The rise of American single malts

October 21, 2015

Three years ago, George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon welcomed Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie, John Campbell of Laphroaig, and Andy Cant of Cardhu. They teamed up with Dave Pickerell and Steve Bashore for the hands-on creation of a whiskey unlike any other. Together they created an American single malt imbued with Scottish roots, made with traditional equipment and processes.

Founding father’s whiskey distillery

George Washington’s Distillery has its own Scottish roots, as Washington’s farm manager, James Anderson, was a Scottish immigrant who convinced the former President to open a distillery.

“What we’re seeing today is a return to those roots,” said David Frost of the Scotch Whisky Association at the release event for George Washington Single Malt Whisky.

At the time though, despite Anderson’s heritage and direction, Washington’s distillery produced whiskey using rye, not malted barley.

“It’s the first time we know of that they did a true single malt here,” said Peter Cressy, president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, and it “celebrates the Scottish heritage of American distilling.”

For the Scotch distillers involved in this project, it proved to be a unique and memorable endeavor. “It was a wonderful opportunity for Andy, John and I to roll our sleeves up and get our hands dirty making whisky here,” said Lumsden.

“What we do now in Scotland has not changed much in the last two to three hundred years,” he says. So while there’s added control, technology and scientific understanding of the processes involved, using the traditional setup at George Washington’s Distillery very much approximates what such a whisky from such a place would have tasted like in Washington’s day.

“This was one of the most creative things I’ve ever done,” added Campbell. “It was a very surreal and amazing experience.”

American whiskey with Scottish roots

The result of this unique collaboration celebrating the Scottish link to American whiskey is a very small supply, destined for charity auction. Two different bottlings were created: the Single Malt Distillers’ Reserve and the Limited Edition.

Both were made from Scottish malted barley sourced by Glenmorangie, and were aged in small bourbon barrels for two years and eight months. Finally, they were finished in Madeira casks for four more months. The Distillers’ Reserve, though, was distilled just once. The team sampled it off the stills and decided it was so good they sent it straight to the barrels. The Limited Edition went through a more traditional double distillation.

The dawn of the American Single Malt

While this collaboration from George Washington’s Distillery showcases the historical link between Scotland and American whiskey, it’s far from the first American made single malt. Across the country, an array of distillers are producing high quality American single malts, with more and more coming to market seemingly every day.

You can stay in the same state as Washington’s distillery to find another example. Virginia Distillery Company is starting their distillation this fall. They plan to hit the ground running with a whopping 1 million LPA of production capacity, and plan on making nothing but single malt whisky. Their team is headed by Andrew Shand, who spent three decades working in the Scotch industry. He spent time with Ben Nevis Distillery and The Speyside Distillery. Clearly, the Scottish ties to American whisky are strong in Virginia.

Go a bit further south and head to North Carolina, for Blue Ridge Distilling Co.’s Defiant American Single Malt Whisky. They insert spiral cuts of toasted oak into their barrels to speed up the aging. Or drive north to New York instead, and find Tuthilltown Spirits, which produces Hudson Single Malt Whiskey, as well as Hillrock Estate Distillery, which produces Hillrock Single Malt Whiskey.

West coast American Single Malt distillers

Switch coasts and head to the single malt booming Pacific Northwest, where you’ll find Seattle’s Westland Distillery. They produce a full range of American single malts, including a peated version, a sherry wood, and a single barrel cask-strength edition. They also produce a much lauded American Single Malt Whiskey.

Of course, you can’t confuse Westland with Westward Oregon Straight Malt Whisky, from House Spirits Distillery. Westward isn’t the only single malt from the state, with Tualatin Valley Distilling producing their own Oregon Single Malt American Whiskey. Clear Creek Distillery also offers McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey. Oregonians apparently have a thing for single malts, and why not, with an abundance of barley currently being grown across the Pacific Northwest.

The southwest is contributing as well

Move farther down the coast from to San Francisco, or technically, Alameda, California, and you’ll find St. George Spirits. They’ve been producing single malt whisky since the mid 90s,with their St. George Single Malt. The current release, Lot 14, brought home Whisky Advocate’s 2014 Craft Whisky of the Year honors.

Technically, they can’t even lay claim to being the only single malt in the Bay Area, either. Anchor Distilling produces the Old Potrero Single Malt line from malted rye, not malted barley. As there’s no legal classification for “American single malt” currently, who’s to say that they’re wrong to call their malted rye whiskey a single malt?

In Nebraska, you’ll find Nebraska Single Malt Whisky from Cut Spike. In New Mexico, you’ll find Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey from Santa Fe Spirits. In Arizona, Hamilton Distillers produces several editions of their single malt, Whiskey Del Bac. This includes a clearly Americanized, barbecue-flavor infused Mesquite Smoked variation.

Don’t miss out on Texas

They’re not the only ones who had that idea though. In Texas, Ranger Creek went down a similar path, with the mesquite smoked Ranger Creek Rimfire single malt. In Texas you’ll also find what might be the most well known American single malt. Balcones Single Malt is a Texas version of Scotch single malt whisky, made with unpeated 100% malted barley.

That’s well over a dozen producers who are churning out their own takes on the American single malt. Expect many more in the years to come. George Washington would be proud of his country, and his Scottish farm manager would be proud of its citizens, no doubt.

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