Which way is West?
I’m a bit disoriented at the moment, having just driven 919 miles with my wife, two children, a dog, and a cat. I’m also thirsty. Fortunately, this voyage has deposited me in a farmhouse in Vermont, with ample time on my hands to dive into the (embarrassingly large) set of Westland whiskey samples that have accumulated in my “to review” pile.
We’ve had a fair deal of Westland coverage here at Malt, and I’d like to think it’s for good reasons. First and foremost: Westland is a global leader among whiskey makers in transparency. A high level of detail about each release is provided publicly, on their website, without us having to ask the type of wonkish questions that usually elicit these facts. On its own, that would have probably merited repeated reviews in this space.
However, Westland has also been the standard bearer for American single malt whiskey since it started in 2010. This is a category which is in its relative infancy, but which is commanding increasing attention. Malted barley is even making its way into bourbon mash bills, in recognition of the unique flavors that it can impart. Westland has assumed a leadership position by helping to form the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission to press for a Standard of Identity, similar to that of the Scotch Whisky Association.
Not content to rest on their laurels as the godfathers of American single malt whiskey (a term I have coined just now and which, to my knowledge, has not previously been used by Westland or anyone else), Westland stays fresh by pushing the envelope through experimentation. The angles of attack (barley/terroir, wood, and peat) are, in certain respects, similar to those pursued by others. However, I’m not aware of a program of comparable scope or scale happening anywhere in America. Even following the 2016 acquisition of the distillery by now-parent Rémy-Cointreau, Westland has continued to press forward with these initiatives while maintaining its core trio of malt whiskey expressions.
This exploratory spirit is evinced by the growing “Outpost Range,” which includes bottlings named Garryana (now in its fifth annual edition), Colere (to be released next year) and Solum (a peated whiskey of undisclosed specifications, coming in 2023). Each of these focuses on a different aspect of malt whiskey production and, in doing so, attempts to isolate the impact of that variable on the resultant whiskey. I’ll be considering the first two of these today, with perhaps a preview of the third via an ancillary dram.
I’m starting my Westland survey with Garryana. Garry (also known as Oregon oak) is a local species of oak tree in the Pacific Northwest. The wood is said to impart a complex flavor, according to Westland, being comprised of more deep and intense variations on normal oak influence. You can read more about it in Jason’s review of the Edition 4 (2019), which will get a reappraisal from me below. Before that, though, we’re going to be tackling the inaugural release in the series.
This whiskey was matured for three years in 69% new white oak (Quercus alba), 21% new Garry oak (Quercus garryana) and 10% first-fill ex-bourbon white oak barrels. It was bottled at 112.4 proof (56.2% ABV) and released in June of 2016, at an SRP of $125. This sample came from Dave; please join me in a hearty “cheers” to him.
Westland Garryana Edition 1 (2016) – review
Color: Medium-pale copper.
On the nose: Very expressive straightaway, with a rich smokiness from the peated spirit. This has an opposing note that is densely sweet in the manner of ripe pineapple; the interplay between the two is excellent. There’s a distinctly woody note here; hard to tell if this is from the fifth of the blend matured in Garry, but it’s intriguing, if difficult to describe. There’s also the sweet roastiness of mocha and some rubbery notes of pink pencil eraser.
In the mouth: This arrives with some muted chocolate notes, but turns more sharp with a hot nip of chili pepper that kicks in shortly thereafter. A soapy texture emerges at midpalate just before this reaches an astringently woody crescendo. There’s a reprise of the nose’s mocha note as this fades into a long, elegant finish. This lingers with an all-over heat indicative of the high proof, as well as a residual woody note that tiptoes on the edge of bitterness.
A strong showing, this brings diverse aromas and flavors together in a harmonious dialogue. On the palate, there’s an all-over cohesion but still plenty of textural variation throughout all parts of the mouth. As noted above, the woody notes tend toward extremes at moments, but not enough to mar the overall presentation. I’m happy with this and am scoring it positively as a consequence.
Moving forward in time three years brings us to 2019’s release, the Garryana Edition 4. This was matured in five cask types (29% ex-rye, 29% ex-bourbon, 19% new Garry oak, 16% PX Hogshead, 7% refill Garry oak). Maturation times ranged from 44 to 75 months. Again bottled at 50% ABV and released in September of 2019, this arrived with an SRP of $150. This Garryana will cost you £159.95 via Master of Malt, or The Whisky Exchange demand £165 for the experience. As before, this was a sample generously shared by Dave.
Westland Garryana Edition 4 (2019) – review
Color: Medium-pale yellow gold.
On the nose: This tacks in a more austere direction in comparison with its predecessor. There’s a firm mineralic note that plays against the richly fruity scents of ripe plums and apricots. Some subtle spice and incense aromas present themselves in a manner reminiscent of the influence of Mizunara oak in Japanese malt whisky. With some time in the glass, this evolves an assortment of sweeter candy notes: grape bubblegum and chocolate fudge stand out.
