On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the recent designation of American single malt as an official whiskey category in the United States. They discuss the exact rules distillers will have to follow in order to label their bottles American single malt, as well as what the distinction means for the future of the American whiskey industry.
On this Friday’s tasting, your hosts try American single malt whiskies from Copperworks and Cedar Ridge. Tune in to learn more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And it’s the Friday “VinePair Podcast.” Welcome back from vacation, Joanna.
J: Thank you. Thank you.
A: So let’s discuss the Azores — what’s it like?
J: So the Azores are… it’s an island system of nine islands.
J: Off of Portugal.
A: But how far off?
J: Two-and-a-half-hour flight from Lisbon. So it’s not on the Iberian Peninsula, as Tim asked me earlier today. It was a five-hour flight from New York.
J: It’s in the Atlantic Ocean and they’re really, really beautiful. We flew into Sao Miguel, which is the main island, one of the bigger ones, but then we stayed there for a few nights and then we flew to Pico, which is another island, which has a big volcano on it. I think it is one of the biggest in Europe.
J: And they are known for their wine.
A: Very cool.
J: Yes. And that’s why we went there because when the island was first inhabited back in the 15th century, they were trying to figure out what they could plant there because it was all volcanic rock. And they tried a number of different crops and I guess some priest came along and brought the Verdelho grape and that they were able to cultivate that in the volcanic rock and grow it in the rocks. It’s really unique because instead of having trellises, they built volcanic rock walls around each vine, I guess, to protect them from the sea water.
J: Yeah. Sea water, I guess, because it was burning the leaves.
A: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
J: So, yeah. So they were able to do this and it became like the biggest industry on the island for a really long time; obviously it got ravaged by disease. And then in the 1990s they kind of revived winemaking on Pico and it’s a World Heritage UNESCO Site.
A: Oh, that’s awesome. How many wineries are there?
J: I don’t actually know how many. I think there are a handful, but then otherwise in the Azores, Portuguese wine is big there too.
A: How was the wine on this island?
A: I love this.
J: I can’t think of the red, but we had Arinto, which is popular in Portugal. And… Gosh, I can’t remember the other one. But yeah, so that’s what they’re trying to do, they’re growing these grapes. We went to the Azores Wine Company and we did a tasting, the Around the Volcano tasting, which is the same grape, but grown in different places on the island to taste the effects of the terroir on the island.
A: That’s dope.
J: It was very, very cool. And then they also had some really beautiful wines made from their older vines, so that was great. I brought back some wine for us to try, Adam.
J: Mmhmm, Keith.
A: Very cool.
J: Yeah. So it was a really, really wonderful experience. Great adventuring and hiking and things, but beaches as well.
A: I saw there are lots of cows.
J: Lots of cows. Yes. My husband, Evan, was obsessed with the cows.
A: He’s a really good Instagrammer.
J: He is. Yeah. He was really into it.
A: I was like, “Wow.” I mean, I’m just going to follow him because I saw the whole vacation.
J: Yeah. He was really good about Instagram.
A: He’s very good.
J: It’s a very Instagrammable place. It’s so, so beautiful.
A: It’s really cool. Not what I thought it would look like.
J: Highly recommended.
A: Very awesome.
J: Very green. I mean, despite being volcanic islands but very, very cool.
A: And so, to get to the islands, is it you fly to every island, or are there ferries at all?
J: There are ferries, but they’re quite long.
A: Yeah. I see that.
J: Yeah. The flight from Sao Miguel to Pico was only 39 minutes or something. But I think it would’ve been many hours to ferry there, but yeah, very easy to get to.
A: That’s awesome.
Z: Do you have to fly to Portugal first to be able to get to the Azores?
J: No, actually.
Z: You went like halfway, you went well past the Azores and then backtrack.
J: No, no. We were able, I think, so…
A: You used to have to, I think, right?
J: You used to have to. There at the Azores, the airline, flies directly from New York to Sao Miguel, Ponta Delgada. But then in 2019 — this is part of the reason why we even learned about the Azores — because in 2019, Delta started flying direct New York to Ponta Delgada and they covered it in the travel section. And so this travel writer we like a lot wrote the article and we were very compelled to go there.
A: Very awesome.
A: Very cool.
J: Highly recommend.
A: Welcome back everyone, go to the Azores. So this week for our Friday edition, we’re gonna chat about something that happened this week, which is that officially now American single malts are a category of whiskey in the United States.
