Some might consider being an upstart a handicap, but it’s undeniably an advantage for an American single malt distillery. Tucson, Arizona’s Whiskey Del Bac is a perfect example. Irish and Scotch whiskies have centuries-old traditions, and straying from the formula is not always appreciated. Fortunately, tastes are changing, and experimentation is increasingly common. But American malt whiskey has long been overlooked by the malt-drinking world, which has led to unbridled freedom to innovate!
Whiskey Del Bac was among the earliest to push the boundaries of malt whiskey traditions, and the results are undeniably delectable. Starting with a tiny five gal still in 2007, Stephen Paul, his wife, Elaine, and eventually, their daughter Amanda became powerhouses in the American single malt whiskey explosion. But learning to make whiskey wasn’t enough. Stephen wanted total control of the whiskey, so he learned how to malt his own barley. And then he combined malting with his love for mesquite wood smoke. There’s a reason it’s become one of America’s best-loved grilling woods, and he applied its magic as an alternative to traditional peat drying.
Starting with local markets, their whiskey’s popularity grew. Today, Whiskey Del Bac has a 5000 lb. malt house and a 500-gallon still. Their core expressions consist of two cask-aged single malts, Classic and Dorado, and Old Pueblo, an unaged “white dog” malt, making up most of their sales. They also distill several annual and seasonal releases, including Frontera, which begins life as Classic and receives additional aging in Pedro Ximénez Sherry botas.
Classic is WDB’s flagship expression, created with a nod toward Speyside Scotch. It’s a perennial award winner, scoring a 93 and “Top 100” from Wine Enthusiast and Double Gold from the San Francisco World Spirits competition. The whiskey is a deep amber, opening with a malty cereal nose backed by notes of oak and molasses and hints of dark chocolate, toffee, and burnt sugar. The mouthfeel is fat and round, although not oily. At 46% ABV, it’s warm but not too hot. The sweetness carries into the taste, followed by waves of gooey caramel cake, apple pie, fig pastries, and more brown sugar. The swallow releases more maltiness, more sweetness, and finally, a distant hint of herbal smokiness (but not smoke). This is my favorite of the three I sampled (although not by much!).
Dorado, Spanish for “golden,” is a perfect metaphor for the eponymous whiskey. Golden amber in the glass, you can immediately smell the smoke. It’s clearly not peated- the smoke is like a heavenly southwest barbeque that lends a comforting note. Also 46% ABV, the sip reveals a bit of heat, not overwhelming, making the dram feel substantial, especially coupled with its round and full-bodied mouthfeel. The mesquite smoke is clearly evident in the aroma, backed by notes of dark berries, baked cherry pie filling, honey, anise, pipe tobacco, and cocoa. Initial flavors echo the mesquite smoke, with a rush of sweetness leading to breakfast syrup, winter spices, cream soda, and hints of banana, malted cereal, and caramel chews. The finish is long and warm, with the spice and tobacco more evident, with lingering notes of vanilla, honey, and malt.
I was also fortunate to sample Frontera, one of WDB’s limited annual releases (1200 bottles). As I stated, they take the Classic and finish age it for thirteen months in ex-fill Pedro Ximénez Sherry botas (Sherry butts). The sherry is quite evident on the nose, along with the Classic’s malt, molasses, and their tell-tale caramel and toffee. The oak is less pronounced, replaced by notes of “bandaid” (think “The Macallan”), bitter chocolate, and bright berries. The additional aging is evident in the mouthfeel, as the Frontera seems silkier and even more syrupy than the Classic. The sherried wine sense is forward in the flavor, along with prune danish, figs, baked dates, cooked cherries, caramel, and tobacco leaf. The sherry explodes on the swallow, followed by a long and luxurious finish of burnt sugar, roasted nuts, winter spices, and a distant hint of campfire.
Whiskey Del Bac is undeniably justified in their journey to out-Scotch Scotch. By untethering from the old-school traditions of Scotch and Irish whiskey production, they’ve been able to experiment and, by all reasonable measures, perfect their better version.