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American Single Malt Keeps Climbing—But Not Everyone Agrees on Its Definition

Stranahan’s, which opened in Denver in 2004, is among the pioneers in American single malt—a movement that is now finally getting a legal definition. (Photo courtesy of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey)

American Single Malt Keeps Climbing—But Not Everyone Agrees on Its Definition

November 5, 2020 –––––– Zak Kostro, , , ,

Virag Saksena had already been brewing beer for a couple decades when, in 2011, he began dreaming up a plan to make American single malt that could stand up to the finest whiskies from Scotland and Japan. “In order to do that, the first step was to understand how the old masters made it,” Saksena says. He traveled to the source of the big peated malt whiskies he most adored, apprenticing at an Islay distillery before he and business partner Vishal Gauri—both engineers—opened 10th Street Distillery in an industrial part of San Jose, California in 2017. Using a pair of 500-gallon copper pot stills that are dwarfed by their lofty 6,500-square-foot space, they're making peated and unpeated malt whiskey that is rooted in European tradition, but with unmistakable California provenance.

To make their peated whiskey, Saksena and Gauri use San Jose's alkaline, mineral-rich water for mashing and fermentation, combining it with custom-peated malt sourced from the Highlands of Scotland. “If you have water that is hard, you have to [use] grain that is more acidic,” Saksena explains. “In our case, the peated grain, which is acidic, works well with our water, which comes from Sierra Nevada snowmelt.” They also open their fermentation tanks to allow the local microflora to enter and interact with the mash, introducing a distinct sense of place that Saksena calls “Bay Area terroir.” This makes for a “tart wash reminiscent of the famed San Francisco sourdough,” he says, and creates a “rich, fruity” new-make spirit.


Business partners Vishal Gauri (left) and Virag Saksena at their distillery, 10th Street Distillery, in San Jose, California. 10th Street Distillery partners Vishal Gauri (left) and Virag Saksena make peated whiskey from San Jose's alkaline, mineral-rich water and custom-peated malt sourced from the Highlands of Scotland.


Like most Scottish single malt, 10th Street's peated whiskey is matured in used bourbon barrels “to tone down the oak elements and [allow] the more delicate notes from the malt to shine through, something which is lost when you use fresh wood,” Saksena says. However, San Jose's warm climate accelerates the process of barrel maturation. “The hot weather makes the angels really greedy,” Saksena quips, referring to the costly loss of liquid from the barrel to evaporation. “Our angels' share is several times what you'd see in Scotland. Luckily, the temperature is just right, where even though aging happens faster, it remains a mellow whiskey. It doesn't pick up any harsh flavors from the wood.”

Each of these factors plays a role in creating a distinctive whiskey Saksena describes as “clean and complex,” less aggressively peated than a brawny Ardbeg or Lagavulin. “We've stayed away from elements that would [exert] a heavy influence” on the whiskey's flavor, he explains. “And the way we're distilling it, we get nice fruity cuts. So you're getting all of these flavors, but in moderation, balancing each other out. It's an easy-drinking whiskey, similar to the easygoing spirit of California.” A taste of this highly original whiskey, and others like it, may be the best way to put your finger on the emerging style, given that there is not yet a legal definition of what constitutes American single malt.

Taste American single malt's incredible diversity of flavor in these 10 bottles


That lack of formality has not prevented single malt whiskey from becoming a full-blown movement in the U.S., with more than 160 producers across the country distilling from 100% barley. (To add to the confusion, American regulations list a definition for malt whiskey, which requires at least 51% malted barley and maturation in new charred oak barrels.)

Defining the Future


The American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, a group of about 160 craft distillers, is rallying behind a formal petition to define the style—made from 100% malted barley, distilled at a single distillery, made and aged in the U.S.—and their proposal has been under review by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) for over a year. This proposal embraces some of the most important tenets of single malt scotch, while leaving room for creativity by omitting requirements like minimum aging times or cask types, other than that the whiskey be matured in oak casks no larger than 700 liters.


Bottles of 10th Street Distillery's American single malt whiskey at the distillery in San Jose, California. Virag Saksena describes 10th Street's peated single malt as an easy-drinking whiskey, more approachable than Islay scotch.


“Single malt whisky is inherently interesting because of its diversity,” says American Single Malt Whiskey Commission president Steve Hawley. American single malt in particular promises “a lot of creativity and innovation,” he adds. “You've got 160 distilleries [in the commission] in a country that's enormously larger than Scotland. There's a wide range of climates and styles that are emerging. We're also living in a country that's largely free from the chains of tradition and convention. That allows us to explore single malts in a different way—even within a definition that is largely very similar to the Scotch Whisky Association's,” which stipulates, among other criteria, that it must be made from 100% malted barley, in a pot still, at only one distillery.

