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American whiskey: ‘Possibilities for flavour are endless’

The popularity of American whiskey has soared in recent years, but now producers are moving the category on by experimenting with unusual grains and finishes. Bryce T Bauer finds out about distillers’ radical approaches to innovation.

*This feature was originally published in the January 2018 issue of The Spirits Business

For the past decade, the resurgence of American whiskey has been driven by the traditional categories of Bourbon and, on a much smaller scale, rye.

But as the boom matures into its teens, distillers have pushed against American whiskey’s staid reputation, moving into a deeper exploration of what grain and wood can do – innovations born from the realisation that American whiskey can be a whole lot more than a principally corn or rye spirit dominated by charred-­oak flavours. “Years ago it dawned on me that just because our distillery is in Kentucky and makes Bourbon whiskey, who says it has to be a Bourbon distillery?” says Chris Morris, Woodford Reserve’s master distiller. “We can do whatever we want because we have different types of whiskeys that have been approved by the federal government – rye, wheat, etc – whereas Scotch and Irish don’t. There, you’re making a Scotch whisky or Irish whiskey of some type; but we can make a lot of different types of whiskey.”

Since launching Woodford Reserve’s Master’s Collection and Distillery Series, Morris has made whiskey from, among other things, sweet mash and wheat malt, and finished in ex­Chardonnay and exPinot Noir casks, and barrels made from apple wood. Currently, however, one of the most exciting innovations in American whiskey is one that takes inspiration from, paradoxically, the old world.


“We always like to show this big map of the United States when we talk to people and show them how far away we live from Kentucky and the southern states where Bourbon is made. We say ‘the distance from here to where corn is king is the same distance as Scotland is from Istanbul’,” says Steve Hawley, director of marketing at Seattle’s Westland Distillery. “We live in one of the best barley-­growing regions in the world. It makes perfect sense for us to pursue malt whiskey here, not Bourbon.” Since opening in 2010, Westland, which was bought by French drinks group Rémy Cointreau in December 2016, produces a style that its supporters hope will be the newest type of whiskey in the US: American single malt.

Though a little malt whiskey was made in America a century ago – including the Marrow Malt brand, produced by Woodford Reserve’s parent company, Brown-­Forman – after Prohibition, distillers simplified their offerings, and focused almost exclusively on Bourbon. Now, several dozen distilleries are producing malt whiskey in America, including almost 80 that have pledged to support the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, which is seeking to establish an official American single malt standard of identity and give the spirit the same recognition in federal regulations as Bourbon and rye (currently, American single malts are typically released under the generic ‘whiskey’ designation).

Jared Himstedt, Balcones


The commission submitted a formal petition to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau at the end of 2017 to begin the formal rules-­changing process. In drafting the regulation, the commission incorporated many of the standards used by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) for single malt Scotch – notably that American single malt whiskey must be made from 100% malted barley at a single distillery – while trying to leave enough leeway to incorporate the innovation that has already emerged from producers.

“We wanted to keep it strict enough so that the definition actually meant something, but we also wanted it to be loose enough to give people the ability to innovate within it,” Hawley says. “What is great about the promise of single malts in America is the opportunity for regional styles to emerge.”

American single malt whiskey producers are also exploring the concept of regionality through smoky flavours. The cool, wet climate of the Pacific Northwest means Westland has access to an abundance of local peat. Though the peated malt it currently uses comes from Scotland, Hawley said the distillery hopes to release a whiskey made with peat from the Skagit Valley in a year or so. “Even within Scotland, the characteristics of peat are different depending on the region it is harvested from,” Hawley adds. “The Highlands of Scotland, where we source our malt for our core range peated whiskey, is very floral and heather-­like, whereas the peat from Islay is much earthier and rooty. It is all about the composition of the land. What we are harvesting is going to be completely different from those, because it is a different terroir.”

At the Corsair Distillery, which has facilities in Tennessee and Kentucky, the composition of that local peat meant that distiller Darek Bell had to rethink his strategy when he set out to make a peated American single malt whiskey. “It was nasty,” he said of his initial foray into whiskey made with barley smoked with Tennessee peat. For Bell, the peat was very sulphury and generated a lot of creosote and off­-flavours, such as burnt rubber.

