When it comes to whiskey, most imbibers assume that categories like bourbon, single malt Scotch and Irish whiskey have been around since the dawn of time. However, the official, legal recognition of these categories is a relatively recent phenomenon. If you were to go back to 1950 to survey the global whiskey market, you wouldn’t find single malt Scotch whisky for sale. However, you might be surprised to find Mexican and Canadian “bourbon” on the shelf.
In recent history, you may have noticed “single malt” whiskey offerings with nary a mention of “Scotch” or “Scotland.” Rather, they’re labeled as American Single Malt whiskey. Despite this category’s relatively recent roots and no legal recognition as of yet, some of its leading distilleries are already attracting attention and funding from the multinational spirits behemoths.
When a regional style of spirit such as bourbon becomes popular, imitators soon follow, piggybacking on the perceived excellence and buying trends (see also: Mexican bourbon). To counter bargain basement imposters, producers begin to band together to create rules that define how and where a particular spirit is made. Collectively these regulations are known as “Standards of Identity”– there are many throughout the spirits world, with Cognac, Cachaça and Pisco as examples, alongside bourbon and single malt Scotch whisky.
The producers then petition their regional government to recognize their definition with legal status. A 1964 act of the U.S. Congress formalized bourbon’s definition, including a requirement that it be made in America. Likewise, Scotch whisky was first defined in 1933, but it wasn’t until 1988 that there was an internationally recognized definition. As for American malt whiskey, its story is still being crafted.
Formal definitions of spirits do more than just protect producers from copycats. They also directly impact how those spirits are marketed and sold. When you browse a liquor store’s aisles, you reasonably expect the single malt Scotch to be displayed together, perhaps alongside the blended Scotch whisky–but certainly not intermingled! Ditto for the bourbon section. Nobody expects Yamazaki and Jameson to be found amid the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey.
Well-defined categories convey a specific provenance and expectation of quality to the consumer. A whiskey that doesn’t fit into a prestigious category such as bourbon is relegated to the “anything goes” whiskey section – certainly not the premium, high-rent district on store shelves.
The American craft distilling moment has spawned an enormous number of distilleries – Current estimates have it around 1500. Many chase the bourbon and/or rye whiskey flag, hoping for placement on store shelves next to bourbon titans like Jim Beam. However, a smaller group of American craft distilleries have set their sights on a very different style of whiskey: Using 100 percent malted barley, they produce a distillate closer to single malt Scotch than the bourbon, rye, or wheat whiskies that dominate the American landscape.
With the vast number of American whiskies to choose from, it’s easy for consumers to lump all American craft whiskies together into a generic “American whiskey” bucket. To counteract this, a collection of distilleries banded together in 2016 to formalize and promote American Single Malt Whiskey as its own category, distinct from all other American whiskies.
What Does the American Single Malt Neighborhood Look Like? A spin through the distilleries listed on the American Single Malt Commission web site shows them distributed all over the country –fourteen distilleries in California, and another fifteen to the north in Oregon and Washington. New York state has ten. You’ll even find one in Bardstown – ground zero of big bourbon!
Among the better-known names in American single malt are Nashville’s Corsair, Stranahan’s in Denver, and Balcones, out of Waco, Texas. In the Pacific Northwest, local favorites include Portland’s Westward (made at House Spirits), and Seattle’s Copperworks, named the American Distilling Institute’s 2018 Distillery of the Year. Seattle is also home to Westland distillery, which has gained international distribution and acclaim following its 2016 acquisition by Remy Cointreau.
The website also serves as the group’s de facto manifesto. It succinctly puts forth the shared vision of the (currently) 105 aligned distilleries. It doesn’t mince words, boldly addressing the need for the commission and calling out well-funded interests, both foreign and domestic, who might seek to subvert or dilute it:
Formulating, proposing and securing a Standard of Identity for ASMW simultaneously establishes a bulwark against parties that do not favor producers or consumers and builds a base from which the category can grow. The potential exists—whether from foreign single malt producers, producers of other American whiskey products (such as bourbon), or other special interests—to either oppose the category’s creation outright or prescribe a category definition that does not accurately reflect the intentions of producers or needs of consumers.
In case the point wasn’t clear, American Single Malt Whisky producers seek to draw a bright, clear distinction between their products and Big Bourbon and Big Single Malt Scotch. They also make it known that they will oppose meddling from interests not in line with theirs.
So what then is the definition of American Single Malt Whisky? The website spells it out very crisply:
- MADE FROM 100% MALTED BARLEY
- DISTILLED ENTIRELY AT ONE DISTILLERY
- MASHED, DISTILLED AND MATURED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
- MATURED IN OAK CASKS OF A CAPACITY NOT EXCEEDING 700 LITERS
- DISTILLED TO NO MORE THAN 160 (U.S.) PROOF (80% ALCOHOL BY VOLUME)
- BOTTLED AT 80 (U.S.) PROOF OR MORE (40% ALCOHOL BY VOLUME)
This seems clear enough, but the devil is in the details, including what’s not said. In evaluating spirit regulations, it’s helpful to contrast them with similar regulations. Let’s start by comparing them to the Scotch single malt regulations, which obviously inspired the American Single Malt Commission:
- Both specify a mash bill of 100 percent malted barley. Although terroir is a term that’s often bandied about, neither specifies that the malted barley must come from a specific region. However, many American single malt producers highlight locally grown grains, especially in the Pacific Northwest.
