Top American Single Malt Whiskeys to TryBy Jake Emen
There’s been more evolution in the American single malt space than in nearly any other global whisky category. That’s due to the fact that virtually all production has started within the past 15 years. Yes, we know and love the outliers that precede that time frame. But once momentum began to pick up, dozens and dozens of capable producers joined the field in force.
Flash forward to the present, and the best of those producers have a diverse collection of well-aged stock spread across different types of maturation and flavor profiles. Thanks to the leading efforts of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, category-wide standards have emerged. Meanwhile the most well-known distilleries have established house profiles. And if you care to dive in deeper, regional styles and trends are there to be found as well.
You’ll have to wait another three or four decades until American single malt has the breadth and range of Scotch whisky — not to mention whiskey reaching that age range. But nevertheless, there’s no shortage of standout bottles made from coast to coast. Here’s a current (and alphabetical) collection of our favorite American single malts.
Top 10 American Single Malt Bottles
Pilgrimage is a limited-edition offering that builds upon the distillery’s Texas Single Malt. This edition was finished in Sauternes casks and bottled at a bumping 58.5% ABV. And thanks to that intense Texas heat, it has a depth and complexity which belies a young age.
Balcones has released a string of other limited offerings, including Brujeria, finished in two types of sherry casks, and Hechiceros, finished in port casks. But Pilgrimage may be at the top of the pecking order.
Whiskey in a Glencairn
Named for the distillery’s Quint family, this is a blend of peated and unpeated malt whiskeys aged separately in bourbon casks. The whiskeys are finished using a spectrum of different types of casks. This includes both wine and port from the on-site winery, but also brandy, sherry and rum casks. Then it gets really fun. All of the various components are married together in a solera system.
The first edition of this annual release was unveiled in 2020, and the expression will continue to evolve through the years. That’s the beauty of an evolving system of maturation. And thanks to bringing in so many different different parcels, the early returns showcase a wonderfully complex flavor profile.
Tuscon’s Whiskey Del Bac is most well known for its use of mesquite smoke. It operates an intensive, in-house mesquite smoking operation. The distillery’s offerings have improved by leaps and bounds from its early days, as it’s tamed the mesquite beast. Additionally, it also offers non-smoked whiskey in its portfolio.
However, its most exciting releases though are in the Distiller Cut series. These are limited one-offs and bottled at cask strength, so you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for its quarterly release announcements to see what’s what. It’s where Del Bac showcases its experiments and cask finishes, with the PX sherry cask from the Spring 2021 standing out in particular. But a wide range of other casks have or will be used, including Cognac, Madeira and Calvados.
McCarthy’s, named for Clear Creek Distillery founder Steve McCarthy, is one of the true originals in the world of American single malt. The Clear Creek operation and its brands are now under the umbrella of Hood River Distillers. However, its spirits are continuing to be made with the same processes and equipment, and the same expert hands, from head distiller Joe O’Sullivan.
The whiskey is made from Scottish peated malt, distilled in a Holstein pot still and matured in casks whose staves were air-seasoned for a lengthy three years.
St. George has been at the single malt whiskey game since before most of us had ever heard of the phrase “craft distilling.” The first in its Lot series was released in 2000, and since then, the limited-edition annual release has continued to evolve and mature. Each year includes a unique smattering of different cask types. This is where Head Distiller and Blender Dave Smith unleashes some of his favorite toys and hidden gems across a wildly varied warehouse.
Lot 21 is the latest release. Smith selected and blended barreled whiskey ranging from four and a half to 10 years of age. Furthermore, his selections had been barreled in various types of casks. Some of those featured were: French oak apple brandy casks, agricole rum casks, and Sauternes-style casks from California, to name a few of the intriguing influences.
Snowflake is an annual, highly-limited offering from Stranahan’s, with a first-come, first-serve release party that accompanies the big day. The expression changes each year, and takes the name of one of Colorado’s 14ers; with 58 mountain peaks above 14,000 feet, the distillery has a ways to go before it needs to worry about changing its naming mechanism.
Key to this single malt is a highly-varied group of finishing barrels which are selected and combined together, including: sherry, Cognac, wine, rum and tequila casks.
What if I told you that there was an American single malt, on the market right now, with 12 year old and 15 year old age statements? Would you be surprised? I bet. Nantucket’s Triple Eight Distillery is doing just that though with The Notch, its limited, cult-favorite single malt whiskeys.
While there are a select few producers who can say they’ve been distilling American single malt that long, Triple Eight is the only one releasing whiskey with a minimum age even approaching this.
Virginia Distillery has played a patient waiting game, investing hugely into a Scotland-sized production facility, while initially sourcing and finishing whiskey on-site. Now, its self-matured juice is starting to become available via the Courage & Conviction series. The release is aged in a combination of bourbon, sherry and wine casks, with each edition being configured differently.
This is a good single malt now, but more importantly it offers a tantalizing showcase of what’s to come as its own whiskey continues to mature further.
The Garryana edition from Westland Distillery has been my favorite of its offerings since a meeting with co-founder & managing director Matt Hofmann at a D.C. bar back in 2016. He proffered a sample of a soon-to-be released whiskey, matured from a unique type of oak native to the Pacific Northwest. It was the first time I had heard the word “Garryana.”
Since then, the annual release has continued to impress, with the latest offering released this past fall being no exception. It’s not just that the offering encapsulates the distillery’s emphasis on locality, and that it’s doing something novel. But it’s also that the garry oak brings a truly unique flavor range to the whiskey, making this as distinctive as it gets.
Westward’s Pinot Noir Cask finish is one of the two finished expressions of its flagship single malt to be part of its core offerings. The barrel choice was certainly for the berry and fruit flavors that pinot noir imparts on the whiskey and its base of chocolate and cocoa notes. But it was also a conscious decision to pay homage to the area’s wine region, where across the Willamette Valley, pinot noir is king.
Members of Westward’s whiskey club, which ships nationally, can get their hands on a lineup of exclusive cask finishes, such as pinot noir rose dessert wine casks, tempranillo casks, beer casks, and more.
While this is by very definition a blend, not a single malt, the bottling is worthy of mention. This is a unique project bringing together 10 producers of American single malt, including some familiar names from the rest the list. The distilleries include Balcones Distilling; Bently Heritage Estate Distillery; FEW Spirits; Headframe Spirits; Rogue Spirits Distillery; Santa Fe Spirits; Sonoma Distilling Company; State Line Distillery; Thornton Distilling; and Triple Eight Distillery.
The collaboration was made entirely in order to donate 100% of its proceeds to charity, and is likely the first of an ongoing annual release. A blend, yes, but the blend represents a broad spectrum of the possibilities of the American single malt, and many of its top producers, all for a worthy cause.
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