What is American malt whiskey? Is it, pardon the expression, American scotch?
No, it’s not.
Thanks to the Federal Government’s Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, which were written for rye and bourbon makers, American malt whiskey must be aged in new charred oak, just like bourbon and rye but unlike scotch, which typically is aged in used barrels.
Also unlike scotch, which is seldom sold at less than eight years old, most American malt whiskey is aged for less than three.
With those specifications it is hard to make something that tastes like scotch, which most American malt whiskey does not.
Historically, American distillers don’t make malt whiskey. Americans consume plenty of malt whiskey, imported from Scotland and Ireland, and we use malt to make beer, but we make whiskey mostly out of corn.
No major American distillery makes malt whiskey for sale, but it is very popular among American micro-distillers. If a micro-distillery makes whiskey at all, it probably makes malt whiskey.
Why? Because it’s easy, perfect for a little guy. In the early stages it is just like making beer. You can even have a micro-brewer make a wash for you, so all you have to do is distill it. That’s what the American Distilling Institute, the national association of small distillers, recommends.
Likewise selling the whiskey young isn’t an artistic decision, it’s a financial one. Aging is expensive. All of that money you invested in making the whiskey ages right along with it. In a sense you only have to pay that cost once, because after you have a steady supply of aging whiskey in the pipeline, sales of mature spirit can fund the new stuff, but that initial hump is a big one for most small producers to overcome.
That’s why most micro-distiller whiskey, malt or otherwise, is less than three years old. Some is aged for as little as three months, and some isn’t aged at all (so-called ‘white whiskey’).
I was one of twelve judges at the American Distilling Institute (ADI) 2010 American Craft Whiskey competition in May. Most of the products we tasted had a malt base. Because we tasted blind I can’t comment on any entrants specifically, but my impression of the field overall was clove notes over a sour apple base. The whiskeys didn’t have much character and lacked the complex balance of flavors that is whiskey’s primary appeal.
But they did possess some charms. Most micro-distiller whiskeys make a virtue of the raw, herbal, sometimes bitter, usually tart tastes that time softens. The new wood adds different but equally strong flavors. The spirit tends to be bold and aggressive, more like slivovitz than bourbon or scotch. It is like nothing you’ve ever tasted before.
Aging measured in years is a relatively recent phenomenon. It only became popular about 150 years ago. Before then, most people drank whiskey that was fresh from the still, innocent of oak, or only lightly aged, perhaps incidentally, such as during transport.
There may be a place for both styles in the modern whiskey universe but it would be a shame if craft distillers became pigeonholed as only making young whiskey, or only malt whiskey for that matter.
There are pleasant surprises out there, but American micro-distilling is a very young movement and its products are mostly works-in-progress. What we have now, at best, is evidence that the wait may be worth it.