Close Menu

American single malt: what’s the delay?

​​With a TTB decision still pending, American single malt producers are wondering when their style will be formally recognised.

Westland Distillery has been making American single malt since 2011
Westland Distillery has been making American single malt since 2011

American single malt producers are becoming frustrated at the time the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, otherwise known as the TTB, has been taking to formally recognise the whiskey style.

In July 2022, the American Single Malt Commission submitted guidelines to the TTB in an effort to define the nascent category. The proposed rules specified that to be labelled American single malt, a whiskey must be made from 100% malted barley; distilled entirely at one distillery; mashed, distilled, and matured in the United States; matured in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres; distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume; and bottled at 40% alcohol by volume or higher.

A 60-day commenting period ended in September 2022, and members of the commission and the producers are left wondering whether the prolonged silence from the TTB is normal governmental procedure or whether there is a more serious issue to deal with.

Official ruling

Gareth Moore, CEO at Lovingston’s Virginia Distillery Co, which has been making American single malt since 2015, says there is the perception of controversy because an official ruling has yet to be made.

“Trying to explain to somebody that government processes take this long, people don’t believe you,” Moore says, noting that he read all 186 comments submitted to the TTB, a vast majority of which were in support of the guidelines. The delays have slowed some of the momentum behind American single malt, especially as producers of the style try to convince distributors and retailers that a stamp of legitimacy is forthcoming. “We’re kind of left in this purgatory of having no idea if it’s going to happen, but the public perception is that it’s not simply because of the long time that it’s been taking,” Moore adds.

The TTB said it anticipates issuing a final rule on the proposal this year, but notes there are competing priorities and unforeseen events that may affect its budget and/or scheduling. “We recognise there is significant interest in this rulemaking, and are actively working on the issue,” Tom Hogue, congressional liaison for the TTB, says. “The rulemaking process is, by its nature, deliberative, not fast. I would not read further into it.”

Whether the delays have been intentional or not, there is a sense that this November’s presidential election may result in further postponement. Tyler Pederson, master distiller at Seattle’s Westland Distillery, which has been making American single malt since 2011, says that while the company will continue to operate with or without TTB approval, the pending guidelines remain a topic of discussion for the American Single Malt Commission, which has grown to 150 members. “If it’s already been this challenging to get over that last final mile, under the conditions that we’ve had, the election year is only going to create more distractions for the TTB,” Pederson said. “We’re going to start poking the TTB with campaigns that are a little more provocative to remind them, hey, this is still an issue.”

When not if

While there is some anxiety among American single malt producers regarding the delays, there is an overwhelming notion that recognition is inevitable, a case of when not if. St George Spirits in Alameda, California, has been making single malt since 1998, with master distiller Lance Winters saying he actually prefers that the TTB take its time.

“I’d rather have them take their time and get it right rather than rush into it and then we have to go back and try to get it changed,” Winters says. “I don’t need that category to be able to sell our stuff. And so it can take the time that it needs to.”

Winters notes that without financial impetus, there isn’t any real incentive to move the bill along. “The wheels of bureaucracy turn fairly slowly. And that’s what we’re seeing on this,” he adds.

As for explaining American single malt to consumers, a challenge that a legal definition would address, Winters says he’s been having that conversation for 25 years, and that most consumers don’t even know what defines single malt by itself, let alone American single malt.

“I think the solution is just being fully transparent on a label, saying what your product is, what it’s made from, how it’s aged, where it comes from. That’s what’s really meaningful to the consumer, more than are you following this and that federal regulation,” Winters says.

Still, for risk-averse distributors and retailers, legitimacy matters. “We’re not changing our positions, we’re not changing our messaging, but it is not ringing as true with our distributors and accounts that this is going to be a category to get behind,” Moore says.

But that’s not to say that progress has not been made. Perhaps a better indication for the longevity of American single malt is the fact that brands such as Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam, and Bulleit have all released variations in the past year, each with its interpretation of the style. Some producers are ageing their whiskey in new charred oak, consistent with Bourbon and other American styles.

Innovation and variance

While the guidelines are intentionally broad, allowing for innovation and variance, Winters suggests that perhaps they are open-ended, noting that there is no minimum barrel-size requirement, allowing some producers to use small-format barrels.

“We’ve got far too many distillers putting whiskies in 10 gallon barrels and saying that they’re rapid-ageing it,” Winters says. “If the goal here is one of preserving quality in the name of American single malts, there’s more work that needs to be done before this is completely codified.”

These producers share an optimism that approval is coming, but perhaps not necessary for the category to thrive. Pederson notes that TTB approval is mostly for wholesalers and retail partners, and Winters agrees, saying the issue is really about knowing where to place their whiskeys on the shelf.

“If your product is going to die, it’s going to die. If your product is going to thrive, it’s going to thrive,” Winters says. “It’s not going to live or die on the definition of American single malt being etched in stone by the federal government.”

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No