Craft beer revolutionised American (and global) brewing for a reason: America was practically begging for something other than lawnmower beer, especially if it only costs a few extra bucks. Sure, people want to support the little guy, but the real reason most people spend the extra dollar or two on a six pack of IPA is because it tastes so much better than the flavourless swill that dominated beer fridges across the country for decades. Craft bourbon has had its own success, but nobody believes it will revolutionise whiskey the same way as small brewers have.
That's because while Big Beer set the bar so low, Big Bourbon has been making perfectly delicious whiskey for centuries, so buying a bottle of craft bourbon for $60 can be a tough pill to swallow when you can get just as good of a bottle from a big distillery for $30. So how do you compete with Big Bourbon in a market that's not ripe for disruption? By making single-malt whiskey. At least that's what a relatively small but growing number of American craft distillers are doing.
Without the strict rules that govern bourbon or even scotch, American malt is a blank canvass for distillers. The process is more labor intensive and expensive than making bourbon, but also less restrictive. Want to age your product in aged barrels? Great. New barrels? No problem. Both? The world is your oyster.
With no rules, the variety within the burgeoning American malt category is staggering—everything ranging from heavily peated Isla scotch-style whiskey to malt whiskies aged in new charred oak American barrels that live somewhere between the worlds of scotch and bourbon, to whiskies made from five different malts that resemble nothing else being made in the world.
We talked to Tom Mooney, co-owner and CEO of House Spirits Distillery—which helped change the face of gin with Aviation, and which is now one of the leaders in the American malt whiskey market with Westward whiskey—about how American single malt got started, where it's going, and how it might change American distilling as we know it.
MUNCHIES: What inspired you to go with single malt as your chosen style of whiskey? Tom Mooney: Everybody has their inspiration and their passion and ours pretty much is rooted in the craft beer culture of Portland. It really was the whiskey evolution of craft beer. Everybody who's involved in making our whiskey are former brewers, and so we don't really hire or train distillers. We hire brewers. The way we make the whiskey it starts with two-row barley from the Northwest that you would find in great craft beer from that region. From beginning to end, with people and process, it's rooted in Portland craft-beer tradition more than in the scotch-whisky tradition or anything like it.
How is making malt whiskey different than making bourbon? Making malt whiskey is much more complicated than making bourbon. It requires equipment you don't need when making bourbon. The grains are considerable more expensive than corn. Malt whiskey is still beer, so the first thing that happens when you want to be a malt-whiskey producer is you become a brewer, so that's a step above cooking grain to distill bourbon. It's like being two things at once when you're making malt whiskey–you need to be a very talented brewer, and you still need to be a great distiller.
Is there any common characteristics of American single malt? I don't think we're anywhere close to converging to something you could say, that is the American style. You look at the two producers of single-malt whiskey in Portland, Clear creek and us. Clear Creek makes very small quantities of an extraordinarily peated whiskey. We, on the other hand, don't peat our whiskey, and we do it in the bourbon tradition, so it's new charred American oak, so you get a little sweetness in it. Westland is another one, from Seattle. They don't even have one style in-house. They're doing really cool innovation around different styles of whiskey, all of which they make themselves. I think what unifies us as American single-malt producers is that we're not trying to converge on one specific style.
That kind of freedom is what made American craft beer great, and that kind of freedom is what made our wine industry great, so why try to take too much freedom away from small whiskey?
There is an attempt to get some sort of legislation passed that would define American single malt in some way. Where are you hoping for that to go? There are enough of us single-malt producers who actually know each other and work collaboratively that we formed a very informal working group about a year ago and have had a few discussions about where we want the category to go. I think there are some basic levels of protection for consumers and producers that we'd like to see, so that if something says 100% malted barley on the label you know it really is, or if it says single malt that it was made from 100% malted barley from one producer. But I think it's more about truth in advertising kind of stuff than to define, for example, that it must be aged in new barrels, or it must not be aged in new barrels.
So nothing like the very narrow definition of Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey. Whenever you find very narrow or very specific definitions there is usually someone behind that that benefited greatly from that or argued for it. Here what's interesting is we don't have a big guys versus little guys situation in American single malt because it's not something any big producer does.
In Scotland, thinking like that has caused a lot of problems. For generations, you've had a definition of scotch that forces producers to use used barrels. It has been a very clever way to keep people out of the industry, because between that and the age statements, you had to wait so long between producing something and being able to sell it that it just wasn't worth it, and then it backfired because they started running out of inventory, so the age statements are going, and they're still stuck with used barrels. We don't want to see that. We want people to do interesting things and to have the latitude to try interesting things. That kind of freedom is what made American craft beer great, and that kind of freedom is what made our wine industry great, so why try to take too much freedom away from small whiskey?
What is it that allows you to age your whiskey for such a short period of time compared to scotch? American single malt compared to scotch goes back to the requirement in Scotland to use aged barrels. If you took the same whiskey—whether it was made in Scotland or made in the US—and you put half of it in new barrel and half of it in the used barrel, you're going to have something a lot more interesting in three years out of the new barrel than the used one. So the fact that we're able to use new barrels makes a huge difference in terms of how quickly we get something interesting happening in that barrel.
The collaborative spirit and open-mindedness is really what helped revolutionise beer, not only in the US, but around the world. Do you see something similar happening in the future with American single-malt whiskey? I think whenever consumers awaken to the fact that the world can offer more variety than it does right now, it drives interest. It happened with beer, going from yellow beer to IPAs to all sorts of amazing styles, both resurrected and new. I think malt whiskey will go through that same evolution.
How did American single malt get started? It depends how defined 'get started.' Steve McCarthy at Clear Creek has made malt whiskey for many many, many years, because clear creek has been around for decades, so a few bottles of malt whiskey have been made here and there, let's say, for the last 30 years. The biggest changes have happened more in the last ten years, and even more in the last 5 years, so now you have some of the biggest producers of american single malt today, ourselves included, weren't really doing very much with it five years ago. If you add all of us up though, we're still at the beginning, so one valid answer is that it hasn't started yet—it's just about to.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.