American Single Malt is a new and still not very widely known style of whiskey. We get a lot of questions about it. We also release a lot of it, since it’s one of our very favorite types of whiskey! This FAQ should help address some of the questions people have about American Single Malt, and is the perfect place to start if you don’t know very much (or anything at all) about this exciting type of American whiskey.
1. What is American Single Malt?
American Single Malt is a style of American whiskey made from 100% malted barley. There are other requirements, but that is the single most salient one. The other most important detail is that American Single Malt must be made at just one single distillery. It can’t be a blend of whiskey from multiple distilleries.
This style of whiskey does not descend from the long American tradition of bourbon and rye whiskey, at least not directly. Instead, it has more in common with single malts from other parts of the world. Actually, single malt is probably the most renowned style of whiskey in most of the world. The most prominent countries that make it are Scotland, Japan, and Ireland, but these days single malt is made all over the world (including in India, Australia, Scandinavia, Israel, Taiwan, Canada, and many more). American Single Malt owes a lot to this global tradition, while also having a few distinct characteristics all its own.
2. Okay, so what are the official requirements for American Single Malt?
The definition adopted by the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, which the U.S. federal government is considering adopting as part of its spirits regulations, is as follows:
- Made from 100% malted barley
- Distilled entirely at one distillery
- Mashed, distilled, and matured in the United States of America
- Matured in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 liters
- Distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume)
- Bottled at 80 (U.S.) proof or more (40% alcohol by volume)
3. How is American Single Malt different from Bourbon?
Bourbon has to be made from at least 51% corn, and must be aged in a new charred oak cask. American Single Malt must be made from 100% malted barley – no less, and certainly no more. And it does not have to be aged in a new oak cask. It can be, although it can also be aged in any other type of oak cask as long as it’s no larger than 700 liters. The most common types of casks used for American Single Malt are new casks (like bourbon) and used casks that previously held bourbon (which is also the most common type of aging cask in Scotland). But distillers can also use sherry casks, port casks, tequila casks, whatever they fancy. Every type of cask imparts different flavors to the underlying spirit as it matures, so American Single Malt has a huge range to play with!
4. How is American Single Malt different from single malt Scotch?
Well, for starters, it’s made in the United States, not in Scotland! There are some technical differences in the distillation and maturation process too, but in our view the most prominent differences are stylistic and climate-based. Scotland is a wet and fairly cold climate, and that is true of parts of the United States, but certainly not all of it. American Single Malts from hotter and/or drier climates can taste very different!
5. What does American Single Malt taste like?
It depends! American Single Malt comes in a wide variety of styles, depending in large part on how and where it’s made. Some American Single Malt does taste a little bit like some Scotch. Some, especially whiskies aged in new oak, have some of the sweet caramel and vanilla tones familiar to bourbon drinkers. Some even taste like beer, or like something else entirely!
It is our professional opinion, as lovers of many whiskey styles from all across the world, that American Single Malt offers some of the widest variety of flavors of any kind of spirit worldwide. That’s in part because producers have a huge number of variables to play with, and in part it’s because the United States is a huge country with many very different climates that result in very different tasting whiskies.
The best way to find out what it tastes like is to start drinking some!
6. I tried one American Single Malt a few years ago and didn’t like it.
Hey, this is a frequently asked question section, not a complaints department. But seriously… just because you try one American single malt and don’t like it doesn’t mean that you won’t like others (potentially even other ones from the same producer!). That’s the joy of it being such a wide-ranging category. There’s something for just about everyone. And at the same time, there will probably be some American Single Malts that you don’t like! For instance, if you know you don’t like peated Scotch, you probably won’t like peated American Single Malt, and there’s a good chance you won’t like mesquite-smoked whiskies either. But you might love Pacific Northwest single malts with a heavier new oak and beer influence.
We’ll also be totally honest: there’s a pretty wide range of quality in American single malt (which is also true for bourbon, Scotch, and every other spirit!). There are whiskies that may not appeal to your personal palate. There are other whiskies that just aren’t as well-made as others. Many American Single Malt producers are fairly young companies and learning along the way, or still refining their process, or releasing whiskey before it reaches its full potential. Other places are already working at an extremely high level.
That’s part of what Lost Lantern is here for! We have tasted hundreds of American Single Malts from many dozens of distilleries all over the country, and we only buy casks from the very best of them… the ones that we think are making whiskey that is already amazing and worthy of your attention. So if you aren’t exactly sure where to start with American Single Malt, we can help!
7. Where is American Single Malt made?
American Single Malt is made all over the United States! Like Bourbon and rye whiskey, American Single Malt can be made anywhere in the U.S. But unlike Bourbon and rye, American Single Malt isn’t nearly as concentrated. Those spirits are closely associated with Tennessee, Indiana, and especially Kentucky. While bourbon and rye does come from all over the U.S.—Lost Lantern has released bourbons and ryes from states as far-flung as Colorado, Nevada, California, and New York—a large majority of bourbon and rye production really is in Kentucky.
There is no one heartland for American Single Malt. But there are certain parts of the country that have more American Single Malt distilleries than others, or have a few particularly notable distilleries. If you pressed us, we’d say that the real hotbeds of American Single Malt are the Pacific Northwest and Texas, with honorable mentions for the Southwest, California, and Colorado. But exciting producers are all around the country, including in places like Iowa, New England, North Carolina, and beyond.