- Neither definition specifies a particular yeast or yeast family.
- Both require distillation to be done at a single distillery; this differentiates them from multi-distillery blends like Johnnie Walker.
- The Scotch regulations require pot (batch) distillation, whereas America’s don’t require a particular type of still. However, many of the bigger names in American single malt use pot stills.
- American single malt distillation has an upper limit of 80 percent ABV, whereas the Scotch regulations allow up to 94.8 percent ABV, typically the domain of column stills.
- Both categories require that aging occurs in oak casks not to exceed 700 liters (185 U.S. gallons). There’s no requirement in either case for “virgin” casks, i.e. previously unused. Single malt Scotch is commonly aged in ex-sherry casks, for instance. A few American producers have gone down the sherry cask path as well.
- Both categories require that aging occur in their respective countries. Scotland requires a minimum of three years in a cask, whereas the American single malt proposal is mum on minimum aging – just that it is matured for some length of time.
- It’s no surprise that both specify a minimum bottling ABV of 40 percent, as this is a generally enforced minimum for many distilled spirits.
It’s clear from above that American single malt production has much in common with single malt Scotch. However, this doesn’t mean American producers are trying to clone the Scotch profile. Rather, American producers differentiate by way of terroir – different barley and yeast strains, different water sources, different aging climates, different woods, and even local peat. Yes, there are peated American single malts!
Now let’s look compare American single malt to straight bourbon:
- Bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn, while American single malt is 100 percent malted barley. This alone guaranties they’ll have very different flavor profiles.
- Straight bourbon does not have to be from a single distillery. Per the TTB: “Straight whisky’’ includes mixtures of straight whiskies of the same type, produced in the same state.
- Both straight bourbon and American single malt must be distilled at 80 percent ABV or less. However, bourbon must be casked at 62.5 percent ABV or less, while American single malt has no such restriction.
- Straight bourbon must be aged in new oak casks, whereas American single malt only requires an oak cask, without restrictions on prior use.
- Straight bourbon regulations define no maximum cask size, whereas American single malt is limited to 700 liters.
- Straight bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years, while American single malt has no minimum aging requirements.
- Straight bourbon regulations prohibit additives, including caramel coloring. American single malt proposed regulations do not have such restrictions.
While there are some similarities between American single malt and bourbon, the mash bill requirements alone ensure that they’ll have very different flavor profiles.
What is the path forward for American single malt? While it’s not yet a formally recognized U.S. standard of identity like bourbon or rye, the wheels are turning in that direction. The Fall 2018 issue of Artisan Spirit magazine says this:
In 2017, the ASMWC developed a proposed set of rules for the category after extensive discussion amongst its members (see sidebar). That proposal was formally submitted to the TTB in October 2017. The commission says that last they heard, the TTB is planning on reviewing it towards the end of 2018.
Unfortunately, the wheels of progress are slowed by the current political climate. From the same article:
One potential hurdle to the passage of the new standards of identity comes in the form of Trump’s 2017 executive order mandating federal agencies to eliminate two regulations for every new regulation passed.
As I write this, the commission has not heard back from the TTB.
Another challenge that American single malt faces is pricing. A bottle of Westland sells for around $60 for a 750 ml bottle before tax, and Balcones is closer to $65. Other American single malts are similarly priced. Generally speaking these prices are for a three to five year aged whiskey. In contrast, there are any number of ten or twelve year aged single malt Scotches available for around $30.
To the average consumer, the substantial price difference between an American single malt and a Scotch single malt might make them think twice before plunking their money down for the made-in-America version.
So why are American single malts are more expensive than their imported counterparts? First and foremost is the economy of scale where single Malt Scotch whisky producers operate. Rather than a modest single still or pair of stills, high-volume Scotch single malt producers have a phalanx of pot stills working overtime, often with more automation than a small American craft distillery can muster. The economy of scale extends beyond the equipment; buying malt from huge international malting houses is often less expensive than procuring locally grown malt, something that American distillers seek to use.
Furthermore, longstanding demand for single malt Scotch has resulted in an optimized distribution pipeline that costs less per bottle. High volume distributors like Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits focus on high volume spirits like single malt Scotch, whereas craft distillers usually must make due with smaller, regional distributors that charge more per case.
Last but not least is what one distiller calls the “innovation premium.” Being relatively young and not bound by the need to pump out identical whisky day after day, American distillers are constantly experimenting–perhaps a different malt varietal, a different yeast, or a new cask type. Tinkering allows a distillery evolve its own unique house style. However, not all experiments are successful, and there will be lots of single batches along the way. Neither of these drives down costs like producing the identical spirit over and over does. That said, the prices of whisky from Scottish distilleries known for innovation and small batches, e.g. Bruichladdich, also reflect a premium. And if you’ve looked at Japanese single malt, it’s not inexpensive either.
American single malt producers are confident that increased demand for their product will drive economies of scale and reduce the price gap between their Scotch siblings, who have a 200 year head start. Likewise, regional differences in American single malt will evolve, further differentiating the category in the mind of consumers. Exceptional American single malts can be had, and with time and experience there will certainly be more. If expanding your whiskey horizons is your thing, there’s much fertile ground to explore in this new category—one with respect for the past but a uniquely American take on the future.
Stay tuned for future posts where I look at some the top American single malt distilleries.