In the mouth: Round in a warming way, this is very pleasant and comforting to start. Unfortunately the whiskey shifts direction with an astringently woody note that imparts a bitterness as it moves toward the middle of the mouth. As this reaches the top of the tongue the bitterness subsides, making way for a salty and nutty flavor of cashews. Vague flavors of apple cider and cinnamon appear in a muddle before this moves into the mostly mute finish. Some of the bitter woodiness has a reprise around the top and sides of the mouth; otherwise, this leaves little else in the way of a final impression.
A letdown in comparison with the prior Garryana, this had a flaw or more for every high point. While I liked the exotic aromatics and the charming entrance, ultimately this failed to deliver in terms of flavor and texture. Whereas the wood influence in Edition 1 was mostly for the better, I feel like there wasn’t enough spirit to stand up to the cask influence here. In light of that and the high price, I’m scoring it a point below average.
Finally, we have the new kid on the block. This is the Garryana Edition 5, which arrived in November of 2020. The cask types were reduced to two: 64% ex-bourbon white oak, and 36% new Garry, with 45 months of maturation. 5,625 bottles comprised this batch (again at 50% ABV), with a suggested retail price of $150, though Westland is selling these online for $185. This was a free sample from the distillery, which – per Malt policy – will earn them our thanks but not (necessarily) a favorable score. This 5th Edition will set you back £173.86 via Master of Malt, or £165 via The Whisky Exchange.
Westland Garryana Edition 5 (2020) – review
Color: Medium orange.
On the nose: The most Islay-esque of the Garry trio, this combines sugary-sweet notes with a phenolic nip of peaty smoke. There’s a citric aroma of clementines, but otherwise this is a dance of sugary smells (marshmallow, vanilla, pavlova) and darker elements (iodine, bitumen, burnt candle wax).
In the mouth: Bursting with a richly sweet note of buttercream at first, this makes a fascinating pivot toward an echo of the nose’s more sternly smoky and seashore flavors. The middle of the palate starts with a tightness that broadens out into balanced notes of seashells and caramelized sugar. Suddenly, a smoke-infused saline note overwhelms everything, carrying though seamlessly into the finish. These elements linger long after the final swallow, in a persistent and mouth-coating sensation that stays with me for a minute or more.
This is good whiskey in the manner of the better examples of Islay single malts, but I’m not sure that the Garry casks were able to show through to the best of their abilities. Whereas I sensed a novel wood note in the prior Editions (for better and worse), I felt that the peaty notes and the sweetness of the bourbon cask were sharing center stage here, to the exclusion of all else. For the premium price I would have expected more unique whiskey; with that in mind, I am left scoring this as just average.
Now for something new: we have here the first edition of “Colere,” to be released in Spring 2021. With this expression, Westland turns its attention to the whiskey’s principal raw ingredient: barley. In this first entry in the series, Westland chose a six-row winter barley called Alba, from Skagit Valley Malting. In an attempt to focus on the flavors imparted by the barley, the whiskey has been matured only in used casks (62% second fill ISC Cooper’s Reserve and 38% first fill ex-Bourbon) for four years and a month.
2,893 bottles were produced, coming to us at a strength of 50% ABV. Suggested retail price for this is $150; this was another sample provided free of charge by the distillery.
Westland Colere Edition 1 (2021) – review
Color: Medium-pale yellow.
On the nose: Malty, appropriately. The grain steps to the fore immediately, with a hearty whiff of cereal. Immediately after this there is much more: the candied licorice aroma of Good & Plenty, a medicinal herbal note of eucalyptus, a tart smell of gooseberries, and buttered whole wheat toast. With more time, a floral note of honeysuckle and the richly delicious aroma of peaches and cream emerge.
In the mouth: The first impression is of mint-inflected stone, as this presents itself cleanly at the front of the mouth. Broadening out once it hits the tongue, I get a festive note of Christmas spice. There’s bran flakes as this approaches the midpalate, where the whiskey tips over into a slightly bitter, slightly stale woodiness. This lingers with the drying flavor of salted nuts and an all-over radiant heat.
This achieves its mission in terms of letting the malt sing out above the cask, though there are plenty of pleasant aromas and flavors that are characteristic of an ex-bourbon barrel. In total: this is nice whiskey, though proof-of-concept (in terms of being able to articulate the subtle nuances between different farms and varietals) will require further iterations for comparison. If they’re all as good or better than this one, however, that future head-to-head tasting will be a pleasure.
As I mentioned before, Westland’s site has teased us with the forthcoming Solum, which utilizes local peat. Though there’s a placeholder page for the expression, it contains a lot of high-flying rhetoric but none of the detail that we’re accustomed to getting from Westland. While I do not have a sample of Solum to review, I thought it would be illustrative to consider Westland’s predecessor approach to peat, in the form of this 2016 release of the “Peat Week” annual edition.
You may be familiar with the concept of a Peat Week from Balvenie’s annual expression bearing the same name. Westland’s riff on this theme is more of a weeklong festival of smoke, for which these Peat Week bottlings serve as commemorative souvenirs. January 2020 saw the sixth release in the series, but today I’ll be considering Peat Week’s maiden voyage.