“We're trying to make it our own,” says master distiller Lance Winters of Alameda, California's St. George Spirits, one of American single malt's earliest pioneers. “One of the things for me that defines America is being able to do something that's a little different. There hasn't been a single malt tradition in the United States, so it was an opportunity to create our own tradition for an American single malt.”

Winters, who came to St. George in 1996 after working as a brewer, saw the potential for greater flavor variety by distilling from barley roasted to different levels. “Look at a very traditional Scottish brand, and it's either pale malt or smoked malt, and that's it,” Winters says. “There's no range to that.” With his brewing background, he recognized the bold aromatics and flavors in beer made from more heavily roasted grains and started experimenting with them to make whiskey. “We've got crystal malts, chocolate malt, black patent malt, hardwood-smoked malt,” Winters says, rattling off ingredients familiar to fans of German lager, English porter, and Irish stout. St. George ages its whiskeys for various amounts of time in casks that held bourbon, port, sherry, and California sauternes-style wine, among others, to further broaden the flavor spectrum. “We're definitely shifting the profile,” Winters adds.


St. George Spirits master distiller Lance Winters leans against what appear to be barrels of whiskey at the distillery's barrel warehouse in Alameda, California. Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George Spirits inAlameda, California, believes it's too soon to establish formal regulations for American single malt, which he says could limit distillers' ability to explore new flavors in the still-developing whiskey style.


Stranahan's—said to be Colorado's first legal distillery since Prohibition—opened in Denver in 2004, building a portfolio of American single malts and gaining a cult following for limited-edition releases like Snowflake, a special blend of different ages and maturation profiles that changes annually. Head distiller Owen Martin, who took over from longtime master distiller Rob Dietrich in 2019, is tackling the chance to leave his fingerprint on a still-developing whiskey style. “You have the entrenched institutions of bourbon and scotch, and American single malt is kind of finding its way in between those two and building itself up,” Martin says. “We can take cues from what we like about both of those industries and incorporate that into this new category.”

Similar to St. George, the Stranahan's house style draws inspiration from craft brewing, experimenting with a variety of specialty malts—including black, caramel, and chocolate—that Martin says lend the whiskey “a whole other source of flavors that you don't see in most scotch.” Meanwhile, ample stocks aging at Stranahan's allow him to tinker with the intensity of oak influence in the whiskey's flavor by considering the amount of time the liquid spends resting in new wood. Maturation starts in new charred oak barrels, the same as those used for bourbon and rye whiskey. “But what I play with is how long we leave the whiskey in that initial barrel,” Martin says. “Because the longer we leave it in there, the more bourbon-y flavors we get—wood sugars, caramel, vanilla. The amount of time before we decide to take it out and either put it in finishing barrels or bottle it—that's where we're defining what American single malt means.” Leaving the spirit in new charred oak for four years, for example, allows the malt character to shine through without barrel flavors taking over. “Then we'll put it into wine barrels or other whiskey barrels, which won't give all that oak extractive, but allow the malt flavor to carry on while adding more nuance to it.”
I think that we need to have a longer period of experimentation, innovation, and exploration before we say firmly, ‘This is what American single malt has to be.' —Lance Winters, master distiller, St. George Spirits

Virginia Distillery Co. in Lovingston began distilling single malt in 2015 and, while waiting for it to mature, has offered a series of cask-finished whiskeys that combine the company's own-make single malt with malt whiskies sourced from Scotland's Highlands. The delightfully original Cider Cask Finished ranked No. 13 in Whisky Advocate's 2018 Top 20. More recently, Virginia Distillery Co.'s Prelude: Courage & Conviction American single malt—a limited-release preview of the fully mature single malt—scored 90 points in the Buying Guide. The whiskey is malt-forward, with layers of fruit, nut, spice, and honey flavors. The 91-rated Courage & Conviction (George G. Moore batch), just released in April, shows lemon and orange oil, guava, kiwi, dried leaves, nutty tobacco, and peppery spice.

Instead of incorporating a multitude of different malt types, Virginia Distillery Co. focuses on mashing, fermentation, and maturation, while leveraging the state's climate—hot and humid in the summer, but often below freezing in the winter—to produce a single malt whiskey that shines in its complexity and balance. “Rather than insulating ourselves from the wild temperature swings in Virginia, we end up embracing them,” CEO Gareth Moore says. “That's kind of the easy part—letting the climate do its thing. In warm maturation environments, there's going to be a lot of influence from the cask in a shorter period of time than in a traditional climate like Scotland. The more complex part is working with our distillate to match those temperature swings.”


Virginia Distillery Co. owners Gareth and Maggie Moore at the distillery with a view of a still in the background. Virginia Distillery Co. owners Gareth and Maggie Moore began distilling single malt in 2015. The distillery's first 100% own-make single malt—Courage & Conviction, released in April 2020—is a complex yet balanced whiskey in which the malt's delicate flavors shine through.


