As the story goes, Scotch producers laughed at the Japanese when they said they were going to make whisky the traditional way. Flash forward a hundred years and a couple decades, and now consumers are literally hurling money at Suntory for a taste of something like Hibiki 17.
You might already know this, but Japanese whisky is so stupidly expensive right now that it makes any variety of Macallan look cheap in comparison. And that's an accomplishment.
We'll talk about Japanese whisky on its own another time, but I mention it here only to illustrate that the success of outfits like Suntory and Nikka proved you could make traditional styles of whisky somewhere outside of Scotland. Whisky, I might add, that even the stodgiest, most grayest captain of industry would be proud to have in his glass as he leans out of his ivory tower windows and admires his view of the poors.
True, America has always been filled with talented people making highly-regarded whiskey, but most people think “Bourbon” when they think “USA.” That's fine if you love bourbon, but personally, there are relatively few bourbons that I love. The good news (for me) is that American single malt is not bourbon.
That may not be as good of news to you if you're a regular bourbon drinker, or even a scotch drinker. If you're trying an American single malt for the first time, I'd recommend that you temper your expectations and enter into the category with an open mind. Because—frankly—you'll need to.
Okay, yes: they're young.
American single malts, in comparison to what you'd find with scotch, are generally more expensive and younger. Hell, even in comparison to bourbons they're young and expensive. I can think of a few seven or eight-year age-stated bourbons that can be sourced for a bit under $40.
In contrast, Westland's Sherry Wood says that it's aged for a minimum of 26 months. That's like when you ask a kid his age and he says, “I'm ten and a half!” If you're trying to sneak in fractions of years or rounding down to months, you're young. If you normally get carded, try telling the bartender that you're twenty-two and seven months old. See what happens and get back to me.
Despite its youth, Westland costs about $70 around here. In comparison, $70 can buy me a few scotches with a 15 to 18 year age statement. That's at least seven times as old. So what are we getting? Are we simply getting suckered? I'd answer no.
Why they deserve a shot
The damnedest thing is that if you're judging value by what's in the bottle, you might find that American distillers like Westland, FEW, or St. George are using every trick in the book to compete.
As it is with bourbon production, our climate has hotter weather and wider shifts in temperature, so aging happens more rapidly. So we're told, anyway. But even so, when time isn't on your side in terms of getting a product to market, what do you do?
The solution for American producers has been to select far more active casks to drop-kick the base spirit with as much flavor as possible in a short amount of time, and as I've mentioned before, what we think of as “aging” has as much to do about the weather, spirit, barrel contents, and barrel size as anything else.
While a scotch like Glenmorangie Lasanta might live out the final two years of its maturation in a second or third-fill sherry cask of massive size, an American producer might find the boldest sherry they can, preferably in the smallest and juiciest cask available. Typically, the aging takes place entirely in that barrel—not in the last month or two. Like, the whole time.
American single malts are more likely to experiment, too. To go back to Westland, they're in the midst of bringing an expression to market that's been aged (partially) in Oregon oak, which has a flavor profile that's distinct from American or French Oak. FEW smokes their barley with cherry wood. All of that is pretty neat in my book.
Additionally, American single malt producers are going to bottle something at the ABV where they think it tastes best in order to double down on making a "craft" product. Westland is 46% ABV. The St. George Baller I have clocks in at 47%. They're joining a lot of other independents who take pride in being non-chill filtered, non-colored, and bottling at a generous strength. They're attempting to add value in other areas that will (hopefully) appeal more to spirit geeks than a number on the side of the bottle, which is often interpreted without context.
Now, after having made the case that years don't tell you everything (and as such we're back on the NAS merry-go-round again), I can say that American single malts do taste young. They're not as smooth when they go down. Even the rapidity at which the spirit picks up the flavor of the wood doesn't fully make up for the time that the wood needs to fully soften the young spirit. I wouldn't recommend American single malts for anyone not sure if they like whiskey or not.
That said, if you're a veteran bourbon or scotch drinker, chances are you're used to how alcohol tastes at this point: you've already crested that hill. As such, and assuming you're no longer a novice (not that there's anything bad about that), I think you'll appreciate what these bottles have to offer.
My biggest praise for American single malt whiskey is this: there are times when I'm drinking bourbon, scotch, Irish, or Canadian whisky and writing an article, watching a movie, or doing something that requires my attention. I'll take a sip and need to think back and remember what it was that I poured for myself, since it isn't immediately evident from the nose or taste.
Thus far, that hasn't happened with any of the American single malts on my shelf. The distinctiveness of each bottle is staggering, and every expression comes across as deeply unique and intensely personal to the various distillers. You're losing a bit of refinement, sure, but to me being able to taste the sheer guts and passion in every glass is a worthwhile trade-off.
For that reason alone, I'd highly recommend you explore the category.