This particular release was distilled from Baird’s Heavily Peated Malt. The result was an eight cask vatting of whiskey between 25 and 37 months old, in a run of 2,000 bottles. Coming in at 50% ABV, this was released at a price of $100.
Westland Peat Week (2016) – Review
Color: Delicate light golden hay.
On the nose: The first impression is of an enthralling dance of sweet and smoky aromas, like a marshmallow toasted over the fire to the point of developing a charred black crust. If you gave this to me blind and forced me to guess its origin, I would humiliate myself and entertain our audience by insisting that it was my dear Caol Ila. On second sniff, however, I recognize this as something different. There’s a plump fruitiness hiding beyond the initial bipartite impression, with a sumptuous note of ripe McIntosh apple. This develops a baked honeyed aroma of graham cracker, along with an emergent whiff of more ripe orchard fruit, this time a Bosc pear. It may be the Islay-adjacent aspects of this tricking me, but I’m also getting a maritime nuance. This is not necessarily the sternly salty seashell and iodine character well known to peatheads, but rather a gentle and salutary suggestion of the ocean, like a sea breeze on the Pacific coast.
In the mouth: This is a fair deal firmer than the nose would suggest, in that it tacks toward the more austere aromas and flavors and away from some of the richness. There’s still good balance throughout, though. At the start, an initially salty kiss makes way for a tart and acidic note as this hits the front of the tongue. In the middle of the palate, a lightly sweet flavor of powdered sugar meets some floral notes. This becomes momentarily creamy in flavor and texture as it approaches the back of the tongue. Through the finish, there’s a pair of woody notes: one is high-pitched and sharp, like freshly planed hardwood. Underneath this, at the low end of the register, is a musty and earthy woodiness reminiscent of a fallen tree. The lingering sensation is, again, a coastal one, with the mouth-drying sensation of saline creeping from the back toward the front of the mouth.
The peat here is an accent rather than a focal point. While this may disappoint the phenol phanatics looking for PPM in the triple digits range, it works well in the context of this whiskey. Overall, though, this is more convincing on the nose than in the mouth, where there’s a restriction of flavors in a more narrow register than would be suggested by the scent of this. In total, and in light of the price, I am scoring this as bang-average.
Looking back across these, I am most struck by the first Garryana, reflected in the higher score I awarded that dram. Westland has unleashed some intense and truly novel flavors with that expression, and I’d be an enthusiastic buyer if I were able to find a Garryana at SRP, albeit with the assurance they would all show so much of this distinctive wood character.
I wasn’t quite as smitten with Editions 4 and 5, though, with the latter being the better of those. Hopefully, going forward, the series can recapture more of the uniquely Garry aspects that were highlighted to such good effect in the first edition.
I’m interested to try future versions of the Colere, as I believe it will be most convincing as a comparison within a suite of whiskeys. Finally, the Peat Week was a solid if unspectacular experience, with a lot of competition from its peated Scottish rivals at the price.
Make no mistake, though: these were mostly very good whiskeys and supported Westland’s reputation as foremost among the American malt whiskey producers. I’m now done with this lengthy tasting but certainly not done with Westland, and would encourage those who have yet to sample their wares not to tarry any longer.
Image kindly provided by Westland. There are some commission links above for your convenience and such things don’t affect our verdict.
Westland and High West are the only two distilleries I got to visit. What I found interesting was that having the Garryana at the distillery was absolutely amazing; but after a few weeks, having it at home, I thought it was good ( as opposed to the in-person distillery euphoria), but $150 was still very pricey. What I did appreciate though in the distillery tour was how they got to that pricing—-all the local ingredients (including west coast peat), working with local universities for barley strains, local wood, etc. In a way, I don’t mind paying a few bucks extra for that craft ( as long as it’s still good), as opposed to taking MGP and just putting a label on it.
PB, there’s always the mystic influence of being at the actual distillery, whether we like to admit it or not. I will say that, in the spectrum of American whiskey with a $100+ price tag, Westland has one of the most convincing arguments for the high cost given the added care and scarcity of raw materials, as you note. As I concluded, I’ll certainly be paying close attention to what comes out of Westland going forward. As always, cheers for the comment and GO BLUE!
I found that the most recent bottlings of the peat week were much more heavily peated and had a bigger intensity of flavor due to the higher abv. The 2020 was certainly a big improvement over the 2916.
Good info Austin, thanks for sharing. Will be sure to check out the later iterations. Cheers!
I love the idea of Garryana and other types of oak being used, but alas, the price of admission is just too steep for me. I can appreciate the cost that goes into such an integrity release, but the cost barrier is still there for a lot of us I think. The tongue is willing, but the wallet is weak! Hopefully one day they can find a greater balance with quality vs. affordability. For now I’ll have to stick to Balcones. Skål!
Anders, that’s completely fair and – to be honest – my scores would have been a point or two higher at half the price for these. That said, they’re costly for a reason, and I find the proposition compelling enough that I’d pick another Garryana or Colere up if I were paying out of pocket. Thanks for the comments and Skål!