All photos by Keith Allison.
I remember a time, not so very long ago, when the announcement of a new American whiskey was cause for celebration, usually in the form of drinking said whiskey. Nowadays though, with so much (not undeserved) to-do about fake distilleries and fake craft and crap craft and whatever else is making us mad, the announcement of a new American whiskey is more likely to spark a determined fact-finding mission with the goal of uncovering if, and if so how much, the whiskey’s marketing is trying to deceive consumers. While the function of whiskey press as an industry watchdog is, ultimately, a good thing that will, I think, result in some much needed changes to certain shady aspects of the business, it can be exhausting. It can be easy to forget that sometimes, you just want to sit back and be excited and happy about something.
Which is why my first sip of Westland, a west coast single malt made near Seattle, Washington, was such a delight.
Westland is not the only American distillery making a single malt whiskey (which is made entirely from malted barley, as opposed to the more common rye or bourbon, both of which are made with a variety of grains). Tuthilltown, an early pioneer in the craft distilling world, once made a single malt, and a small but growing number of distilleries, like Balcones, Few, Corsair, and McCarthy’s among others are leading the field.
Westland distiller Matt Hoffman wanted to explore the innovation possible within the confines of what makes a single malt — barley and water. Westland uses a blend of five different malts (Munich, extra special, brown, pale chocolate, and Washington select), a technique inspired by craft brewing’s willingness to experiment with their barley. Furthermore, the mash is fermented using a Belgian brewer’s yeast rather than distiller’s yeast. Hoffman says the brewer’s yeast contributes a different, fruitier character to the process. All of this grows, no doubt, from the strong showing craft beer has in the Pacific Northwest. The distilled spirit is then placed, in accordance with American tradition, in new American oak barrels. Unlike bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, there is no legal requirement to use new oak barrels, but sometimes, you just don’t mess with a good thing.
Although the experimental nature of what Westland are doing, as well as the ties to craft brewing and their commitment to working as often as possible with local ingredients (the vast majority of their malted barley comes from Washington state), mean that a lot of people classify Westland as a craft distillery. Hoffman is quick to dispel that misconception. Although not a monstrous operation on the scale of a Jack Daniels or Jim Beam, Westland is substantially larger than the average craft outfit. Their current location is an impressive 13,000 square foot facility — the largest distillery west of the Mississippi — with two copper pot stills from Vendome Copper & Brass Works, nicknamed Big Red and Baby Blue. Although still largely a west coast product, with close ties to the local distilling and brewing communities, their sights are obviously set on a much larger share of the national market.
In Hoffman’s opinion, malted barley is one of the most versatile and least explored grains. Scottish single malt uses it but doesn’t really experiment with it beyond peating it or not peating it. In bourbon, barley is practically an afterthought, buried beneath the corn and rye. Hoffman wants Westland to really dig into what you can be done with just this one grain, always keeping that malty, cereal character in the foreground of their finished whiskey. Their flagship product, simply called Westland American Single Malt Whiskey, which won gold in the 2014 Berlin International Spirits Competition, is an impressively good example of the commitment. The mix of different types of malt yields a finished whiskey that is rich and chewy, full of chocolate and vanilla that is balanced with dark red fruit notes and a velvety malt presence. It’s most like a Speyside single malt that has spent a little time in a sherry butt.
Although the bottle carries no age statement, there is little of the rough aggressiveness of a young American whiskey. This is a case where the youth adds brightness and energy but does result in something that is raw and unfinished tasting. It’s mature for its age, easy drinking without being insubstantial.
My chance to taste Westland’s signature product, along with their new peated version (which went on to win Gold in the 2014 NY International Spirits Competition) and a few one-offs done for local festivals, came this past summer, and as I alluded to, I went into the tasting knowing nothing of the distillery and expecting more of the same predictability that beleaguers American distilling. I walked away more than pleasantly surprised — not just because I’d had a chance to sip a truly exceptional new American whiskey, but because amidst so much that can be disappointingly cookie-cutter, here was proof that the American distilling scene — be it craft or small-to-medium scale or what have you — still has a tremendous capacity to please; and it still has the potential to come up with something that isn’t just new, and isn’t just innovative, but is new, innovative, and tastes really damn good.
In 2014, Westland joined the eclectic portfolio of Anchor Distilling, the distribution wing that has grown out of San Francisco’s Anchor Brewery. Hopefully, that gets their bottles in front of more people. American single malt is an under-explored but emerging space with a lot of room for mad science and a lot of potential to jolt the American distilling world back to life after a few too many over-priced under-aged whiskies or yet another offering of MGP booze from Lawrenceburg, Indiana, in a new bottle. Whatever the case, Westland Single Malt deserves to be at the forefront. As I sat in the shade of an overgrown patio garden, sipping not my first (or second) pour of their whiskey, I thought, “now this is what American whiskey should be about.”