A couple years ago, American single malt whiskey had its Bottle Shock moment. Just like the California wines that beat the French in a blind taste test back in 1976, an American single malt trounced the Scotch in the prestigious Best in Glass competition. And if you’re not already a fan of the burgeoning genre, you should be. Let me tell you why.
American whiskey is world-famous but not necessarily for the same reason that scotch is so revered. Typically, whiskey is made from mash that’s some mix of corn, rye, and malted barley. If the mix is at least 51 percent rye, it’s a rye whiskey. If it’s at least 51 percent corn, it’s a bourbon. The list goes on to include malted whiskeys, wheat whiskeys, and corn whiskeys. But more often than not, the American whiskey you find at your local bottle shop is rye or bourbon.
Scotland is famous for its single malt whiskeys. These spirits are defined by the use of a single type of malted grain, usually barley. They’re also made at a single distillery. In a sense, it’s whiskey in its purest and most basic form. In practice, single malt whiskey is fucking delicious. It is not, however, specifically scotch.
In recent years, an increasing number of American distilleries have started making so-called American single malts. The American designation is important, again, because a lot of people think about scotch when they hear the phrase “single malt.” It’s also relevant because the American single malt trend represents one of the most innovative happenings in the global whiskey market. The fact that an American single malt beat out every single malt scotch in a blind taste test is just the beginning. American single malt distilleries are churning out a seemingly endless array of truly interesting and typically affordable whiskeys, almost always in small batches.
So what does innovation look like in American whiskey these days? How about taking a terrific craft beer, distilling it, and turning it into a single malt? What do you think about making an elegant sipping whiskey out of blue corn and only blue corn? Why not throw apple wood chips in the batch to give it a special little kick?
All of these things are happening in the exciting world of American single malts right now. I sampled five of the most innovative and affordable single malts on the market to give you a good starting point for enjoying the American approach to a Scottish tradition. And boy was it fun.
This lovely little bottle is the one that bested the most famous single malt scotches back in 2012. Glenmorangie, Macallan, Balvenie—none of them were as good as the whiskey made at a little distillery under a bridge in Waco, Texas. Balcones takes an old world approach to making whiskey, but it does it with American ingenuity. In other words, it does it better. Expect the sweet aroma of a good Scotch and an oaky body with some caramel notes. Also expect Chip Tate, the genius founder behind Balcones, to release some whiskey from his new distillery. [$70]
How do you give single malt whiskey a taste of the West? You use Rocky Mountain spring water and Rocky Mountain barley to make it. Age it in white oak barrels, and you’ve got Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, one of the smoothest and most distinctive whiskeys on this side of the Atlantic. I tried a glass with my dad, who lives in Kentucky, and he thought it was some high-end, small-batch bourbon. Nope. It’s a high-end, small-batch American single malt that’s half the price. [$53]
Buy it for the bottle design and drink it for the delicate complexity of flavors. That’s what I’d recommend with FEW Single Malt Whisky. (It’s actually an instant favorite for me.) The makers, FEW Spirits, claim to be the first distillery to make alcohol legally in Evanston, Illinois since before the Civil War. As such, FEW Single Malt Whisky is meant to be an homage to pre-Prohibition spirits. It’s made with 100-percent cherry wood smoked barley which gives it an undeniably vintage character. Not too smokey. Not too spicy. But just smokey and spicy enough. [$70]
There’s something undeniably Southern about Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky. As a native Tennessean who first got drunk on Jack Daniel’s, I’ve always thought that any whiskey made south of bourbon country should be complex and a little bit rough. That’s Wasmund’s in a nutshell. Produced by the Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia, this award-winning spirit is great served straight up and great in cocktails. You should know that Wasmund’s pack a punch with a reasonably smokey and certainly boozy flavor. The price is low enough you might as well do both! [$37]
So this one is weird—but not bad weird. The folks at StilltheOne Distillery were enjoying some beers from the Captain Lawrence Brewing Company one day and came up with a crazy idea. If beer is made from grains and whiskey is distilled from grains, could you distill whiskey from beer? The answer is yes! And that’s exactly what 287 Single Malt Whiskey is. This limited edition was stored in charred American oak barrels for just one year. Weirdly, it tastes like the really good bootleg moonshine I used to buy in the Smoky Mountains. [$50]
There is one problem with American single malt whiskey. They’re so damn good the bottle’s empty before you know it. Good thing they’re so affordable.
This post was originally published on December 5, 2014. It’s been updated slightly with new information.