Call them American originals, flattering imitators or spunky, funky derivatives. Call them smart business choices or unique expressions of region and craft; call them intensely smoky, delicately aromatic, honeyed and heavenly.
When you’re talking about American single malt whiskeys, any of those descriptors might be true — sometimes several at once.
Just don’t call them Scotch.
Depending on which domestic single malt you try, that might be a hard habit to break. You may find the nose and taste summoning the word “Scotch,” unbidden, to your tongue.
If so, bite it: Legally, “Scotch” is made only in Scotland. But the malt whisky the Scots are particularly known for can be made anywhere. So before we ride out, spurs a-jangling, into the American single malt frontier, we should do a little vocab work to make sure we stay on the horse.
To Americans, “whiskey” tends to mean bourbon and, with its recent resurgence, rye. But to the rest of the world, “whisky” (which goes gadding about without an “e,” for reasons I don’t have the word count to get into) means malt whiskey.
“Outside of Canada, the U.S. and Ireland, the only thing anyone makes anywhere — with tiny little exceptions — is Scotch-style whisky, using malt,” says Clay Risen, author of a book on American whiskey and contributor to the recently released book “The New Single Malt Whiskey.” India, Japan, Taiwan, Scandinavia, France: By and large, Risen says, if they’re making whisky, they’re making it not with corn or rye but with malted barley, Scotch style, “because that’s what whisky is” to them.
Scotch whisky is defined hugely (though not wholly) by malt whiskey, made by steeping barley grains in water until they germinate and their starches turn to sugar. Then germination is arrested as the grains are dried by fires (some producers add peat to the fire, adding that smoky nose many think of as characteristic of Scotch), then fermented, distilled and aged.
Globally, the most popular Scotches by sales volume are blended Scotch whiskies, brands such as Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s and the like, which combine pure malt whiskies with whiskies made from other grains. These typically contain whiskies from multiple distilleries, brought together into a single expression.
Single malt Scotch, by comparison, must be 100 percent malted barley, and its “single”ness is based on one thing: the distillery. If you’re drinking a single malt, everything in the bottle came from that distillery.
Some will argue that single malts are inherently better than blends, but you should side-eye such claims. Single malts are different. Blends are made of whiskeys selected for balance and compatibility by a savvy blender; the juices inside those bottles have been chosen to work with each other, and many are terrific.
A single malt, by comparison, will express the particulars of its distillery: the local water, the specific grain, the malting, aging and blending. You may hate a typical smoky single malt from Islay and like a richer or sweeter Speyside, but adore a blend that contains whiskies from both. If blended Scotch is the whisky of Scotland, Scottish single malts are the whiskies of particular Scottish hillsides, particular streams, the particular way the salt wind blows off the ocean into the weather-beaten rickhouse on that particular patch of rocky coastline.
Ready to get back on the American horse?
So popular in other countries, malt whiskey took a while to break here. While a handful of early birds like St. George’s Spirits and Clear Creek have been making it for a few decades, for the most part, “when the craft distilling movement started in the U.S., no one was saying, ‘The first thing I want to make is a single malt,’ ” Risen says. “They said, ‘I want to make bourbon’ or ‘I want to make rye.’ ” Distillers wanted to revive the classic American traditions those spirits represented. But, Risen says, as the industry expanded and more and more craft bourbons and ryes hit the shelves, it became harder to stand out.
There was skepticism, too, that craft distillers could survive in a field dominated by “the big guys,” says Rob Dietrich, master distiller at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. The “big guys” in American whiskey are all bourbon; with single malt, Stranahan’s and other craft distillers saw the possibility of carving out a niche.
Now single malts are popping up coast to coast. And some are real beauts. In 2012, the feisty single malt that distiller Chip Tate was making at Balcones Distilling in Texas (he has since parted ways with Balcones to start Tate & Co. Distillery) won “Best in Glass” in a U.K. whisky competition, going head to head against entries from such homegrown stalwarts as Glenmorangie and Johnnie Walker. I’ve also tasted delicious and varied domestic single malts from St. George’s, Westland, Corsair and Stranahan’s. And I’ve barely scratched the surface.
The way single malts express geography — whether in the snowmelt water of the Rockies that Dietrich says contributes to the flavor of Stranahan’s, the unusual species of Pacific Northwest oak that Westland uses for aging its delicious Garryana, the intense summer heat that speeds and complicates the aging of Tate’s in Texas — is certainly part of the interest. But “we’re not doing this for the sake of being local; we’re doing it because what’s available locally can make world-class whiskey,” says Matt Hofmann, master distiller at Westland.
Experts in Scotch can identify by taste which single malt came from which region in Scotland. It’s a bit too early for that here: “There are a number of distillers you could point to and say their malt is heavily influenced by where they are,” says Tate. “But regional styles? That suggests you could find three to four other producers that are making something similar, and I don’t think that’s true.” With a field that’s still fairly small and distillers taking approaches ranging from fairly traditional to far from it, American single malts are still more distinguishable by their distillers’ craft than by region.
And American distillers love to tinker with tradition. St. George’s uses different levels of roasting for its barleys, roasting over beech and alder instead of peat. Westland uses different barley varietals to bring out different layers of flavor.
“We want to take the best of the Old World and combine it with the best of the New,” says Gareth Moore, chairman chief executive of Virginia Distillery in Lovingston, Va.,, which put up its first casks of single malt in November 2015 and is now playing the long waiting game for it to age and be ready for bottling.
The varied techniques result in a diverse field of domestic single malts, some produced in ways that would make Scotch purists turn as gray as haggis. But “just because it hasn’t been done for 700 years doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing it for the betterment of American whiskey,” says Hofmann.
What distillers should and shouldn’t do in the process of making a particular spirit is always a matter of debate. Centuries of tradition and Scottish regulations govern what a Scottish single malt can be, but here in the States, single malts don’t yet have their own legal standard of identity. Many distillers would like to see that change, and they have formed the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission to advance standards they say any American spirit calling itself a single malt should meet.
Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George’s, says it’s too early for that. American single malt is still in its infancy, he notes, and more regulation might stifle the creativity that would help the category grow. Instead of petitioning for definitions, he says, he’d like the industry to fight for more transparency, so a bottle’s labeling always makes it clear to consumers exactly what they’re buying in terms of age, contents, etc.
Right now, Risen says, our single malt style “is that there is no style. That’s kind of the American brand: Anything goes.”
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.