8. When did American Single Malt become a thing? What was the first American Single Malt?
The oldest existing American Single Malt producers (to the best of our knowledge, and we’ve looked into it) are Clear Creek in Oregon and St. George Spirits in California. Both are among the oldest craft distilleries in the country, and both started making American Single Malt in the 1990s. Clear Creek released McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt, which we believe is the first American Single Malt brand, in the mid-1990s. St. George Spirits released their first single malt in 2000.
As far as we’ve been able to dig up, there are no records of American Single Malt before the 1990s, not even before Prohibition. There have been a handful of malt whiskies made over the years, but those aren’t quite the same as American Single Malts. There may have been a handful of whiskies from the past that did coincidentally meet the requirements for American Single Malt, but there has been no concerted effort to define the style until more recently.
9. Who are the largest producers of American Single Malt?
We don’t have exact data on production volumes for American Single Malt. Rest assured that it’s a small, small fraction of the amount of bourbon (or Scotch!) being made… at least for now. But from our own experience and what we’ve heard, some of the largest distillers of American Single Malt include:
- Balcones in Texas
- Stranahan’s in Colorado
- Westland in Washington
- Westward in Oregon
- Virginia Distillery Co. in Virginia
- Cedar Ridge in Iowa
10. What’s a good introduction to American Single Malt?
Any whiskey from any of the producers above would be a great starting point!
Lost Lantern has released a good deal of American Single Malt, and we can probably tell you what you’ll like based on your other whiskey preferences. But that’s a story (or a flowchart) for another day.
11. What are some of the most important styles of American Single Malt?
Regional and stylistic differences in American Single Malt have already started to emerge, but are still ill-defined and there is a great deal of variation. Still, there are a few common styles we’re starting to see:
Hot and dry climate single malt: Single malts from places like Texas and Colorado tend to see a lot of oak influence on the whiskey quite quickly. They are usually aged for a relatively short period of time (5 years or less), tend to be quite dark in color (especially if they were aged in a new barrel), and tend toward big, bold, rich flavors.
Beer-influenced single malt: Many of the country’s top American Single Malt distilleries were heavily influenced by craft brewing, or were even founded by craft brewers. Many of these producers effectively distill their whiskey from brewer-quality beer (usually made without hops, but not always). Some even distill beer from well-known craft breweries! Most of the beer-influenced single malt we’ve seen comes from the Pacific Northwest and California.
Grain-forward single malt: It’s almost a truism in the Scotch whisky world that most of a whisky’s flavor comes from the barrel it ages in. Some American Single Malt distilleries firmly reject this idea, and work closely with local farmers to grow very high-quality barley that is optimized for flavor. Their whiskey tends to spend less time in barrel, so that the grain character remains fairly prominent. These whiskies can taste like cereal or even fresh-baked bread.
Smoked single malt: Smoked single malts are made from malted barley that was heated during the malting process by a material that also conveys flavor. By far the most common and traditional material used to make smoked whiskey is peat. Most peated American single malts are actually made using peated barley from Scotland, but a few have begun making whiskey smoked with American peat. There are also other types of smoked whiskey, most notably mesquite-smoked (or mesquited) American Single Malt. These whiskies, usually made in the Southwest, have a warmer, fruitier smoke.
Finished single malt: As with other types of single malt around the world, many American Single Malts are finished in a secondary type of cask before release. The most common types of cask we’ve seen are sherry and port casks (both widely used around the world). We’ve also seen madeira, cognac, red wine, and white wine finishes, and even a few more unusual finishes like stout, apple brandy, maple syrup and even honey. Most American Single Malt producers make at least one or two finished whiskies.
This list of styles is by no means exhaustive, and there can be overlap between them.
12. Where can I find American Single Malt?
Good question! Of course, you can buy Lost Lantern single malts from us, through retail partners that will ship to your door. Most good whiskey stores will have a selection of American Single Malts (you’re most likely to see some of the producers on the list above, plus some that are more local to that store). But the hard thing is where to find American Single Malt on store shelves! This can vary greatly store to store. Some stores do have a dedicated American Single Malt section. Some places include it in an American whiskey section, often next to the bourbon section. Sometimes it will be placed near Scotch, or near other world single malts (Ireland, Japan, Australia, etc.). And sometimes it will even be mixed in with bourbon in a giant American whiskey shelf!
Ask your retailer where they keep American single malt… and consider suggesting they create a separate section for it!
13. Are there blends of American Single Malt?
Blending is a rich, historic tradition in single malt around the world. In fact, more than 80% of Scotch is blended, and some of the most well-known brands—Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Dewar’s—are blends of single malt and Scotch grain whiskey. Others are blended malts, blends of single malts from multiple distilleries, but without any grain whiskey.
There isn’t as much of a tradition in blending in American whiskey, especially not at the higher end of the market. But the birth of American Single Malt, and the incredible diversity of styles within it, will absolutely lead to a new American blending tradition. In fact, there have already been a handful of blends of American single malt… including our own flagship! American Vatted Malt Edition No. 1 is a blend of American single malts from around the country, designed to capture the landscape of American single malt as it exists today. It includes whiskey from Balcones in Texas, Copperworks in Washington, Santa Fe Spirits in New Mexico, Triple Eight in Massachusetts, Westward in Oregon, and Virginia Distillery Co. in Virginia.
Although we were one of the very first to create blends of different American Single Malts, we won’t be the last… nor will our American Vatted Malt be our only exploration of blending. For now, blends of American Single Malts are an even newer style of American whiskey than American Single Malt itself, and we can’t wait to see where it goes over the years to come.
Got other questions?
Just reach out to us and we’ll do our best to answer them! We may even add them to the FAQ!