Once the 16th Century, the masters of malt whisk(e)y were the Scots and the Irish. (The former dropped the “e.” The latter embraced it.) Today there are hundreds of brands and expressions of whiskeys from those countries that are made with malted barley. At heart, they have a nutty character from their identity grain but exhibit a vast array of flavors—floral, fruity, herbal, and smoky—often depending upon the barrels in which they are aged and whether or not the malt is dried over peat fires.
In 1923 Masataka Taketsuru brought the distilling skills he had acquired in Scotland just after the First World War back to his native Japan, thus beginning a distinguished whiskey tradition in that country. American whiskey has been, and still is, dominated by bourbon, and to a lesser extent, rye. But in the first decade of this century, American distillers began producing their own versions of classic malt whiskey. Today, it is among the fastest growing categories of American whiskey.
In Scotland, to be a “single malt,” the whisky must be distilled from 100-percent malted barley. That rule doesn’t exist in the United States. You may recall that bourbon mash bills must be at least 51-percent corn and rye whiskey at least 51-percent rye. Similarly, an American malt whiskey can be any proportion from 51 percent to 100-percent malted barley.
Here are a few recommendations demonstrating the range of variety in American malts. Many have limited, regional distribution, so seek them out when traveling.
Balcones Texas Single Malt
Balcones Distilling. Waco, Texas; 100% malted barley; 106 proof, pot still—Cherries, baked apples, and dates give it a fruit-rich base on which brown sugar, vanilla, and nutty caramel build. The finish is long, dry, and earthy with a touch of smoke.
Colkegan American Single Malt
Santa Fe Spirits. Santa Fe, New Mexico; 30% mesquite-smoked barley, 70% unsmoked malted barley; 92 proof—The mesquite smoking shines through from the nose to the finish giving a powerful evocation of an American Southwest cookout. Nutty malt is joined by notes of vanilla with some cinnamon and pear.
FEW Single Malt
FEW Spirits. Evanston, Illinois; 100% malted barley; 93 proof—
From the first-ever legal distillery in Evanston, a city founded by temperance advocates, this light-bodied yet still complex whiskey features nuts, vanilla, a touch of chocolate, and a suggestion of coffee. Cherries and a whiff of tobacco round out the flavors finishing with light, dry oak.
Kings County American Single Malt
Kings County Distillery. Brooklyn, New York; 100% malted barley; 94 proof, pot still—Double-distilled from malted barley imported from England and Scotland, this lightly peaty whiskey is for those who are curious about peat but don’t want to be overwhelmed by smoke. Ripe peach, vanilla wafers, and a sprinkling of brown sugar are all subtle, yet satisfying. The smoke is most apparent in the long finish.
Stranahan’s Diamond Peak
Stranahan’s Colorado Distillery. Denver, Colorado; 100% malted barley using four different malts; 94 proof—One of the pioneers of American malt whiskey, Stranahan’s features dried dates and prunes mellowed by malty caramel leading to a long, oaky finish with some dark cherries. Other expressions include Colorado Whiskey, Sherry Cask Single Malt, Blue Peak, and Rocky Mountain Single Malt. All are proofed with Rocky Mountain water.
Virginia Highland Port Cask Finished Whisky
Virginia Distillery Co. Lovingston, Virginia; 100% malted barley blend of American and Scottish whiskies; 92 proof—Butterscotch and a fresh vanilla bean exist alongside light cardamom and ginger. Baked apple with custard contributes to complexity, though the whiskey is decidedly light-bodied. Other expressions in the series are Cider Cask Finished, Brewers Batch, and Chardonnay Cask Finished, taking a page from the Scottish distillers who love to experiment with different used barrels.
Westland Peated American Single Malt
Westland Distillery. Seattle, Washington; 100% malted barley; 92 proof—Toasted marshmallows with smoked vanilla, brown sugar, and apples first appear. There’s a suggestion of coal smoke, too. The finish is notably long, smooth, and oaky. Peat is light, but very present. Their premium, limited expression, Garryana Native Oak, weighs in at 112 proof, uses five malts, and is aged in Garry oak, native to the Pacific Northwest.
Woodford Reserve Straight Malt
Woodford Reserve Distillery. Versailles, Kentucky; 51% malted barley, 47% corn, 2% rye; 90.4 proof—Not surprisingly for a malt whiskey from Kentucky bourbon country, this one uses a high ratio of corn, lending it a sweet, rich mouthfeel. The fruit and nuts make it like a spiked banana-caramel malted shake. True to that profile, the finish starts sweet, then dries
to spicy oak.
Susan Reigler is the author of numerous whiskey books, including Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide and Which Fork Do I Use with My Bourbon? She is past president of the Bourbon Women Association and lives and writes in Louisville, Kentucky.