What comes to mind when you think about American whiskey? Perhaps a southern bourbon or a patriotic rye, particularly when paired with a buttery steak or a juicy burger. Single malts, on the other hand, are probably not even a consideration when thinking about American whiskey. After all, single malts have traditionally been found in Scotland, so it makes complete sense that most would equate them with Scotch.
Over the past twenty years or so, American distillers, especially craft distilleries, have been trying their hand at a new form of whiskey: American single malt. It is important to note that American single malt is not scotch. While I recognize that single malt has traditionally been equated with scotch, American single malt is an entirely separate category.
Although American single malt whiskey has not yet received official approval from the federal government, it is one of the fastest-growing American whiskey categories. Distillers across the U.S. are designing their own versions of this burgeoning category — and it’s pretty remarkable.
I had the opportunity to connect with Daric Schlesselman who, along with his wife, Sarah Ludington, founded Brooklyn-based distillery Van Brunt Stillhouse in 2012.
Daric and Sarah, who produce farmhouse style whiskies, are among the growing group of distillers who offer American single malt whiskey with a unique, creative spin.
“I suffer from having a beer maker’s mentality, which means I always seek opportunities for experimentation,” Daric explained. “I play around with American single malts quite a bit and have created so many different expressions of it at this point, but I settled on a recipe a few years ago.”
The American single malt that Daric produces at his distillery — which he hinted will most likely be recreated at some point in the future — has a roasty, wood-forward flavor with hints of chocolate. He produces his American single malt using new barrells, and pulls most of the whiskey’s flavor from the actual grain rather than barrel aging, which is very unlike the traditional scotch-making process. He also uses a brewer’s malt (Pilsen) when creating his American single malt, which has some bready notes.
“Distillers in Scotland have a huge silo of barley that they put in their mash,” Daric explained. “In doing so, they are using one single type of malt. I, on the other hand, use eight or nine different notes that stem from the grain to produce a unique flavor.”
Here’s the simple definition: single malt whiskey is produced at a single distillery using malted barley, which is the only grain used in the mash bill.
Now, for the more detailed definition:
The American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, which is comprised of about 100 or so whiskey distillers who are working on securing federal recognition for American single malt, has set guidelines that should be followed when making this specific spirit. To break it down, American single malt whiskey must be made from 100 percent malted barley, mashed and distilled in a single U.S. distillery, matured in oak casks that do not exceed 700 liters, distilled to no more than 160 U.S. proof (80 percent by volume), and then bottled at 80 U.S. proof or more (40 percent alcohol by volume).
As of now, the TTB doesn’t have a specific definition for American single malt. They do have a classification for “malt whisky” — but they don’t have anything that specifically relates to American-made single malt. That’s primarily because, up until recently, American single malt production was so small that there wasn’t really a need for a regulatory definition. Now, with American single malt being produced by more and more craft distilleries each year, distillers are demanding that the TTB provide a clear definition. Official recognition from the TTB, which is responsible for labelling spirit bottles and other related matters, would help American single malt have a clear label differentiation from other whiskies, making American single malt more nationally recognizable.
Daric is among the many distillers supporting The American Single Malt Whiskey Commission and has been dedicated to seeing American single malt receive a clear definition from the TTB.
“A lot of distillers create nothing but American single malt, so it is very important for them to get federal recognition,” Daric explained. “If the TTB decides to formally recognize American single malt as a new category of whiskey, it will become more nationally recognizable. For example, if a liquor store owner sees that there is a new whiskey category, they may have an American single malt shelf, which would increase sales and recognition for the product and distillers.”
The idea originally came to fruition at Portland’s Clear Creek Distillery in 1993. Over the past 25+ years since then, hundreds of domestic distilleries have been recreating their own versions of the American single malt — offering the opportunity to experience one of the oldest spirit styles in an entirely new way.
Although several brave trailblazers have followed suit over the years, it wasn’t until fairly recently, in 2016, that the American Single Malt Commission was formed. In doing so, a formal set of standards was created to help clearly define American single malt, along with a greater push towards legal classification by the TTB.
There is a lot of exciting momentum that has been building around the production of American single malt whiskey. Distillers have been quite creative in their approach, and American single malt is very different across the United States. An American single malt found in Portland might have a distinctly different flavor than an American single malt found in Maine. This is widely due to the fact that American single malt has not yet been clearly defined by the TTB, so distillers can experiment with the distillation process a bit more than they can with other spirits.
“There are a few distillers, including myself, who have started to use new barrels when making American single malt, whereas scotch makers never do,” Daric explained. “When American single malt is made in a new barrel, I have found that it is very oaky when compared to scotch because it has that American richness and sweetness from the newer barrels.”
With American single malt bursting onto the scene, we are at a pivotal point in the world of whiskey. American single malt will only continue to rise in popularity more and more each year as distillers seek to create a single malt that is distinctly American while still reflecting their unique localities.
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