“We’re at the wrong latitude. It is really hot here,” he says. “So my dreams for the Tennessee peat whiskey were kind of destroyed.” But instead of giving up, he turned his attention to the south’s tradition of barbecue and meats smoked with different woods, and decided to incorporate that tradition into his whiskeys. After experimenting with nearly 80 types of wood, and swapping a tiny smoker in his garage for a shipping­-container smoker, he now regularly releases spirits made with smoked woods such as cherry and apple, pecan, hickory, black walnut, and beechwood. “We found that different smokes affect different parts of the spirit,” says Bell.

Experiments at Corsair


One hallmark of America’s single malt producers is the different styles of malt they source from around the world. However, America’s innovative distillers are also exploring their craft by taking an even more fundamental look at the type of grains they use. Some of this is seen in experiments with grains that have no history in American whiskey, such as Corsair’s quinoa and amaranth-­based whiskeys. But like the vanguard farmers and chefs at the start of the farm-­to­-table movement, many distillers are also seeking out older and alternative varieties of standby grains that have been cast aside by commodity agriculture, in the hope that they can find in them different and deeper flavours.

At Westland, the distillery has been working with the Washington State University Bread Lab, a grain-­breeding laboratory, as well as local farmers and a local malting facility, to explore different varieties of barley beyond those typically used for malt whiskey. “We’re just starting to taste the new varietals that we’ve put into casks two years ago,” Hawley confirms. Given that the researchers are working with thousands of different varietals, “the possibilities for flavour are endless”, he says. Farther along in the exploration of grain is the Waco, Texas-­based Balcones distillery. There, head distiller Jared Himstedt has made several expressions of whiskey from blue corn. But as Balcones expanded, the team quickly ran into a key challenge shared by other experimental distillers – finding adequate supplies. Originally, Balcones bought its blue corn from the Hopi of New Mexico, but the distillery’s demands quickly exhausted the Hopi’s supply and the team had to seek out farmers who could grow it for them.

In the lab at Westland


The distillery is also planning to release a single malt made with a locally-­grown barley bred to withstand Texas’s hot and dry climate – an initiative that was hampered when much of the state’s crop rotted over a couple of cool and wet years. In the end, distillers say, as interesting as grain experiments can be, if there’s not enough out there to make a sufficient batch to bring to market, they can end up being mostly still­-house education. “We’ve learned a lot on the bench top, but with the production quantity we are looking for, some of those really neat strains of grain, if they are hard to get a lot of, or they are hard to get a lot of in high enough quality, then we take them off the table. It is just not something that we are going to be able to process,” Woodford Reserve’s Morris says.

While many of the trends in American whiskey focus on what goes into the spirit before it comes off the still, innovation hasn’t left barrels behind. In fact, for both Westland and Balcones, barrels present yet another avenue to explore terroir and regionality. Both distilleries have augmented their range of traditional barrels with ones made from regional species of oak trees.

At Westland, that means a species known as Quercus garryana, or Garry oak, while Balcones has used barrels made from the Texas live oak, or Quercus fusiformis.

“It is just darker. If white American oak is caramel, you know, Garry oak is molasses,” Hawley says of the wood, which has made an appearance in the distillery’s limited­-edition Garryana releases.

At Balcones, Himstedt reports that similar qualities come from the Texas live oak. “The stuff is almost opaque after a year. It is almost blueish-­black. I see that a lot in French oak too, but the tannin and astringency that we’d get in a French oak wasn’t there,” he says. However, he cautions that his data is limited – so far, they’ve had only three barrels made.

Trying different woods requires as much experimentation and learning as developing a new mash bill, says Morris, who has been innovating with barrel­-finishes for over a decade. “You find in this great world of whiskey of ours that there have been a lot of finishes out there, some of which American consumers have never heard of,” he claims. “You still have to do a lot of trial and error and learning and experimentation with finishes to maximise the flavour profile, and that means you get a whole lot of finish barrels that never see the light of day.”

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