America’s native spirits industry would be nothing without the Prohibition. As ironic as that statement is, the ban on all things alcoholic in America from 1920 to 1933 became a transformative force that gave rise to the umbrella of American whiskey — namely bourbon and rye — as well as modern cocktail culture. There is, however, a lesser-known seedling from the same era that is starting to gain roots, not just within its home ground but across the world: a bud known as American single malt whiskey.
Christian Krogstad, the founder of Portland distillery Westward Whiskey, makes the claim that it is the Prohibition that engineered the growth of American single malts. The alcoholic drought caused larger distilleries to hone in on bourbon and rye production in order to meet public tastes, discarding experimentation in its wake. The bottleneck on innovative distillation broke in the 1980s when craft producers decided that the duo would no longer suffice to blanket America’s whiskey industry as a whole. The country deserved a product that could stand shoulder to shoulder with single malt expressions produced by giants in Scotland, Ireland and Japan. So, shirking corn and rye for malted barley, these small-batch distillers began to carve a single malt niche of their own.
It took two decades for the word of American single malt to trickle into the boozy stratosphere, primarily because the industry was far too small leading up to the middle of the new millennium. Craft beer was the national obsession, and became an unlikely gateway for American single malt to burgeon. Krogstad, along with many other brewers, decided to turn their beers into whiskies, and now, the American single malt whiskey industry has grown to over 120 distilleries across the continent.
What is American single malt?
The rise of American single malt has the potential to be meteoric, especially in a world that loves whisky, and with the industry ready to court that love too. Like every love story, there must be an inevitable obstacle to surmount, and in the case of American single malt and its drinkers, that problem is identity.
What is American single malt whiskey, and how does it distinguish itself from its international (and some would argue, more established) industrial peers? The answer is imperative if American single malt has any chance of going global, especially since distillers are trying to break into European and Asian shelves as we speak.
Unlike the caramel sweetness of bourbon or the spicier character of rye, American single malt is as much of a flavourful mixed bag as the country it hails from. Still, Krogstad shares that there are some unifying qualities of an American single malt: “In addition to a mash bill of 100 per cent malted barley, American single malt whiskey must be mashed, distilled and matured in the United States. The product must be distilled in one distillery and matured in oak barrels.”
Krogstad also shares that the definition is not yet legally mandated, but the requirements are enforced by the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, a body pushing to turn those guidelines into whiskey-making law.
What makes American single malt different?
Most American single malt distilleries also drive to highlight the connection between terroir and the eventual spirit each creates. This branding is markedly different from that in Scotland or Japan, both of which tend towards linking the finesse of the final expression with unique production, blending or maturation methods.
Westward Whiskey, for instance, has an American pale ale made entirely from locally-sourced two-role barley as its base, which is then fermented with American pale ale yeast. It is then aged in new oak barrels for five years, with Portland’s drier summers and humid winters contributing to the intensity of oak and spice discernable in the single malt.
Another distillery, Copperworks, named America’s best in 2018, makes its small-batch releases from regional grains, which it attributes to the success of its deliciously rich single malts. Oregon’s Clear Creek Distillery, which is widely known as the pioneer of American single malts, uses local wood to make the barrels that age its whiskey. The eventual liquor is then imbued with a green smokiness that is unfounded beyond Portland’s single malts.
The fact that most distillers who make whiskey have their origins in craft beer brewing also imprints itself on American single malt they make as if these whiskies are the natural evolution of familiar beer profiles specific to an area.
“Climate creates differences, but the brewing provenance of the region comes through [in the whiskey] as well. In the Pacific Northwest, we are used to rich, malty and flavourful beers, and so it is with the whiskey that we make,” he explains. “When it comes to consumers, I just draw a parallel between the innovation happening with beers to the one happening with spirits, and it isn’t too great of an intellectual leap.”
To Krogstad, the beauty of American single malt whiskey, overall, and what makes it its own category is the fact that it simply resists uniformity. Definitions are left deliberately malleable, unlike that of other national whiskies, or even bourbon and rye.
“We’ve intentionally left a lot of room for innovation so people can continue experimenting and introducing interesting new American single malts as the category continues to grow,” he said — a telling statement that applies not just whiskey, but America, as a whole.