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American Single Malt Finally Gets Its Day In The Sun

After years of concentrated efforts, false starts, and anticipation, last week American single malt distillers received the long-awaited news. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) released guidelines for the category, making it all but certain that American single malt will be an official part of the American whiskey lexicon before year-end.

Under the TTB’s proposed rule—this is technically just a notice to define and recognize American single malt whiskey and isn’t final quite yet—the whiskey must be distilled entirely at one U.S. distillery, and must be mashed, distilled, and aged in the U.S. It also has to be made from a fermented mash of 100% barley, stored in oak barrels no larger than 700 liters, and while it may not contain neutral spirits, additives like coloring, flavoring, and blending materials are allowed. As with all other whiskeys produced in the U.S., American single malt must be bottled at 40% ABV or higher as well. Over the next 60 days, the TTB will be taking commentary on these proposed guidelines; after this period, these new rules will likely go into effect.

So what exactly does this mean for American single malts? Well, for starters, it’s cause for celebration. “We’re ecstatic—it’s major validation, and it provides a framework so that when people buy a bottle of American single malt, the words on the label mean something,” says Matt Hofmann, managing director at Seattle’s Westland Distillery. “This is history in the making. How often does something like this happen? This is like when bourbon was created, or champagne was made official. This is that moment, and it’s incredibly exciting that we’re all living through it together.”

Seattle-based Westland Distillery is a pioneer of the American single malt movement, with a portfolio dedicated to the style.

Westland was one of the founding members of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission (ASMWC), a group that got its start in 2016 and has been pushing for official recognition ever since. While the Commission initially comprised just nine producers, today it counts over 130 members, producing more than 200 unique whiskeys. For many of these distillers, the mission is to showcase a sense of terroir in their whiskey. Westland, for example, has extensively explored different varieties of local barley and oak casks to create terroir-driven single malt expressions. Its Outpost range in particular, featuring Garryana (oak), Colere (barley), and Solum (peat) whiskeys, pushes the boundaries of production and flavor through a Washington State lens.

In Denver, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey head distiller Owen Martin is likewise energized by the recent news, noting just how historic this moment is for the whiskey community. “The last time there was a similar announcement at the government level was roughly three decades ago,” he says. “With American single malts now being officiated, they’ll start to compete with other established whiskey categories and gain better recognition and understanding.”

For the majority of American single malt distillers, these new regulations won’t change anything in their day-to-day doings. Instead, they’ll merely reinforce what they’ve already been doing, and, as Martin points out, shed much more light on the category for drinkers. To that end, one of the most notable changes that may take place over the next several months will be on retail shelves—your neighborhood liquor store may already have a dedicated American single malt section, but there are likely to be many more of them in the near future—just like for single malt scotch, bourbon, rye, and other styles.

Gareth Moore, CEO of Virginia Distillery Co. (also a founding member of the ASMWC), believes this move will be the catalyst for American single malt to join bourbon as being a uniquely American whiskey. “One of the ways I like to think about is, 20 years ago American whiskey was synonymous with bourbon, and if you said American whiskey, it was that or Jack Daniel’s,” he says. “But then, 10 years after that, there came the resurgence of rye, and suddenly there was bourbon, rye, and everything else. I hope American single malt is on that same trajectory, and joins that list ahead of ‘everything else.’”

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.

Not all distillers are equally ecstatic about the proposed guidelines; Lance Winters, master distiller at Alameda, California’s St. George Spirits, is excited that the category is getting recognition, but wants room for experimentation to stay wide open. (Photo by Matt Salvo)

With all the excitement swirling around this news, it’s hard to see any real drawbacks. But for some, the guidelines will force whiskeys they’ve long identified as American single malts into a more general categorization. “As a general concept, I think it’s great that this system for adopting new regulations is in place, and that a group of like-minded producers got together and said, ‘These are all regulations that we need to have adopted to protect this category and to protect the consumer,’” says Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George Spirits in Alameda, California. “The downside is that if you want to continue experimenting and call something American single malt, the door is closing on what exactly you can call American single malt.” Winters points to St. George’s single malt, a whiskey introduced in 2000—well before many of its cohorts. It includes malts that aren’t truly malted but instead are cooked, which would put it outside the realm of American single malt under the new guidelines.

Compared to bourbon, rye, and malt whiskeys, though, which have stricter rules on what sort of barrels can be used, American single malt would remain relatively freewheeling—aside from a maximum barrel size, for instance, there are no stipulations on what sort of oak casks producers can use in the aging process, as there are for the others (which must be aged in new, charred oak casks). “The new American single malt definition is specific enough to regulate the category, while keeping its uniqueness as an American spirit,” says Stranahan’s Martin. “Scotch whisky regulations are overly restrictive and inhibit creativity, but the ASMWC’s proposed rules are intentionally fairly broad, allowing distillers to be freer in experimentation and brand building.”

On September 27, the TTB will close the commentary period on the proposed rule. Assuming all goes well, the guidelines should fall into place roughly a month later… and then, finally, American single malt distillers can stop holding their breath, and toast to making history.

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