There’s no getting around it: Seattle’s a long way from Scotland. Yet one sip of Westland Distillery’s award-winning single malt, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d slipped into a wormhole that leads from SoDo straight to Islay.
Yet those who see Westland as simply making Scotch-style whisky in the United States are missing the point. Here, old world traditions meld seamlessly with new world ways, for a whiskey that’s as true to its place of origin as any Scottish single malt. Using pot stills like Scottish single malt distilleries to produce a range of single malts, including American oak aged, sherry casked, peated, and single barrel releases, Westland has shown the world that the United States can make malt whiskey every bit as delicious and distinctive as Scotland, Ireland, or Japan.
The Power of Provenance
Pacific Northwesterners have long known about the power of local ingredients, and Westland is no different. “We believe strongly in making a whiskey with a sense of place,” says head distiller Matt Hofmann. For Westland, that not only means using barley instead of other grains to make its whiskey, because barley grows well in the Northwest’s mild climate, but also paying attention to the provenance of every ingredient, from the grain used to make the mash, to the oak casks the whiskey ages inside.
Westland sources malt from a range of purveyors, including Great Western Malting in Vancouver, Washington, one of the leading maltsters in the United States, as well as Skagit Valley Malting, a craft maltster in the Skagit Valley north of Seattle that works with unique and heirloom barley varieties. Much of the grain used at Westland is grown in Washington State, although the distillers also look to U.K. companies like Baird’s and Thomas Fawcett & Sons to supply some of the specialty malts used in Westland’s recipe.
What’s a specialty malt? If you’ve ever enjoyed an amber ale, an Oktoberfest beer, or a roasty porter, you’ve already experienced them. By roasting the malted barley to various degrees, maltsters are able to coax out new flavors from the humble grain that shine through in the finished brew. It only makes sense that Westland distillers, surrounded by the Northwest’s world-famous beer scene, would look to craft brewing for inspiration. In many of their products, including the Westland American Oak Single Malt we sent to club members this month, the nutty, toasty contributions of specialty malt are clearly evident.
Casks, too, get the local treatment. In addition to American white oak casks from major cooperages like Independent Stave Company, Westland works with local mills and coopers to create custom casks made from Quercus garryana, a local oak species sometimes called Oregon oak. Darker, spicier, and nuttier than American oak, Quercus garryana casks are the driving force behind Westland’s acclaimed Garryana range, a series of annual special releases featuring those special barrels.
Yet even in its core range, Westland uses oak differently than many other distillers. For fans of more traditional American whiskey styles, Westland’s single malt offers a new kind of drinking experience, one with lighter oak and more nuances from the grains and spirit character. “We’re not making bourbon,” says marketing director Steve Hawley. “We’re not trying to lean on the oak to be the dominating flavor component. We want balance, but even more than balance, we want the malt character to shine through.”
American Single Malt Leaders
Westland Distillery was founded in 2010. Over the years, it’s become one of the leaders of a new movement of whiskey producers aiming to introduce a new category to the U.S. market: American single malt.
Unlike bourbon, rye, or corn whiskey, there’s no formal definition for what “American single malt” means. In practice, most American single malt producers are following the Scots’ lead by using the term to refer to a whiskey made from 100% malted barley and distilled at a single distillery. Beyond that, innovation is rampant. Some distillers are using new, charred American oak casks to age their single malt (much like bourbon), while others are opting for the more traditional used cooperage. Some are experimenting with smoked malt, using not just peat but local fuels like mesquite or pecan wood to add another layer of flavor.
“That’s the magic of what America is all about,” says Matt. “The difference in landscape and cultures. A whiskey from Seattle and a whiskey from Portland might be more similar in terms of raw materials and interpretation than a whiskey from Texas or New England. To me, that’s the most exciting thing about the category: you get whiskeys that reflect the people and places they come from.”
As American single malt continues to catch on, Westland and other distillers like them have formed an industry group called the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission dedicated to promoting the category as well as establishing formal standards of identity, just like other styles of whiskey. “It’s about protecting consumers,” explains Matt. “And we want to help grow the standing of the category, not just nationally but also internationally.”
That last bit is becoming more important as the world has taken notice of Westland’s success. In 2017, Remy Cointreau, an international spirits brand that also owns the Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay, acquired Westland. It’s good company for this single malt leader be in; much like acclaimed Scotch whisky producer Bruichladdich, Westland is dedicated to preserving the best of the past while striding fearlessly into the future.
www.westlanddistillery.com. 2931 1st Ave S, Seattle, Washington, 98134.