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The Rebirth of Truly Local American Craft Whiskey

Until recently, American distillers had largely forgotten the art of malting their own local and heritage grains. Kara Newman on the rebirth of proprietary malting floors and how it's changing the character of American craft whiskey.

Straggling along behind a tour group at Hillrock Estate Distillery in Upstate New York, I couldn’t help but linger in the malt house. Sunlight streamed in through the broad glass panes releasing an earthy scent from the grains raked across the floor like a giant sandbox. I squatted at the edge of the floor, and scooped up a small handful of warm barley. Surreptitiously, I popped a few grains into my mouth, before letting the rest run through my fingers back onto the malting floor.

Until recently, this was an experience few Americans might have so close to home. But a growing number of U.S. craft distillers are taking one more step toward closing the gap between a spirit and its raw material, and are setting up malting floors—literally, floors upon which grain is spread to germinate before it’s turned into whiskey or other spirits.

A century and more ago, legions of European immigrants brought distilling traditions with them to America, and set up floors or entire structures (malt houses) dedicated to sprouting, drying and roasting grain. But these distilleries were shut down during Prohibition, and many never opened again. Meanwhile, maltsters survived the dry years malting and roasting grains for tea, bread and products like mixes for malted milk. Post-repeal, dedicated malt houses resumed providing grain for breweries and distilleries to ferment, but individual malting floors situated within U.S. distilleries had all but disappeared into obscurity until the craft beer boom reignited a local malting revolution.

In general, distilleries have lagged behind in this more recent revival, continuing to purchase malted grains from big malt houses or from breweries. But an increasing number of craft distilleries, like Hillrock, are rediscovering the beauty of malting, and how controlling the process impacts the flavor of the spirit. In fact, the U.S. is now home to eight malting floors, compared to Scotland’s seven, and the character of our whiskies—and the way in which they speak of where they’ve been made—will soon reflect that.

Malting floor advocates want the process to be viewed as an extension of agricultural endeavors. While the big malting houses are about consistency, in-house malting—which not only allows for grain selection, but precision in roasting—is about adding more of a sense of place to the spirit by preserving the subtle flavors of local and heritage grains.

The first American distillery to establish its own malting floor was Virginia’s Copper Fox Distillery, which opened in 2000. After studying whiskey-making at Bowmore, founder Rick Wasmund returned to Sperryville hoping to replicate a Scotch whisky, but using American materials, including locally-grown grain malted on site. (In spring 2015, Wasmund will open a second distillery and malting floor in Williamsburg, Virginia).

Add to that list Coppersea Distilling (NY), Corsair Distillery (TN), Hillrock (NY), Leopold Brothers (CO), Maine Craft Distilling (ME), Orange County Distillery (NY) and Rogue Spirits (OR). Half of these were set up within the last two years, and two years from now, the list is sure to be longer still.

Like every distillery, each malting floor has its own personality. Well-funded Hillrock has the Cadillac of malting floors; grain germinates on polished wooden planks beneath stately glass-paned French doors. At scrappy, geeky Coppersea, the concrete malting floor looks like a suburban garage, but the malt is turned with a custom-made malting rake that replicates a 19th-century design. And at Copper Fox, wooden signs point the way to Scotland, an inside joke for distillery visitors.

But malted grain has always been easy to buy, so why bother with a malting floor?

The answer amongst craft distillers is largely the same: Because we wanted to see if we could; because we want more control; and because it makes our whiskey unique. “Malt floors foster idiosyncrasy in whiskey-making,” explains Christopher Williams, Coppersea’s Distillery Manager. “You can’t have a whiskey that tastes like mine anywhere else.”

Coppersea is one of the few distilleries working with green malt, a highly perishable variety—instead of the commonly used dried malt—to make their aged and unaged Green Malt Rye. This choice alone is a compelling reason to have a malting floor. The aged version has surprising, lively banana and fresh pear notes not seen in traditional whiskies—an interesting way to highlight Hudson Valley grain in a rye-forward expression.

Meanwhile, at Maine Craft Distilling in Portland, Maine, head distiller Luke Davidson says a malting floor is about terroir: “The wild yeast and local bacteria will definitely impart a regional character.”

Noting that Maine has a climate similar to blustery Scotland, Davidson created a Scotch-inspired single-malt whiskey called Fifty Stone, made with local barley (50 stones of barley makes one barrel, hence the name) and smoked with Maine peat. As much as possible, Maine Craft uses grain malted on site; Davidson says he notices a difference when he runs out and needs to bring in grain from a commercial maltster.

“There’s a sharpness and lack of roundness” in the finished whiskey made from outside malt, he notes, while his own malt yields a whiskey with “more buttery tones and sweetness.”

Malting floor advocates want the process to be viewed as an extension of agricultural endeavors. While the big malting houses are about consistency, in-house malting—which not only allows for grain selection, but precision in roasting—is about adding more of a sense of place to the spirit by preserving the subtle flavors of local and heritage grains. Coppersea, for example, gives their Hudson Valley barley just the barest amount of toast, below that of the lightest commercial malt-house setting for pale IPAs.

“What’s so exciting [about] the notion of craft is that it’s regional,” says Davidson. “The large facilities and production [have] wiped out some of the regional flavors. If you go to Europe, they’re so proud of their Cognac and Armagnac, the regional flavors. The cheese is the same way—[it utilizes] local flora.” Although Davidson didn’t say it outright, I got the sense he wouldn’t mind seeing a Maine AOC slapped on bottles of Fifty Stone.

The newest malter on the block is Corsair, launching a malting and smoking facility in Bells Bend, Tennessee in December 2014. As one of the larger facilities, with the capacity to malt 1500-pound batches each week, the output is destined for Corsair’s brewing and distilling operations. They’ll sell to the local brewing community too.

While the ethos driving many of these craft distilleries to invest in their own malting floors is about innovation and experimentation, it’s also about longevity. Scotland’s venerable distilleries may have the advantage of time, but unlike Scotland, U.S. craft distillers don’t have the draconian regulations of Scotch whisky-making to contend with—meaning innovation is on our side.

“All of the distilleries that have started malting really have an eye toward the myth-making of that distillery,” says Coppersea’s Williams. “They want the gravitas of a Bowmore or a Laphroaig—those legendary distilleries. They want to be here in 100 years.”