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.”

At the other end of the spectrum, rep- resentatives of Diageo recently visited the UK parliament with proposals to relax the regulations currently stran- gling the options for wood nishing. For a whisky to be labelled ‘single malt scotch’, it must only be aged or nished in American or European oak, but this is one of the rules which, as Hawley says, has been relaxed, meaning the category must still use oak to age its liquid, but could use any type of oak from around the world. This is a huge opportunity to create a category with more potential for further innovation than its Scottish cousin.


Because American single malts is an emerging category, it is led by small, cra distilleries. But America’s ability to have smaller producers is a modern luxury.

Greg Dillon, founder of online blog Greatdrams, says: “America has had a challenging time when it comes to innovation due to various things, from Prohibition to the temperance movement. But take New York for exam- ple – even in 2008 a distilling license would have cost around $16,000 annu- ally. Not too much when you factor in returns from selling spirit, but with equipment, the cost of NYC real estate and business rates, that really was prohibitive.”

According to Dillon, the introduction in New York State of the Farm Distillery License a few years ago has allowed small distilling brands in New York to pop up. Although the licence states that a maximum of 100,000 gallons per annum can be produced, and 75% locally grown NY farm produce must be used within the production process, it will help smaller categories such as American single malts grow.

Dillon adds: “The licence was put in place to facilitate and encourage the exploration of creativity.” A three-year licence costs $384. Dillon says: “This is a signi cant reduction in costs that had kept cra distillers from starting up operations for 75 years, and is why New York is one of the top states for cra spirit production.” Dillon says he believes 15 of NYC’s small distilleries came about on the back of this newly created licence.

Seventh-generation Beam fam- ily member Steve Beam, who now runs Limestone Branch Distillery in Kentucky, has seen signi cant changes to the American whiskey industry throughout his career.

“When I started there were fewer than 200 small distilleries around the coun- try and now there are more than 1,800,” says Beam. “I’m hoping everyone set- tles in to what suits their surround- ing environment and I see single malts doing really well in the Paci c Northwest, where there are cool, even temperatures. Speci c spirits do well in certain climates. When it comes to American single malts, a lot has to do with the economy too, because corn is so much cheaper in America than malt. It’s about a third of the price.”

According to Jack Daniel’s assistant master distiller Chris Fletcher, more experimentation needs to be done when it comes to innovation in barley- based whiskeys because of the lower avour intensity.

Fletcher says: “Barley, in my opinion, looking at the avour contribution, is less impactful than corn or rye. Corn brings a lot of sweetness and rye pro- vides spice, while barely is more of a toasted-biscuit mouthfeel. You don’t get a lot of avour from barley itself.

“If you look at great scotch whiskies, a lot of them are adding peat or sherry casks to build on the barley avour. I think, as American-based malt whis- keys continue to grow, it’s going to be interesting to see how the distillers of the US build on the malt avour the way a traditional scotch distiller would.”


As attractive as unlimited innova- tion sounds to a young, free category, there needs to be a balance enforced between no rules at all and over restric- tion in order to create an innovative category with international quality assurance.

Dillon says: “The American single malt category does need more de ni- tion in order to compete at the same level of quality and consumer percep- tion on the international stage as com- petitors such as scotch whisky and Irish whiskey.

“You have to remember that, as one of the younger strands within wider whisk(e)y, it will take time to get to a place where American single malt is the darling of the masses instead of the treasure of American whiskey geeks and alpha consumers.

“I sincerely hope [American single malts] does prompt more nations to create single malt expressions and to experiment with new ways of doing things in order to expand their nation’s whisky o ering.

“But, like everything, they must do so according to global traditions and seek the highest quality output possi- ble in order to maintain the reputation of their product, their brand and what might become their national spirit.”

It is an exciting and crucial time for American single malts. Once the ASMWC gets its Standard of Identity approved, then and only then can it really start to be recognised as a com- petitive category.

But if single malt scotch, among others, fails to make room for innova- tion, the new laws sketched out by the ASMWC could take it to a new level within the global whisk(e)y industry. Then cowboy boots and single malts might be more linked.