A: So I guess in terms of just our reactions to this category, have you guys had a lot of American single malts apparently as you told me before we started joining the fastest-growing…
J: Whiskey category in the U.S. apparently.
A: Interesting. So have either of you had a lot of American single malts? I have not.
Z: I definitely have.
J: I don’t think intentionally, but yes, I feel like Zach you’re always talking about American single malts.
Z: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been fascinated by this category for a number of years in part for self-interested reasons, in that I think it’s a style of whiskey in general that I like — single malt, be it from Scotland or Japan or the U.S. or all kinds of other places. And also partially because I find it this fascinating sort of counterpoint to the narrative in American whiskey that’s so tied to bourbon because single malt production is very different, both in terms of the raw materials. And I think in some ways the desired effect, I think one thing that we’ve touched on a few times in the podcast over the last couple years is how even as bourbon production has moved beyond the sort of Kentucky/Tennessee region to be allowed and practiced throughout the country, the style of bourbon that people are producing is largely pretty similar. They’re very clearly tied to the longstanding tradition of bourbon production in the U.S. Which is fine. That’s what people generally want when they want bourbon. But what’s interesting to me about American single malt is it’s always seemed like, and continues to seem like, this category wherein the use of malted barley as the base material and for lack of a better word, the ethos of a lot of the people who have gotten interested in American single malt as producers, has been much more about trying to express a sense of place through their distillate. And that’s something that I find interesting even if sometimes it’s also a little, can be a little heavy handed or at least sometimes a little bit prompt an eye roll or two for me when it gets over the top. But I do think there’s something interesting and exciting in that. But I also know that for producers in the category, getting this official designation of what an American single malt whiskey is, the sort of rules you have to follow to be able to label your bottles as such, has been a big goal for a lot of producers, because it will allow them to really formalize the category and I think keep large producers who might have wanted to play fast and loose with that term from doing so. They’ll have to follow the same rules about using 100 percent barley and all that stuff to enter the category.
A: So what are the exact rules?
J: So it has to be made from 100 percent malted barley, mashed, distilled, and matured in one distillery. Produced entirely in the U.S., distilled to a proof not exceeding 160, matured in oak casks not exceeding 700 liters, and bottled at a minimum of 40 percent ABV.
A: OK. So no age requirement?
J: Not that I’m aware of.
Z: I think you see that as being both a reflection of the relatively new nature of this industry in America, there just aren’t a lot of longstanding American single malt producers, but also a reflection of the category itself wherein we certainly think about single malt whiskey as being a category where there’s lots of aging. And I think you will start to see some age statement bottles put out. If they’re not already out there, they probably are, but also a recognition that’s not the only potential avenue for this category to go down. And I think to come to something I was just saying before, that’s really interesting to me is that you’re seeing people look at using some different kinds of oak. I know Westland Distillery here in Seattle has heavily emphasized the use of a native kind of Pacific Northwest oak, garryana, in their production. Also potentially using different malting techniques. There’s Colkegan, which is a distillery I think in… God, I can’t remember it. But it’s there in New Mexico or Arizona, I apologize. But they’re malting barley using mesquite, which is obviously very authentic to where they’re from and definitely imparts a mesquite note to the whiskey, which I find pretty enjoyable, honestly, but obviously not something you would see in Scotland or even other parts of the U.S.
J: Zach, when you were saying before that some get heavy-handed, what did you mean?
Z: Well, I don’t know if I’d say heavy-handed. I think there’s a little bit of… Oh God, OK. Let me prepare my somewhat hot take here. So I think, as we’ve also covered on the podcast before, the term, whether it’s terroir or is reflecting a sense of place, that concept, I think does get a little bit overwrought. And sometimes when we’re talking about things like distilling where a fair bit of the characteristic of the final product might come from the barrel it’s aged in, which again, depending on how you decide to barrel it can be its own sense of place as mentioned with the Pacific Northwest oak here or other oak species throughout the country or the world. But also that just distilling itself is a pretty intense process and so it’s not so much that the sense of place is coming from the raw materials necessarily. But I also think that it’s just that we still have so little idea for what that could mean for a category like American single malt, because it’s so new and this is such a big f*cking country with so many different kinds of places within it, different kinds of climates and ecosystems in a lot of ways. And so what’s cool about it is that yes, there’s this category of American single malt, but I think that if you see production continuing to grow, if you see distilleries throughout the country, really focusing on to some extent they’re somewhat local ecosystems for some of the inputs. You could have a single malt industry and a category that has lots of distinct regional differences. We see this in Scotland, but Scotland is much more homogenous climatically than the United States.