Virginia Distillery Co. uses a longer mashing cycle to create a clearer wort and eliminate cereal flavors from the husks of the grain carrying through to distillation. It also uses two different yeast strains and short, high-temperature fermentations to drive the development of fruit and floral esters, with a sweet flavor profile, before aging the spirit in three different cask types: bourbon, sherry, and what Moore calls cuvée. First-fill bourbon barrels impart a mellower flavor than new charred oak, Moore says, but still more robust than typically found in single malt scotch. “If you're sending barrels to Scotland, it doesn't make sense to ship empty air across the ocean, so they're [often] broken down and re-coopered on the other side,” Moore explains. “But if you're sending them one state over,” from neighboring Kentucky, they arrive intact. “That means they're a little bit fresher, with more of the bourbon influence, sweeter notes that would otherwise dry out.”

The cuvée casks, sourced from European red wine makers, have been shaved, toasted, and re-charred (the process is known as STR, and such casks are used by dozens of distilleries around the world, including at least a handful of American single malt producers). “The inside of the cask has been shaved to a very precise layer,” Moore notes. “It's deep enough that it's getting to wood that hasn't previously been toasted, but also not so deep that it [eliminates] the influence of the wine.” When the cooper toasts and re-chars the barrels, it “creates this really nice crust that brings out a lot of the sugars in the wood—even more so than just a regular char, because it's not just the wood that's being toasted—it's the wine.” These cuvée casks can impart intense flavors into the whiskey in as little as two or three years—a significantly shorter period of time than aging in bourbon or sherry casks—so Moore and the distillery team keep close watch on the liquid as it matures. “You're always looking for balance, and don't want the STR cask to overpower the fragile distillate,” Moore adds. “Malted barley has a lot of very delicate flavors, and we want that to shine through in the final product.”

Grappling for Consensus


The American Single Malt Whiskey Commission hopes to secure a formal definition for the style “within a year,” Hawley says, although when that could actually happen remains decidedly uncertain. “It's out of our hands at this point and up to the TTB,” he adds.

Because difference of opinion is a cornerstone of American discourse, not every distiller has embraced the commission's proposed definition. Among them is Winters, who believes it's too soon to establish strict regulations. “I think that we need to have a longer period of experimentation, innovation, and exploration before we say firmly, ‘This is what [American single malt] has to be,'” Winters says. “There might be [distillers] coming up with really brilliant ideas and beautiful executions that would make the category even more valid and vibrant, and…they get cut out of the party” if the commission's proposed guidelines were ratified. “A far more valuable regulation for us as distillers [and for consumers] is one that just insists on transparency—‘This is how a product is made, this is what it's made from, and this is who makes it,'” Winters adds.
You have the entrenched institutions of bourbon and scotch, and American single malt is kind of finding its way in between those two and building itself up. —Owen Martin, master distiller, Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey

A single malt, whether defined by the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009 or the American commission's proposed standard of identity, can come from only one distillery—that's the “single” part. So it's not surprising that High West master distiller Brendan Coyle ignited debate when he asserted that the distillery's High Country American single malt—its first 100% malt whiskey, a complex blend of three different recipes across three different barrel finishes—is still a single malt, despite the fact that the liquid was made at two different sites. High West's production is spread across two distilleries—its Park City, Utah saloon and its ranch facility in nearby Wanship. Each operates under a separate distilled spirits plant license, and High Country includes whiskeys from both sites. While some would say that makes High Country a blended malt rather than a single malt, Coyle disagrees. All the liquid “is coming from 100% High West Distillery-owned facilities,” he said when High Country debuted in December 2019. “They're really one and the same. In a way, it's like running two different recipes in one location—just happens to be two different locations, but controlled by the one driving force.”


Virag Saksena works on the still at 10th Street Distillery in San Jose, California, on September 4, 2019. 10th Street Distillery CEO and distiller Virag Saksena apprenticed at a Scottish distillery before he and business partner Vishal Gauri opened 10th Street in 2017 in San Jose, California, where they make both peated and unpeated single malt whiskey.


While Coyle says High West shares “most views” with the commission, he also believes there's room for “robust discussion” when it comes to establishing an official designation for American single malt. “High West is a blender and a producer,” Coyle explains. “Blending is a very important part of the artistic nature of what we do. For the most part, I think that aligning with Scotland's definition of single malt is a benefit. But I do think that we should differentiate a little more for American single malt, open it up a bit, and allow the opportunity for some more innovation and blending. It's very important that we have a definition that does not allow third-party [sourced whiskey] to go into a single malt. But I do think that having the versatility of using different plants,” provided they belong to the same distillery, “would be a great addition to the definition. That's where [the commission and High West] kind of differ.”

Even without an official definition locked in, Saksena sees the road ahead as unequivocally auspicious—for 10th Street and other craft distillers who are charting the course for American single malt whiskey. “We're trying to create something based on our terroir,” Saksena says. “Rich, complex, flavorful whiskeys which are not bound by what the normal conventions have been.”