America Beyond Bourbon

Word by The Whisky Pilgrim

The Whisky Show is one of my favourite events in the calendar. Two days (or three if you’re lucky enough to be press/trade) of doing your worst at over six-hundred bottles of the best aqua vitae the world can distil and mature. A chance to meet like-minded whiskyphiles, taste ‘unicorn’ bottles I’d never normally get close to affording – if I could even find them, and to learn from the Masters in sessions such as the Four Roses tasting described here.

Over the long weekend I certainly got my money’s worth. Besides Brent Elliott’s finest I made my way through a smidge over 150 pours all told, most of them completely new to me. I tried whiskies from fourteen countries, of every creed and colour available. From storied Scottish Single Malts, to brand new kit from the frozen North of Sweden. I was bowled over by Dutch Rye, delighted by French malt matured in local oak, stunned by the full Kavalan Solist flight and seriously impressed by a Finnish 10yo. And of course I took a look at the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Out of respect.

But what really stuck in the mind, as I went back through my ‘hit list’ from the show a few days later, was the quality of American whiskey beyond the traditional bourbon and rye. These were the pours I couldn’t get out of my head; the bottles I was still mulling over on the train home, and indeed still am now as I type. Not necessarily because they were the picks of the show – as far as I was concerned that honour went to the outstanding Boutique-y Whisky table – but because they gave the most pause for thought. 

Let’s start with the malt whiskies. If I say Single Malt to anyone – even a member of the British Bourbon Society – I’d put quite a lot of money on their replying ‘Scotland.’ Some might go further, and point out that Japan has nearly a century’s history of distilling malt whisky. They might reference Kavalan, or Amrut, or Paul John. They might even look closer to home and cite Mackmyra, Penderyn, Bushmills, or the English Whisky Company. But America? Surely not – that’s where we look to for bourbon and rye. For whiskey as whiskey isn’t made anywhere else, and drunk as the proverbial ‘good old boys’ would drink it, in half-lit speakeasies and laid-back saloons. Or indeed by the levee, should the mood take you, and you have a levee convenientlyclose to hand.

Even now, nearly a fifth of the way through the 21st Century, the words ‘Single Malt’ conjure for many an image of elitist gentlemen’s clubs; of be-kilted septuagenarians sipping in silence and damning the eyes of anyone who so much as thinks the word ‘mix.’ Quite the opposite, in fact, of the pictures evoked by American whiskey as we know it. Indeed when I mentioned my experiences of American Single Malt to a whisk(e)y friend last week, his comments were: ‘I love their bourbon. But come on Adam. Single malt’s got to be Scottish.’

What a shame. What an uninformed, blinkered shame. Because when I opened my Whisky Show ‘batting’ with a taste of Westland’s American Oak Single Malt, scales fell from my eyes. This wasn’t cut from some ‘oh, that’s a novelty’ cloth, nor could one patronisingly comment ‘that’s quite nice. Nearly as good as...’ This was serious, serious single malt whiskey, every bit as good as – if not better than – anything else at its price point at the show. Let me put it this way: I didn’t buy a bottle of anything at the end of the Whisky Show. But if I had, it would have been of the Westland American Oak Single Malt.

Unless it had been something from the Corsair range. And here we set aside the category of Single Malt for the time being, and plunge into the category of ‘whatever craziness the nutters can dream up next.’ Corsair describe themselves as ‘whiskey for badasses.’ Yes, well, ok. I mean if that were entirely true, I wouldn’t be drinking it, would I? I’m about as badass as a tellytubby. Earlier in this blog I used the word ‘septuagenarians’ and I didn’t even have to look up the spelling. I’m not a badass – I’m the sort of person who direct debits lunch money to the school bully to save time. Branding aside though, Corsair’s whiskeys are, ostensibly, bloody weird. The lineup at the Whiskey Show alone featured a Quinoa Whiskey, a whiskey distilled from a mash containing hops, a whiskey aged in barrels with pumpkin and spices and a whiskey smoked over three different fuels – peat, cherrywood and beech. Here’s the thing though – they were good. Polarising, I’m sure, in subjective terms, but objectively cracking whiskies. And I loved them – with every sip there was a flavour completely removed from any whisk(e)y I’ve ever tried before. And I’ve tried something like 800 whiskies this year alone. (Sorry if that came out smug...)

And then there was Balcones. Another utterly brilliant single malt, but then corn whiskies a million miles from bourbon. Corn whiskies which aren’t simple and bland, as you might expect without the aid of ‘flavour grains,’ and in which the complexity doesn’t simply come from the casks, but from the depth and quality of the spirit. And, in the case of Brimstone, from basically barbecuing it. I wasn’t making detailed notes on the day – there wouldn’t have been time – but no notes required for Brimstone; I can still taste it now. All I wrote was ‘Holy Shit!’ If you’ve been lucky enough to taste it yourself, I think you’ll understand. If not – go looking.

Just three tables out of an entire show. Just three distilleries of the hundreds and hundreds springing up across America – most completely unknown to British consumers. But each of them is crafting something different, something unique; something that is a new flavour. And just look at Charbay, for example, and the prices consumers will happily pay for their pilsner-distilled whiskey. (On that subject, keep an eye on the blog – things of a Charbay nature may soon be happening. That’s all I’m saying...)

A few caveats, before we get too carried away. Not all of these tiny craft distilleries are going to be making spirits to the level of Westland, of Balcones or of Corsair. Many more will find, by nature of their size and production capacity, that they are only able to charge prohibitive prices, not representative of the quality of their product. This is the brutal nature of so called ‘craft’ distilleries; only the very best survive and expand. And even those that survive, such as the three detailed here, are mostly producing in capacities dwarfed by even the smaller Scottish distilleries.

And before anyone does the terribly boring thing of saying ‘oh Scotland had better watch out’: please. Get some self respect. I, for one, am not in any rush to turn my back on the classics. I’d be stupid to. America can’t make a Clynelish, or a Springbank or an Ardbeg or a Glendronach, the same way Scotland can’t make a Westland, or a Balcones or a Rittenhouse 100 Proof or a George T. Stagg. It’s worth noting that whilst I thought the Westland American Oak was superb, I was left slightly cold by their Sherry Oak; a more blatant attempt to ape a Scotch style of Single Malt. It all comes down to flavours, and not all flavours work.

The point is though, that American Whiskey offers a far wider spectrum of those flavours than most British drinkers realise, even bourbon and rye enthusiasts. At the BBS we embrace all those flavours. It’s just that The British All American Whiskey But Mainly Bourbon If We’re Honest But That’s Just Supply and Exports And Don’t Blame Us Society would be a bit of a mouthful. So over coming months you can expect us to explore this brave and comparatively new world in far greater detail. I’m reminded of a comment I made in my first post on this blog, remarking that America’s flavour spectrum was narrower than that of Scotch. For the time being, I stand by that. But we’ll see. I’d love to be proven wrong.