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American whiskey: do single malts need regulating?

As American whiskey producers experiment with single malts, there are calls to define rules and regulations about how they should be made. But some distillers are dissenting, believing it too early to straightjacket the category.

St George Spirits (photo courtesy: Laurel Dailey)

The American whiskey category has grown at such a rate that distillers have struggled to keep up with demand. Fuelled by the Mad Men effect, every American whiskey style, from Bourbon to rye, has seen consumer interest soar – and now it looks as though American single malts are about to have their day too.

Single malts have long been synonymous with Scotch whisky – a style that’s tightly regulated. A Scotch single malt must be created at a single distillery from water and malted barley, without any additional cereals, distilled in batches in copper pot stills, and bottled in Scotland. Omit any of these steps, and the finished product is no longer a single malt Scotch.

But the rules are more lax in the US, so much so that the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission (ASMWC) was set up in 2016 in an effort to “establish, promote and protect” the American single malt whiskey category. The commission comprises more than 120 members, who are working to secure a formal definition of the burgeoning whiskey style.

The definition would read: “American Single Malt Whisk(e)y distilled entirely at one United States distillery, mashed, distilled and matured in the United States of America, distilled to a proof not exceeding 160° proof from fermented mash of 100% malted barley and stored in oak containers not exceeding 700 litres, and bottled at no less than 80° proof.”

Paul Hletko, founder of Few Spirits, and a founding member of the ASMWC, says: “Most American distillers, and Scotch too, of course, strive for the best whiskey possible, but there are always profiteers that seek to confuse the public. Unfortunately, this means there needs to be standards for what products can be called. The members of the ASMWC, including Few Spirits, strive to maintain a clean and clear definition of what American single malt whiskey is so the consumer can be comfortable in their purchases. That does not mean a producer cannot make whatever product they want to make; it simply affects what that product can be called.”

Safeguarding the category

Another producer that has been involved with the commission “since the very first meeting” is Texas-based Balcones. For head distiller Jared Himstedt, a definition outlining the specific qualities that constitute an American single malt whiskey would safeguard the category from similar struggles experienced by the emergence of barrel-aged gin. He explains that producers have been forbidden from using this term because it wasn’t a legally-defined category.

“We didn’t want to get into the same trap because, currently, American single malt isn’t a recognised category,” explains Himstedt. “It’s really about getting ahead before someone else defines it before us, or says ‘you have to stop using that term’. We think we’ve come up with a definition as a big collective effort, and we think it covers all the terms. Let’s make sure nobody wakes up tomorrow and finds out they can’t make whiskey the way they were.”

Balcones is frequently experimenting with different whiskey styles

But not everyone is as eager to attach a legal definition to American single malts. Lance Winters, master distiller at St George Spirits, believes it is too soon to try to define what an American single malt should, or could, be.

“American single malt is far too young a category to be putting hard and fast rules on how it’s made,” he says. “The tradition in this country is to take traditions from other countries then tweak them into something new. Americans are rule breakers, and we need to break some rules for a while longer before we carve into stone what an American single malt has to be by law. Can you tell I’m not in favour?” Whichever side of the fence you sit, however, there’s no denying the burgeoning popularity of this American whiskey sub-category. As the number of ‘craft’ distillers in the US has grown, Winters believes this, combined with a much more educated audience, has created further excitement among consumers as the variety of single malts coming to market diversifies.

“The consumer base has a much more educated palate now than it did two decades ago, and with that more educated palate comes a demand for more interesting flavours,” he adds.

As demand grows, distillers have become more experimental. Steve Hawley, marketing director at Westland Distillery, believes the sub-category offers a “huge opportunity for American whiskey to be known for more than just Bourbon”. But he’s careful to ensure Westland doesn’t innovate just for the

sake of it. The distillery’s three core American single malt whiskeys have been created to emulate a particular house style – “a balanced, grain-forward whiskey that honours tradition but also moves it forward in a new way”. Each whiskey is made using 100% malted barley, which is fermented with a “unique” Belgian saison brewer’s yeast, and matured in a variety of cask types.

Hawley describes Westland Peated as the “truest to tradition” out of the three. But he explains that while many peated expressions use 100% peated malt, Westland opts to also introduce unpeated malts, which actually make up the majority the whiskey’s malt content. “The use of our innovative five-malt spirit in each bottling brings a balance of malt notes to the peat that reflects local creative culture,” he says.

Westland Distillery, believes the single malt sub-category offers a “huge opportunity for American whiskey”

Incredibly vibrant

The brand’s Sherry Wood variant is matured in Sherry casks “shipped whole, which is unusual in the business of whiskey”, says Hawley. “This provides a Sherry character that is still incredibly vibrant in this whiskey, but we always ensure the barley notes have an equal voice, something that is rarely done in Scotland.”

The brand’s “greatest departure from Scottish whisky-making tradition”, however, is its Westland American Oak expression. The distillery pours its five-malt grain bill into new American oak casks, “two things practically unheard of in the Old World”, says Hawley. “Just as traditional styles of single malt from Scotland emerged as a reflection of regions such as Islay and Speyside, so too our American Oak stays true to the provenance of our Pacific Northwest home,” he adds.

Thomas Mooney, CEO and co-owner of Westward Whiskey, is also keen for the American single malt category to differentiate itself from its Scottish counterpart. For the sub-sector to continue to flourish, he says producers must emphasise their provenance. Those who try to emulate characteristics found in more established whisky regions, such as Scotland and Japan, will be the ones to struggle, he predicts.

“Scotch already creates a great version of Scotch,” Mooney says. “Scotch doesn’t need someone in the US trying to be Scotch. Consumers don’t need anyone trying to be something they’re not. There are plenty of brands being themselves, being creative, and if that continues, we’re in for many years of a good run – it’s becoming a legitimate category.”

Jared Himstedt, co-founder and head distiller at Balcones

On a pedestal

However, it is difficult to avoid drawing comparisons between American and Scotch single malts, the latter being globally revered. But with that has come an imbalance between how consumers perceive Scotch blends compared to single malts. Somewhere along the way, single malts have been put on a pedestal, viewed as superior to their blended cousins. Scotch producers are working hard to overturn this opinion, and prove that both whisky styles are of equal quality, mixability and affordability. As intrigue in American single malts grows, does the category risk treading the same path?

Balcones’ Himstedt is not concerned about such “snobbery” infiltrating the US contingent. “I think Bourbon and rye will be America’s whiskeys, right?” he says. “So I’m not that worried. Plus, we don’t have the same tradition and all the history as Scotch. Every iron is in the fire for American whiskey right now, nothing is off limits, and we’re seeing growth and expansion in every possible direction.

“Where will we be 10 years from now? I don’t know, but I don’t think we’re in danger of a snobbery or superiority view of American single malts any time soon.”

But although American single malts may not have the legacy of Scotch or Japan, everything with heritage needs a starting point. And if US producers can continue to excite consumers with their less traditional offerings, there’s no reason why in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time American single malts can’t be just as highly respected as other styles.

“American single malt makes up an infinitesimal percentage of the total of all whiskey produced in this country, and there’s a lot being produced,” says Winters. “The real importance of American single malt is that it creates something different, which will hopefully spur innovation in the American whiskey industry so that it can move forward. Tradition has to start somewhere.”

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