What’s Singular About American Single Malt?

A tasting of more than 20 expressions revealed that as the category expands, it's ever harder to define.

“What exactly are we looking for?”

That was the question on everyone’s mind as we sat down to sample 25 expressions of American single malt, a onetime curiosity that has since evolved into a booming category in the craft whiskey movement. For this tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s editorial staff, contributing editor Robert Simonson and Grand Army bartender Jon Mullen.

That none of us could agree on an answer to this question reflects the biggest challenge to the burgeoning category, which, despite rapid growth in recent years, still lacks a clear identity. Its siblings, bourbon and rye, both possess their own distinct profiles—oak-heavy caramel and vanilla on the former, baking spice notes on the latter—and single malt Scotch is likewise characterized by regional profiles. But not only does American single malt lack a benchmark flavor profile, it lacks a categorical definition altogether.

The result is an expanding, self-labeled category of whiskey bound by no real rules or regulations, with expressions as varied in production method as they are in flavor profile. Even with the formation of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission in 2016, a “response to the growing need for American-based producers to define the category,” according to the group’s website, there is still plenty of confusion among distillers and drinkers alike, and a large number of producers who are content to operate outside the commission.

As a result, a great number of the self-described American single malts would fail to qualify for that designation in Scotland. There, strict regulations require that the spirit be made from 100 percent malted barley, pot-distilled at a single distillery, and the liquid aged for at least three years. (This closely mirrors what the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission proposed as the American definition, with the exception of the aging minimum, which is omitted entirely.) By these standards, some of the most widely available American single malts would hardly classify as such. High Country American Single Malt, a newly released product from Utah’s High West Distillery, for example, is made from a blend of whiskeys produced at two distinct distilleries (though both are operated by the same owner).

With no real benchmark to look to, the panel of tasters gravitated toward expressions that managed to put a uniquely American stamp on the category, that is, those that attempted something other than carbon-copied Scotch whisky. Often this meant exhibiting a specific regionality by using local oak or grains, like at Hillrock Estate Distillery, where barley is grown and malted on the grounds of their Hudson Valley facility. Examples like these underscore that the best path forward for American single malt might be to showcase local terroir. Who knows, one day Washington single malt might be as recognizable and distinguished as Islay single malt, or Texas upheld as the new Speyside.

Below are our top four picks from more than two dozen American single malt whiskeys.

 

Westland Peated

While the vast majority of what we tasted was unpeated, this Seattle-based distillery adds just a hint of peated malt to their formula. It’s enough to give this whiskey an earthy, campfire character without veering toward the overwhelming smoke and iodine notes of Islay Scotch. The use of Belgian beer yeast likewise adds intriguing banana and spiced aromas (think: cloves) to a single malt that every taster agreed had a ton of character. After having already tasted 10 lackluster examples, one taster noted, “This is the first one that could actually convince me it’s Scotch.”

  • Price: $76
  • From: Seattle, Washington
  • ABV: 46 percent

Westland Garryana

When our winners were revealed, few were surprised to see Westland with two claims to the throne—the distillery has garnered dozens of accolades for its single malt since opening 10 years ago, enough to get the attention of Remy Cointreau, which acquired them in 2016. Garryana is an ongoing project Westland started in 2011—we tasted 2019’s “edition 4|1”—which attempts to showcase how the Pacific Northwest’s Quercus garryana oak contributes to a single malt’s flavor profile (more-traditional rye, bourbon and Pedro Ximénez sherry casks are used as well). Many tasters thought this was an archetypal Scotch: rich and robust, chocolatey and backed by dark fruits, with one person comparing it to classic Macallan.

  • Price: $164
  • From: Seattle, Washington
  • ABV: 50 percent

St. George Baller

This Japanese whisky interpretation by way of California, designed for highballs—hence the name—is perhaps America’s most unique single malt. After aging in bourbon and French oak wine casks, Baller is finished in casks that held St. George’s own umeshu (Japanese-style plum liqueur), giving it an intense dark fruit aroma. The palate adds more fruit, cherries and raisins, and a sweet maltiness with just a hint of balancing smoke, in this immensely drinkable whisky.

  • Price: $94
  • From: Alameda, California
  • ABV: 47 percent

Balcones Texas Single Malt Whisky

This Waco-made take on single malt was quickly identified by some tasters, who were already familiar with the 12-year-old brand (est. 2008), which has been making single malt since 2010. Nevertheless, some thought this bottling was distilled from corn as it tasted almost bourbon-like. The aroma was intensely candied, with sweet notes of orange, honey and especially caramel, while the palate is more restrained, with notes of orange marmalade on toast, brown sugar and, yes, even candy corn.

  • Price: $71
  • From: Waco, Texas
  • ABV: 53 percent

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