A: So I have a kind of maybe a stupid question, but as you’re both talking, I was thinking about it: Why did it take so long? Is the answer just bourbon and rye? Scotch obviously has been a whiskey that we’ve been very well aware of as a drinking culture for a very long time. If you want to say, “OK, well, yes, but not truly.” I think really in the ’70s and the ’80s, people came into collecting Scotch and especially single malts. And that’s when you sort of saw the single malt explosion where lots of people were like, “Hey, I’d rather buy the single malt than buy the blends.” We know in the ’50s, ’60s, etc., blends were huge. It’s when Johnnie Walker became really famous, Dewars, etc., in the American consciousness. And then we started to recognize single malts and become fans of single malts and try to collect single malts and what is now Diageo bought up a bunch of them, mostly so they could make better Johnny Walker Blue. They then also started selling those single malts and used… LVMH owns some, all of them. And Japan caught on pretty quickly and started making single malts. Taiwan is making single malts. There’s other places and I’m so curious why it feels like, I mean, people probably were making them nice here.
J: They were making them. Yeah.
A: But why did it take so long for this designation to happen and to push for it in the U.S.? Just really curious.
Z: The simplest reason is actually that barley doesn’t grow in the parts of the United States that are traditionally connected with distilling, or it doesn’t grow very well and isn’t grown very heavily. So if you think about it, barley doesn’t really grow in the Southeast, it’s not a big crop in Kentucky or Tennessee. It’s the reason why despite the people who founded the distillery industries in this country, being from Scotland, Ireland. It’s why corn very quickly became… first rye in particular and wheat to some extent in the Northeast, which both grew much better there than barley and then corn in Appalachia being the base grains. And so the barley production in the United States is centered in Montana, the Dakotas, and then on the West Coast. And so there wasn’t the same interest in… Those areas have not supported big distilling industries until very recently when the national laws were liberalized to allow for craft distilling. That’s still less than two decades ago and so I think that’s a big part of it. I think the category as a whole is actually very new at any kind of scale. And it’s because of the change in the laws and the fact that for so long, American whiskey distilling was centered around corn, rye, and wheat, and barley really didn’t play a role. Barley, if it was used, it was used for malt syrup or for beer. And that’s all well and good, but it’s not the highest use of barley in my opinion.
J: Yeah. That’s a good point. So we’re working on a story about this right now, but I think it’s interesting to explore why this official designation isn’t important and why anyone should care about it and what it means for the American whiskey market.
Z: And I think that’s the open question that Adam expressed earlier. And I think the people who are pushing for this designation, like I said, I think their rationale was one part consumer branding, frankly, to ensure that people, hopefully that people who are producing whiskeys in this style will use this term that will become more and more recognizable to whiskey drinkers as a way to differentiate. Because the problem is, if you’re producing… Before this, if you’re producing a 100 percent malted barley whiskey, it was kind of unclear what you would call it. American whiskey? OK, well that can get lumped in with a lot of other things or you can’t really use the signifiers. You can’t say something like my Scotch-style whiskey or something, there are trade agreements with the E.U. that would prohibit you from using the word Scotch on a label. And so you do quickly run out of ways to make it clear to the consumer what it is you produce without saying something like single malt, which is a term that is widely used throughout the whiskey world for the style of whiskey. And then, of course, American, which identifies its place of origin. And I think it’s also as some of these distilleries as this category hopes to not just be a market force in the United States, but put its product in the global market. It’s also important to have a term that’s defended and defined at home, so you can theoretically over time exert the same right to that term as Scotland has, or as Japan has, or things like that.
J: Right. So there’s hope for more exports as a result of this.
Z: I think at this point, again, I’m not in the industry. I’m adjacent, obviously. I don’t think production is sizable enough for most of these distilleries for it to be a pressing concern. But I know some of them are in overseas markets to some extent. And again, as we’ve seen with the global single malt industry and marketplace, people who love single malt are really, really getting off on trying single malts from around the world — not just from Scotland, not just from Japan or Taiwan, but from India, from South America, etc. It’s a growing category and people are experimenting with it throughout the world. And I can imagine that, given that there’s a rich tradition of distilling here in the U.S. and some excellent barley production throughout the parts of the country that do produce barley, there’s no reason to believe that American single malt can’t be on par with those other great single malt whiskey-producing countries.
A: Do we have a region yet, Zach, in the country that’s considered to be one of the better producers of single malt or where there are more single malts being produced?
Z: That’s a good question. I’m going to expose my own biases here and say that the Pacific Northwest.
J: No, I was going to say that as well.
A: Yeah. I hear a lot from the Pacific Northwest for sure.
Z: Right. I think you have this great untapped potential of the Mountain West where again, a lot of barley is grown also. But there you have not as much… Well, you do have some obviously big cities, but you don’t have the same sort of density of population. And I think some of the people that are producing some of these products out there, I’ve seen a few things online, but I haven’t tried very many of them because I think it’s hard for them to get out of their home states. In some cases, they’re pretty small production, but I have heard really good things. I actually think you see some really interesting barley production. Sorry, no. Single malt production happening in the Upper Midwest as well, the Great Lakes area, in part because a lot of the grain from the Mountain West kind of heads that way naturally anyhow, for a variety of reasons, but also because you have a sort of not the same ability to produce the kinds of whiskeys that have traditionally dominated the American landscape, or at least you can, but it’s not as connected as the Northeast or Southeast are to rye and bourbon, respectively. But I think that the interesting thing is that obviously you don’t have to grow barley locally to produce single malt, I mean, you’re buying. Most distilleries are producing or purchasing malted barley, which is obviously a processed, cooked form of it, so it’s not as if you have to grow it next door to be able to make it. And again, like I said, one of the really interesting things about this category is the potential for different parts of the country to use different kinds of inputs that are regional, like the mesquite in the Southwest for example, you can think of lots of other possibilities throughout the country to give a regional flare, a regional signature.
A: Yeah. Distinguish.
Z: Exactly. And it doesn’t rely on necessarily there being natural barley production close by. I mean, it is a commodity crop for a reason. It travels pretty well.
A: That’s so interesting. Well, we both have some single malt in front of us, American single malt. So Zach, what do you have?
Z: So I actually have a bottle from another distillery here in Seattle that I don’t give as much shine to normally. And that’s just me being me, but this is Copperworks, which is another one here in Seattle and this is actually their first-ever single malt release. So their release No. 1, in case anyone cares. I have bottle number 314 out of 1005, and this was actually produced a few years ago. So it’s been aging gracefully in my liquor cabinet. How about you guys?
J: Does it have an age statement?
A: It doesn’t have an age statement. It says batch six, 92 proof, product of Swisher, Iowa, 46 percent.
J: I mean, I don’t think it needs to. I was just wondering.
A: No, no, it doesn’t. Asian-American oak and cask-finished. All right. And we’re of course drinking these out of Glencairn glasses because that’s what you do when you drink single malt whiskey.
Z: That’s what I have too.
J: I almost got the small little plastic Dixie cups, though.
A: I mean, look, if you blinded me on this, I would think this was Scotch.
A: I mean, I would think it was maybe a Highland.
J: Yeah. Highland.
A: Not a Laphroaig.
J: Yeah. It’s not very smoky. Heedy.
A: But you put on the nose, you could tell me this is Scotch. I haven’t put on the palate yet, but on the nose I could be like, yeah, I could see that this is Scotch. Scotch or an Irish whiskey.
A: Because there’s lots of similarities.
Z: For sure.
J: Smells good.
Z: Yeah. And I think an interesting thing for me about this one that I have from Copperworks is — and it fits their own history and narrative — the guys who founded it were longtime craft brewers, and they became more and more interested with the potential to translate their experience brewing into making whiskey in particular and obviously, the first step in making whiskey is you make beer. And so their whiskeys have always, to me, they have a slightly kind of a brewed quality to them. There’s an aroma where you get this more… I don’t know, the maltiness in that the way we think about it with beer more than I think about it with a whiskey sense to it, but it’s very tasty. I’m enjoying it.
A: Yeah. Ours is nice. It has a lot of floral characteristics to it. There’s honey.
J: Some wood.
A: Some wood for sure.
A: There’s a nice burn that I think you sort of get with some single malts, some heat.
Z: For sure. What’s the proof of yours?
J: 92. Yeah.
Z: OK. So yeah, this is 104. So it’s definitely got some burn.
A: But yeah, these are nice. I think it’s an exciting category. It’s cool to see that it’s happening. If you are a listener to the show and you have American single malt that you’re a fan of or a producer, hit us at the email@example.com. Let us know who that producer is. We love to check them out. And if you’ve had either the ones that we just tried, let us know as well and have a great weekend. Zach, Joanna, see you Monday.
J: Talk to you Monday.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.