Venturing into American Single Malts

A few weeks ago we blazed new trails and had our first American single malt night. We have yet to delve into the foreign variety since we’re focused on American whiskeys. But it seemed fitting to branch out into the American single malts given their recent upsurge and its unique combination of Americana with what is generally viewed as a Scottish or Irish-only category of whisk(e)y.

What is American single malt?

American single malt has been in vogue in recent years, with a myriad of embodiments being produced across the nation. Awards are coming left and right and are giving a lot of their barley-based counterparts (looking at you Scotland) a run for their money. However, the term “American single malt” isn’t actually a legal/official distinction as it is for other whiskeys like bourbon or Scotch.

In the U.S., federally defined whiskey categories such as bourbon, rye, and malt whiskey, along with some others, are what distillers comply with if they want to make our favorite brown spirit. The term “single malt” is markedly absent from many legal definitions.

This is both limiting and freeing for American single malt distillers. On the one hand, there is no distinction between “malt whiskey” and “single malt whiskey” like there is in Scotland. This opens up new possibilities for grain combinations inaccessible in Scotch and Irish whisky.

On the other hand, American malt whiskey must be aged in a similar manner to bourbon and rye: in charred new oak barrels. This means that the huge barrel flavor imparted to these spirits becomes a characteristic of American malt whiskey. These flavors are a double-edged sword, allowing for a bigger, bolder flavor profile than most international single malts, but with the danger of overwhelming the more delicate, complex barley flavors and aromas that make malt whiskey so unique.

The combination has bred a huge variety of American malt whiskeys, typically termed single malts due to the similar characteristics with Scotch (i.e. generally malted barley, from pot stills, from a single distillery, etc.), but with a distinctly American feel.

Know Your Whiskey

Balcones single malt

Balcones Distilling in Waco, TX hasn’t been around for too long but has made a big impact on the whiskey scene. They have a long lineup of excellent whiskeys, and the Balcones single malt is no exception. The previous master distiller of Balcones left for other ventures (well it’s more complicated than that but I’ll leave the drama for other bloggers!), casting doubt in the minds of some on the quality of spirits produced since his departure. The bottles we sampled seemed to live up every bit to expectations.

St. George single malt - LOT 14

St. George Spirits was started in 1982, as a one man operation. Their single malt is the only whiskey they make in-house. Being an old distillery compared to most “craft” distilleries, St. George blends a variety of ages of whiskey, resulting in a single malt with whiskeys aged between 4 and 15 years.

McCarthy’s Oregon single malt

Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon has been around for almost 30 years, making it one of the oldest “craft” distilleries in the country. McCarthy’s, an homage to robust, peaty, smoky Islay Scotches, has been a hit for many years, even scoring 96 points in the 2008 edition of the Jim Murray Whisky Bible.

Corsair Triple Smoke American single malt

Corsair Distillery is just crazy. Started by two buddies who wanted to make the switch from beer brewing to distilling, the distillery has produced an incredible number of different spirits. Ever wanted a malt whiskey made from quinoa? They’ve made it. How about an IPA whiskey? Or whiskey made from 9 different grains? Yup. They’re bold, creative, and crazy enough to try wild stuff that has won them a bunch of awards. I’m sure the distillery has also given the founders Derek Bell and Andrew Webber tons of laughs. “Dude what if we made whiskey from every single grain we can think of?” I can just imagine the conversation.

Our Tasting Notes

Balcones single malt is one of the darkest whiskeys I’ve ever tasted, topping off the “color meter” on my 33 drams booklet. Seriously crazy, especially for a 2-3 year old whiskey. Balcones single malt really showcased the types of flavors accessible by using barley as the primary grain: the nose had vanilla and oak up front, characteristic of the new charred oak barrels the whiskey is aged in, along with some roasty cocoa, honey, dried fruits, and even raspberry and melon. On the palate, some herbaceous notes like lemongrass, as well as peanut added to the complexity experienced on the nose. Bread, barley, pretzels, and strawberries came through on the finish.

I’m still not sure what to make of St. George single malt. The nose was all over the place: at times with bubblegum, at others with smoke, waffles, vanilla, and then grassy notes. At one point, I swear I was smelling a fresh old-fashioned glazed donut. On the palate was a pleasant lightness amidst a barrage of flavor, including nuts, bread, watermelon, notes similar to beers brewed using Maris Otter Pale malt (there’s my beer nerd side coming out), as well as a particular ‘medicinal’ herb commonly available now in two of our fifty states. That was a surprise to say the least. The finish was more or less an amalgam of flavors on the palate, with even more prominent well… herbiness.

McCarthy’s single malt kicked off the smoky portion of the tasting, with a meaty, peaty, smoky, beast of a whiskey. The nose was sweet and savory, with plenty of smoke, licorice, brown sugar, and notes reminiscent of a rack of mesquite barbecue ribs. (Mmmm… ribs) interestingly, some medicinal notes were also present. One member summed it all up with the tasting note: “burning Texas hospital, but in a good way.” The palate continued the trend with mesquite, medicinal, and licorice flavors presenting themselves alongside the tastes of a peat-bog, melon, lemongrass, and salted peanuts. More nut and mesquite notes accompanied a distinctly bread flavor on the finish.

Corsair Triple Smoke totally surprised all of us. This, unexpectedly, was my personal favorite of the evening. The nose had a complex smokiness resulting from the three different types of wood smoke used in the malting process, with hickory and mesquite both coming through. To counterbalance this smoke, waffles, maple syrup, oak, cherries, and cream came through, yielding an entirely unique olfactory experience. On the palate were notes of anise, mint, and cinnamon alongside baked bread, cherry, and peanuts. Triple Smoke is unlike anything I’ve tasted, and turned out to be a fairly polarizing whiskey for the group.

The Collective Favorite

Balcones swept the votes with a little over 60% of the total, by far the Collective favorite of the night. McCarthy’s came in second at around 20%, with St. George and Triple Smoke accounting for the other 20%.

Thanks to everyone who came out! To join us at future tastings, sign up on our email list at seattlewhiskeycollective.com.