2023 is an outstanding time to be a fan of American Whiskey, particularly if that whiskey falls beyond the typical purview of Kentucky bourbon. Rest assured, I enjoy a good pour of Kentucky’s (or Indiana’s, Tennessee’s, or Texas’) finest as much as the next red-blooded American. However, the current bourbon market finds itself in the odd position of being both oversaturated by various non-distilling producers and young craft products, yet completely unable to meet demand for premium labels desired by the notorious “collectors” (can we say “taters” here?).
One underlying strength of the bourbon industry however is transparency and standardization of the end product: bourbon must be distilled from a grain mashbill made up off at least 51% corn to a maximum of 160 proof, aged in new charred oak casks for no less than two years, and an initial barrel entry proof no greater than 125. Slight variations on this theme exist for rye and other grain whiskies.
No such clarifying standards exist for bourbon’s much younger cousin, American Single Malt Whiskies, but that is due to change sooner rather than later. In response to numerous petitions from distillers and aficionados, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) presented a proposed “standard of identity” in Summer of 2022, which would create a new class of American Whiskey specifically for single malts.
Specifications are somewhat mirrored after the Scotch Whisky Association and include the following stipulations: distilled from 100% malted barley at a single distillery, mashed, distilled, and matured in the United States, and aged in oak casks (note the absence of a “new charred oak” requirement). Interestingly, other designations such as “Bottled in Bond” have already been secured by various American whiskies made from 100% barley, but the class as a whole has no such recognition.
If ratified, these standards would imbue the burgeoning industry with a new degree of legitimacy and security, both from a legal standpoint and in the eyes of consumers. While the largest American single malt distilleries could hardly be considered “craft,” even the most established are barely more than a decade old. These are infants on the global single malt stage, and the majority of the US market is dominated by local and regional players, which are frequently younger still.
However, this also means the possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of inquisitive distillers and their consumers. There are no centuries-old industry traditions to which one must adhere. A majority of distillers are currently aging to some degree in new (if not charred) oak, which would have been heresy to old world malt distilleries as recently as a decade ago. Other cask varieties touch on everything under the sun, from relatively standard ex-bourbon and wine casks to tequila barrels, maple wood, brandy casks, among numerous others.
Some American Single Malt distillers utilize column stills in the bourbon tradition, while others harken to the European approach with pot stills. Local and heritage barley strains dominate, and some few brave souls are even tackling in-house floor malting. Peated varieties are not uncommon, but there are at least two distilleries in the American Southwest smoking barley with the local flora: mesquite. Maturation occurs anywhere from the damp Pacific Northwest, to the arid steppes of Colorado, the cornfields of Iowa, and the forests of New England. Terroir, a subject of much debate in whiskey circles, is inescapable in the world of American Single Malts.
Today’s pour hails from Portland’s Westward Distillery in the Pacific Northwest. The region has been one of the most prolific American single malt producers, the most well-known likely being Seattle’s Westland, but Oregon stalwarts McCarthy’s and Westward are also among the oldest single malt distillers in the country.
Westward claims to brew essentially an American Pale Ale with brewer’s yeast which subsequently undergoes double pot still distillation in the Scottish tradition. Distillate is then aged in new American oak barrels which have been toasted, but only lightly charred. This is a point of note for me with American single malts. I find that many of the craft products coming onto market are aged in new heavily charred oak a la bourbon, in order to take advantage of a more aggressive cask influence. However, barley, unlike sweeter and more robust corn-based mashbills, tends to take on astringency rapidly in some of these instances, which can contribute to an imbalanced final product. So how does Westward’s toasted, “light char” approach compare?
Westward American Single Malt Whiskey Rum Cask – Review
Finished in Guatemalan Rum Cask. 100 proof (50% ABV), NAS, $100 SRP.
Color: Golden honey, relatively quick legs. Rested 10 mins.
On the nose: Malt/cereal grain. Seems intuitive, but noteworthy, that the underlying distillate is clear from the outset, rather than overpowered by new oak. A damp barley field. Light colored citrus fruits follow, particularly mandarin or tangerine, hint of raspberry and cream, and slight dry tobacco. Minimal ethanol. Not much in the way of explicit rum influence, which is a theme in the rum-finished whiskies I have tried, but repeat nosing does reveal some underripe banana. Despite the new oak aging, there is relatively mild oak coming through, this noses similar to a 10-12 year first fill bourbon cask Scotch..
On the palate: Light body for the proof, medium thin. Immediately there is continuation of citrus from the nose, followed by fresh clover honey. This is strikingly reminiscent of Arran Scotch Whisky, something I consider high praise. Subtle green banana makes another appearance, but now more banana bread. The rum influence starts to make itself known, with light coconut and cane sugar, even a whiff of pina colada. Light oak, and mild ethanol for proof. The finish fades relatively quickly, some oak and molasses. The coconut note becomes slightly artificial, almost suntan lotion, but not entirely unpleasant.
With 3 mL water: Slightly more damp oak and banana on the palate with diminishing citrus and an increase in artificial coconut note. A few drops seems to be the sweet spot, as the malt can be fairly easily swamped.
Above average, something I would reach for regularly and recommend to others.
The word I keep coming back to is “balance.” The new oak here is well integrated with the underlying distillate, which is rightfully the star. The nose is delightful, a young summer morning, and carries over nicely to the palate.
Overall, this is a fairly delicate dram despite the 50% ABV. For better or worse, most American Single Malts I have sampled to this point have been bombastic affairs. I love that this acts as a more light-handed counterpoint. There are no glaring flaws, although I wasn’t enamored with the somewhat artificial coconut that began to manifest with additional water. I have yet to be convinced that rum casks bring anything terribly dynamic to a whiskey, although the tropical fruits here are quite pleasant.
The value proposition is tricky in American Single Malts right now, as entry level basically begins at $60 to $65 given the production scale and often heirloom/local ingredients. I think $100 is fair for this bottle, which was technically a limited release at higher-than-standard proof. However, I might lean towards their slightly cheaper Pinot Noir cask finish standard release if I purchase another Westward bottle in the near future. Overall, an extremely promising harbinger for the future of American Single Malt.
A slight error: “bourbon must be distilled from a grain mashbill made up off at least 51% corn to a maximum of 160 proof, aged in new charred oak casks for no less than two years (…)”
Bourbon has no minimum specified duration for its aging period. Straight bourbon has, however, the mentioned two year minimum of ageing.
Yes, thank you, you are of course correct. I felt like getting into the nuances of “straight” bourbon vs “bourbon” vs bottled in bond or other designations was beyond the scope of the article, but certainly the 2 year minimum applies to the “straight” designation and that wasn’t clearly stated.
Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed!