American Single Malts: How the west is being won

Pioneer whiskey makers are attempting to forge a new identity for their American whiskey single malts. Shay Waterworth finds out how.


THE WORDS ‘SINGLE MALT’ evoke images of tartan kilts, bag- pipes and salmon fishingOK, that’s maybe a little too far, but single malts are internationally associated with Scotland. Single malt scotch is THE most talked about whisky category right now, but there is noise coming from further west. American single malts are kicking up a fuss and too right – why shouldn’t single malts be associated with cowboy boots and Chevy pickups?

In Scotland, a single malt whisky must come from one distillery, be aged for at least three years (and one day), and only use American or European oak barrels. This is the benchmark for international single malts and, looking Stateside, the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission was formed to establish its own Standard of Identity, which is allocated by the US federal government.

Currently more than 100 member dis- tilleries abide by ASMWC rules, which state that an American single malt must: be made of 100% barley, dis- tilled at one distillery, be made entirely in the US, matured in oak casks (not exceeding 700-l capacity), distilled to maximum 80% abv and bottled at min- imum 40% abv.

Steve Hawley, director of market- ing at Westland Distillery, heads up the ASMWC and says: “As a group we have formally submitted to the federal government a suggested rule change for the TTB’s (Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau) Beverage Alcohol Manual, which governs the categorisa- tion and naming rules for spirits in this country.

“The proposed rule change has been received and accepted by the TTB, which is part of the US Treasury Department. It has been collecting pro- posed changes for years now so ours joins a long list of others.

“The next step is for the TTB to begin a public comment period – we’ve been told this is a 180- day period – when anyone can weigh in on any of the proposed changes. When this will happen it can’t tell us. It could be months or, frankly, it could be years.

“When and if adopted, this new Standard of Identity does a number of things. It gives consumers a clear understanding of what they’re paying for. It protects the term ‘American sin- gle malt whiskey’, ensuring that whis- keys that aren’t produced according to the de nition aren’t being marketed as American single malt.

“Lastly, the formalisation of the cat- egory helps to shape how American single malt is listed and shelved in the trade, something we’re working on as a commission with retailers, bars and restaurants, even in the absence of a formal de nition.”


Innovation is what drives a category forward. Wood- nishing in scotch gave its single malts a new direction for example, and now the ASMWC has a real opportunity to harvest innovation.

Hawley says: “Our de nition largely follows that which the rest of the world understands as single malt whiskey— made from 100% malted barley, at one distillery, aged in oak, etc. That said, we’ve intentionally le out some more rigid rules that you’ll nd in the de ni- tion of the Scotch Whisky Association speci cally. We’ve done this to encour- age innovation in single malt here in the States and to leave room for regional styles to emerge.”