why not? Southern California’s first peated single malt is from the husband-wife team, Greg Stark and Karen Robinson-Stark, who opened their tea pot-sized distillery in an industrial park not far from the Rose Bowl in 2014. They launched with an orange brandy and a silver rum, both of which generated cash while they chased a longer-term goals of aging single malts. (They also produce a non-peated variation.)

The peated barley malt is imported from Scotland then mashed and distilled in a 1,000-liter Hoga pot still. They’ve been tweaking the aging protocol as they go, using 15-, 30- and 53-gallon oak casks and engineering various blends to capture both the ballast of the charred oak and the brashness of younger spirit. The dram I sampled at the American Distilling Institute judging this year was full and peaty, which nicely tempered some of the grassy, grainy notes. It’s an impressive debut, and a handy reminder that innovation and quality can come from small, new distilleries chasing after old ideas.

  • Price: $60
  • ABV: 46 percent

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