In March 2016, during a freak Midwestern blizzard, representatives from nine small distilleries across the country gathered at a Binny’s Beverage Depot in Chicago to talk American single malt whiskey. Each distillery specialized in the style, and they sought to band together and advocate for a regulatory definition to help clarify the emerging category for both producers and consumers. Seven years later, the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission (ASMWC) comprises more than a hundred member producers, and domestic sales of American single malts outpace every other whiskey category in year-over-year growth.
“We’re not doing anything greatly different from the core tenants of what single malt is understood to be globally, which means it’s distilled at one distillery, is made from 100 percent malted barley, and in this case, is made in America,” says ASMWC president Steve Hawley. While the commission’s proposed definition, currently under consideration by the U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau, also requires American single malts to be matured in oak casks, those casks don’t necessarily need to be new and charred, as with bourbon. There’s also no minimum aging requirement or stipulation that the whiskey is made on a traditional pot still, as with single malt Scotch. “It was very important to us that we didn’t stifle innovation…while also ensuring that consumers can have confidence about what’s in the bottle,” Hawley says.
Interested in experimentation and often seeking to represent a sense of place in their whiskeys, today’s American single malt producers are exploring tasty new directions. From a barbecue-influenced riff made in Nashville to one aged in the Texas heat, these five standouts make a strong case that American single malts deserve a spot in your liquor cabinet.
Virginia Distillery Co.
Courage & Conviction
Virginia Distillery Co. CEO Gareth Moore’s father, an Irish immigrant, dreamed of founding a single malt distillery in America, which he did after retiring from the tech industry and shortly before he passed in 2013. “Have the courage of your convictions,” he often said. Gareth Moore took up the reins with his wife and mother, and the distillery continues his father’s legacy with Courage & Conviction as its core offering. Portions of the whiskey mature separately for at least three years in barrels formerly used to age bourbon, sherry, and a blended red wine from Spain, and are then proportionally blended back together. Sweet cereal grains give way to spice, toasted biscuit, and oak in the sip, with a balance and depth that belies the whiskey’s light golden appearance.
Twice Barreled Special Release American Single Malt
That the stalwart of Tennessee whiskey would choose to make an American single malt for the most recent entrant in its coveted special release series—with a similar version set to roll out to duty-free shops later this year—speaks volumes to the growth of the style. The whiskey is made in the same fashion as Old No. 7, filtered through maple charcoal before going into new, charred oak barrels, but with a mash bill of all malted barley. It then spent two years in Oloroso Sherry casks before bottling as a single-barrel, cask-strength release. The signature Jack Daniel’s interplay of sweetness and spice is apparent in the sip, complemented by notes of candied apple, plum, and brown sugar that give way to biscuit-like malt in the finish.
American Single Malt Cask Strength
Based in Portland, Oregon, Westward Whiskey draws inspiration from the Pacific Northwest’s craft brewers and winemakers and its proximity to high-quality, homegrown barley. Its process begins with malted barley fermented with ale yeast and double-distilled using pot stills. The whiskey is then aged in new, lightly charred oak barrels and blended to taste. Some batches get an additional soak in barrels that previously held stout beer, Pinot noir, and other wines, but try the cask-strength version of the flagship single malt to taste how the clean barley-derived flavors shine through layers of earthy sorghum, dark chocolate, and oak.
Triple Smoke American Single Malt Whiskey
Corsair Distillery’s single malt is inspired as much by Southern barbecue as it is by the peated whiskies of Scotland. The Nashville-based distillery smokes three individual batches of malted barley—one with cherrywood, one with beechwood, and another with imported peat—which it then blends, ferments, distills, and matures in new, charred, small-format oak barrels to create a unique and flavorful whiskey that wears its influences proudly without overwhelming.
“1” Texas Single Malt Whisky
Balcones was an early American single malt innovator. Founded in 2008, the Waco-based distillery wanted to see how Texas-grown ingredients might impact single malt whiskeys made on traditional pot stills and aged in the state’s famously varied climate. The distillery has since expanded to make an array of Texas-accented bourbon, corn whiskey, rye, and rum, but it’s worth revisiting its award-winning original. Caramel and stone fruit are buoyed by toasty malt flavors livened by baking spices and a lingering finish for a rich, complex sip.