Malt In Whiskey: America Needs A Revolution
By contributing writer Bill Hockett
When the words “American Whiskey” are spoken or read most think Bourbon automatically. While I am a Bourbon lover, American Single Malts are a growing market. A market with unlimited possibility.
I have been a distiller both on the bootleg/moonshine side (in my teens and early 20s with Popcorn Sutton) and I’ve also worked as a distiller legally at Limestone Branch Distillery. Currently I am aBrewer for Rivertown Brewing, obviously my love for malt is deep. In my view American distillers need to start thinking about their recipes more like brewers. The use of malt in bourbon production is typically minimal, and sometimes unnecessary. Distillers Malt is virtually flavorless, used for it high diastatic power to convert starches in corn and adjuncts to sugars. This is unnecessary in most modern distilleries as the use of synthesized enzymes have replaced the need for the 10-15% malt in the mashbill. Single malt whiskey on the other hand requires 100% malted barley so quality is a must.
I once worked at a homebrew supply store that at any given time offered 140 different brewing malts. Let that sink in for a moment. 140 vs the standard American 1! The flavor possibilities for whiskey are endless! Scottish and Japanese distillers have been making world dominating single malt for generations, one of my favorites is actually Brenne which is an amazing French malt aged in Cognac barrels.
American producers of single malt are small in number but growing annually.
You may ask, why do we need this category to expand? Because if we want our whiskey to truly compete on a global market we need single malt! In top spirits competitions around the world you will never see even the finest 23yr Bourbon up against a 40yr Islay malt. It will never happen because the two simply don’t compare.
Of the current products on the American market I give Rick Wasmund at Copper Fox Distillery major credit and respect. His product is malted in house, some malts smoked with fruit tree wood from his property. A true product of love with true terroir.
Corsair also gets my attention with products like Ryemageddon, while not necessarily a single malt, it is a rye that uses chocolate rye, not a type of malt normally seen in whiskey.
A few notes on malt selection. Brewing malts can be broken down into four categories.
Base malts: any malt with enough enzyme potential to convert itself and can be used up to 100% of the mash bill. This category would include 2-row,6-row, pilsner, Vienna, Munich, or pale malt.
Specialty malts: malts used in small percentages to give a specific flavor. Examples would be acid malt, melanoidin/honey malt.
Crystal malts: stewed during kilning so the starches convert to sugar. These malts range in color from very light to very dark. The general flavors are classified as: sweet, toffee, caramel, stone fruit, raisins, and a bit of chocolate in the darker spectrum.
Roasted malts: usually produced in a drum roaster to develop very dark color and sharper flavor. Black patent, kiln coffee, carafa are all roasted malts.
We live in a time and place where malts from around the world can be ordered with a click of as button. Variety is also growing as well, older heirloom barleys are coming back strong, Weyermann and Patagonia are bringing back Barke ( an heirloom Spring barley). Small craft maltsters are also growing in number. Some of which will do custom roasting or smoking of malts.
A distiller needs to start taking notes from craft brewers who use a variety of malts to create flavorful and balanced recipes. Much like our Scottish friends who age in used bourbon barrels as well as wine casks, we too can do this. Locally even, used barrels are in no short supply. To add a touch of your local to a single malt why not age in barrels from a local vineyard?
I hope this article gives some delicious ideas to the right people. I would love to taste an American Single Malt, distilled in an Brandy still or alembic with a 10+ age statement. Maybe one day.