American Single Malt Whiskey Forges a Path Forward
Quietly over the past few decades, a brand-new domestic spirits category has slowly come into its own. While rye was rolling through a great resurgence and bourbon was maintaining its status as a behemoth, American single malt whiskey (ASMW) officially stepped onto the podium; what began in 2016 with fewer than ten distilleries (some of whom had been producing a single malt–style product as far back as the 1990s) forming the ASMW Commission has now ballooned into more than 170 member producers nationwide.
And those pioneering this new style of whiskey are about to place another much-coveted feather in their caps: recognition from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which will officially establish a standard of identity for the start-up spirit. It isn’t every day that the TTB issues such decrees—the last was an approval of cachaça as a distinctive product of Brazil, way back in 2013!
It might sound like a formality, but to gain favor with the TTB is an enormous deal for distillers, especially those who put years of hard work into organizing among themselves and educating others on their nifty new ideas. “I think there’s a lot of excitement in general about the category both between press and consumers themselves,” says Mindy Dhillon, senior brand manager at Stranahan’s, one of the early pioneers in ASMW distilling. “We’ve even started seeing some liquor stores carving out sections just for American single malt, because there is such an influx of options and producers now, and stores want to make it easier for shoppers to find products.”
It was difficult to educate those shoppers, not to mention stand proudly next to and compete with centuries-old spirits, when the very definition of the category was so fluid. Soon, though, this identity will be set in stone: ASMW must be distilled entirely at a single US distillery and be made of 100% malted barley, a big point of differentiation from other domestic whiskeys that have a lot of percentages to play with when it comes to grain choices. From there, it must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, matured in oak casks, and bottled at 80 proof.
This simple set of parameters then begs the question: What’s going to make ASMW stand out in a market that’s already well-served with single malt options from countries like Canada, Japan, and of course, Scotland? Native heirloom barleys, revolutionary ways of roasting the grain, and a variety of oak-barrel choices, to name a few things; a new set of traditions and geographical terrains to be explored and represented through flavors. Innovation is already underway, but the ironic truth is, it’s only by having narrowed things down to a specific definition that the real experimentation and growth of the category can begin to dazzle drinkers around the world.
We asked bartender Caer Maiko how she enjoys using single malts in cocktails and why the American variety is such a welcome addition to the scene. “I am very excited for ASMW because I just love malt whiskey. The Japanese, Scotch, Irish, and so on, all make amazing whiskey with malted barley,” she says. “The mild milk-chocolate note I usually get from other single malts is still present, but the variation on flavor and style is wild. Don’t expect any peat or smoke, since that malting style is rare in the US. Do expect all the baking spice, banana, and vanilla that you usually find in American oak barrels.”
Thanks to the small boutique distillers who were toying with single malts as far back as the early 1990s, to those who kept the endeavor alive since, and to the ASMW Commission (which stood together and advocated for a seat at the bar!), the sky for this spirit is the limit. Keep an eye out on the shelf for this single malt superstar (and check out our New Frontiers 2: American Single Malt Whiskey Box!) for your taste of the newest frontier in the wide world of whiskey.
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