A devoted scotch drinker, Stephen Paul was always fond of sipping a dram while barbecuing, often over mesquite wood scraps from his custom furniture company. One evening in 2006, a finger or two in, the fragrant wood fire and peaty whiskey suggested an ideal blend of locale and liquor. “Drying imparts flavor, and mesquite is the most aromatic wood,” says Paul, who later closed his Tucson-based furniture business, opened Hamilton Distillers and now makes the acclaimed Whiskey Del Bac, which effectively puts Arizona in a bottle. “I couldn’t shake the thought that it could work.”
Hamilton’s Whiskey Del Bac isn’t scotch, of course. Only Scotland produces scotch, the same way Champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France. American producers of single malt whiskey—the traditional barley distillate of Scotland—proudly wear the outsider badge, so proudly that a group of them, Paul included, have banded together to lobby for their own official identity. Formed in 2016, the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission is petitioning the federal government to recognize the spirit with its own category and standards, like bourbon has. “Distilling should be tied to the agriculture in the region,” declares Matt Hofmann, master distiller at Westland Distillery, in Washington state, and one of the founders of the commission. “We’re making American single malts,” he says, “not Scottish copies.”
The American distillers who have joined the commission—80 and counting—aim to adopt most of the Scottish rules for single malts: whiskey from one distillery (the “single” in “single malt”) made from water, yeast and malted barley (“malted” barley is soaked in water to allow it to germinate, releasing enzymes essential to fermentation). But while the Scots limit barrel wood to oak, require at least three years of aging, and tend to dry their barley with peat fires (for smoky Scotch) or hot air (unsmoked), New World producers have bucked certain barrel limitations, aging prescriptions and smoking conventions, preferring to leave more room for innovation. “American single malt is the new frontier,” says Dale Riggins, brand manager for Hamilton. “We’re using the classic methods of making Scotch whiskey and local ingredients to create terroir-driven distillates in different parts of the country.”
Those regions include Washington state, where Westland Distillery ages some single malts in native Garryana oak barrels for a jam-and- molasses finish, and Virginia’s orchard country, where Copper Fox Distillery uses locally grown barley and smokes the malt over applewood fires. Single malts from Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, based in Denver, depend on snowmelt and Colorado-grown barley. And in Alabama, John Emerald Distilling Co. slants its spirit Southern, smoking it with peach and pecan wood. “Scotland is small and culturally homogenous,” says Hofmann, arguing that distillers from across the country should be free to creatively express America’s geographic, cultural and climatological diversity just as he does: “Our single malts are reflective of the Pacific Northwest.”
Craft brewers, who expanded the American palate from a steady diet of pilsners, may have led the way. But unlike the beer makers, most single malt distillers say they’re not dismissing tradition, just charging it with American ingenuity. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, but make a better wheel,” says Colin Keegan, founder of Santa Fe Spirits in New Mexico, whose Colkegan Single Malt is amplified by its aging at an elevation of 7,000 feet.
While the pervading attitude of these distilleries might be experimentation, the commission’s campaign is about controlling quality—currently, without government standards, anyone can call their mongrel hooch a single malt—and educating the public. “All over the country I find our whiskey under bourbon or rye sections, and it’s completely misleading to the consumer,” says Rob Dietrich, master distiller at Stranahan’s. It’s important to understand why the stuff is so expensive, he says, noting that barley costs three to four times more than corn, and that single malts rely on closed fermentation systems to keep out wild airborne yeast, making them trickier to operate than the open tubs used to ferment other future whiskeys. Put simply, he says, “It’s a lot more work to create a single malt than a bourbon.”
The commission has made its case and is waiting for approval from the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, possibly in the next year. For now, the campaign rests on its creativity. “We’re not the first to prove a great single malt can be made outside Scotland,” says Hofmann, singling out Japanese whiskeys. “They’re putting a regional stamp on it and adding a new voice. We just think America should chime in too.”