It was probably just a matter of time until American ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit put Scotch whisky in the cross-hairs. Although barley has been the primary grain for Irish and Scotch single malts for a thousand years, American distilleries relegated the plant to a fermentation catalyst and flavor balancer. In the 1990s, Steve McCarthy, proprietor of Oregon’s Clear Creek Distillery/Hood River Distillers, created the first 100% malted barley American whiskey. McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey was a “shot across the bow” of old-world malts, and we’ve never looked back.
By the mid-2000s, multiple distilleries were making American single malts, including St. George Spirits, Stranahan’s, and Balcones. These malts exhibited many of the same characteristics that made Scotch and Irish whiskies beloved. In the past decade, scores of American single malts emerged—including many that rival and even surpass their British Isles predecessors.
In most ways, American single malts mirror Scotch and Irish whiskies, including even the use of peat to dry barley, aging in sherry and bourbon ex-fill casks, and other traditional techniques. Typical barley-based descriptors include nutty, smoky, chocolate or cocoa, toast, cream, vanilla, and a creamy cereal character defined simply as “malty.” The flavors are also similarly impacted by the prior fill product of the casks used in the maturation process. But that’s where the similarities end.
The most profound differences are rooted in two main aspects: production values, and regulatory environment. Scotland and Ireland have very similar climates, both cool and humid. There are certainly some regional differences (inland versus by the sea), but the overall variance is minimal. Not so with American distilleries. Vast differences in climate, particularly in temperature and humidity, drastically alter the maturation process. Whiskeys aged in the hot desert (Texas, Southwest, etc.) mature more quickly than those in the chilly, wet Northeast. It’s one of the primary reasons most American single malts don’t carry age statements (that, and the relative youth of the industry). Some whiskeys aged less than two years possess characteristics similar to those of a 12-year-old Scotch. The impact of the diverse American climate remains something of a trial-and-error experiment as distilleries determine the importance of aging to the flavor structure.
Additionally, there is a massive differential in labeling and production laws. Whereas the materials and processes used for Scotch and Irish whiskies are highly regulated, American single malts have yet to receive official recognition or the corresponding rules. The situation has created both opportunities and disadvantages for the genre. The lack of strict regulations allows distilleries to experiment with aspects of production not available in Scotland and Ireland. These differences manifest most frequently in the use of wood smoke for drying the barley (as opposed to peat smoking), unique woods for casks, and even the charring of casks—a practice borrowed from bourbon but unheard of in the Old World. Unfortunately, the lack of clear guidelines also makes it easier for less scrupulous producers to play fast and loose with the term “single malt,” an opportunity that can confuse (read “trick”) consumers.
To “establish, promote and protect the category,” a group of distilleries came together to create the American Single Malt Commission. Working with industry members, they created a set of labeling and production standards akin to those imposed by law and treaty for Scotch, Irish, and other American whiskeys. The organization hopes to ensure consistent use of the term “Single malt” and, by extension, higher product quality. It seems a step in the right direction, though compliance remains voluntary, and numerous issues remain unsettled, even for leaders in the category. One thing is for sure: American single malts are among the fastest-growing segments of the whiskey marketplace.
There is more detailed information about American Single Malts, including a list of current producers, at SingleMaltUSA.com. But the best thing to do, of course, is try some for yourself.