Craft Spirits Judging – Can You Identify 12 Northwest Single Malt Whiskies in a Blind Taste Test
Let’s admit it, the thought of being a judge in a craft spirits competition is like a dream come true. I love craft spirits and now you are telling me I get to taste them all and tell you which one’s I like? Ah, yeah, sign me up. Ok, well, there are like 500 entrants, are you still in? Oh, heck yeah. Wait what, 500? But I don’t even drink clear spirits, can I just judge the brown spirits? Nope, you have to be all in or your out. Gulp, well, ok, sign me up.
Like most things in life, the details are in the details. Being a judge for a craft spirits tasting is the same way. Its sounds incredibly awesome until you have to do it, then you find it’s incredibly difficult.
Lenny Gotter is the Founder of Eastside Distilling in Portland, Oregon. Having been on the other side of the table where he was serving up, or most often mailing in his spirits he thought that being on the sipping side of the table would be a breeze. What he discovered was the details are in the details and it’s not so easy. Here’s Lenny’s tale from the judging side of the trail.
A Distiller Takes on the Role of Craft Spirits Judge
“Most consumers have performed some blind taste test in one form or another. In talking to friends and family many reference wine tasting as their first experience tasting something they know nothing about and then trying to determine flavors, aromas, and quality. Participating in many wine tastings myself, I remember looking around and observing others with the very same question on their minds “Do I like this?” Pretty tough question when you don’t know the ingredients, manufacturing process, cost, and how the packaging looks.
Researchers typically use blind taste testing to compare one brand to others. Here in Portland, Oregon State University has a Sensory and Consumer Group in which I have volunteered a few times to blind taste test foods, the last being frozen Ahi Tuna. The Sensory Group has strict guidelines including no one is allowed to wear fragrances on the day of testing.
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My 1st Time as a Spirits Judge – “Wow did I have a lot to learn.”
This year was my first year as a spirits judge. Previously, I had been on the production side of the industry as the founder of Eastside Distilling. At the distillery, I created flavor profiles for more than 20 products, many that ended up winning awards and several that are now multimillion dollar brands. I have done hundreds of experiments on flavor. As far as I was concerned, I had an educated and diverse palette. Wow did I have a lot to learn.
Getting Started with Grain Neutral Spirits
When your first task as a judge is to rate 21 corn vodkas, all made from the same bulk neutral grain spirit, your taste buds and your brain go to a whole new level. When all those glasses of clear alcohol stare at you blankly with no input as to cost, and packaging and marketing, you have to dig in and really evaluate based on smell and flavor. I know that sounds obvious, but trust me, organize a blind test with your friends. Pool together ten bottles of very similar products, say four year old Bourbons, have someone pour the samples in another room and start tasting them one at a time (you will need lots of glasses). What you think is your favorite Bourbon may not be your favorite Bourbon by the end of the taste test!
Moving on to American Malt Whiskies
Today, there is no legally accepted definition for American Malt Whiskey so a blind tasting in this category is a bit challenging. So, what is American Malt Whiskey? Here is the proposed standard from the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, a non-profit group of distilleries that are working together to set the industry standard in order to protect, educate, promote and ultimately grow the category. Here are their requirements.
- Made from 100% malted barley.
- Distilled entirely at one distillery.
- Mashed, distilled and matured in the United States of America.
- Matured in Oak casks not exceeding 700 L.
- Distilled to no more than 160 proof or 80% alcohol by volume.
- Bottled at 80 proof/40% alcohol by volume or higher.
This is pretty loose for a whiskey definition and leaves plenty of room for variation and innovation but as of now, this is the groups proposed standard.
Taste Testing a Dozen American Malt Whiskeys
We are not going to try to share tasting notes from all spirits categories here, rather, we are focusing on American Malt Whiskies of the Northwest. Technically, speaking the products we tried here did not all fit into the guideline above as some were made with less than 100% barley, but they are all similar enough in production to warrant a taste test. Everything we tasted was in the range of flavor from an Irish whiskey to Scotch whiskey to something totally different.
To do this taste test I had originally thought of bringing in whiskey professionals, but I decided that instead of professionals I would get enthusiasts. I was not disappointed with the results of the tasting. Out of the 12 samples, three rose above the rest, and the top two spots were very, very close. All of the products were very good and there were no bad whiskeys in the lot. In general, the products that did not score in our top were simply younger and a bit less structured.
Our Top 3 and All the Rest
All of these whiskeys are from Oregon & Washington where some of the best barley in the world grows. We’ve identified the top three and then listed the rest in alphabetical order. Like I said at the start, stripping away the bottle, the label, the design, basically all the branding you work so hard to perfect and scoring whiskey strictly by taste is no easy task. If you are a fan of Northwest malt whiskies, you’ve likely tried all of these brands, if not, now’s the time to get out and pick up a bottle.
Can You Identify the American Malt Whiskey by the Tasting Notes?
What we’ve decided to do here to help get you in the Taste Tester frame of mind, is we are going to share the tasting notes and then let you try to guess the brand of whiskey based on the notes. Once you think you know, click on the “Click here to reveal” box to see the American Malt Whiskey brand, age, proof and distillery. If you need a little help, you can peak at the photo at the bottom to identify the brands that were included. Ready? Let’s get started.
When you are done, tell us how you did in the comments below.
Westland Single Malt Whiskey
Aged a minimum of 2 years and bottled at 92 proof by Westland Distillery, Seattle, WA.
- Aromas of blackcurrant tangerine and walnuts.
- Flavors of mossy bog, tar, waffle cone, and campfire smoke.
- A long pleasant lasting earthy hint of peat finish.
Bull Run Oregon Single Malt Whiskey
Aged 4 years and bottled at 89.08 proof by Bull Run Distilling Portland, OR.
- The nose is moderate with aromas of malt, toffee, light peat smoke and a touch of cardamom and tobacco leaf.
- The taste is cocoa powder, waffle cone, white pepper and raisin.
- An oily lasting finish of coffee, caramel, and a touch of mushroom funk on the end.
Clear Creek Distilling’s McCarthy’s Single Malt Whiskey
Aged 3 years and bottled at 85 proof by Clear Creek Distillery Portland, OR.
- Nose is peaty smoke with a hint of cinnamon.
- Flavors of smoke, peat, and honey.
- Earthy campfire smooth finish.
The rest of the American Single Malt Whiskeys below are in listed in alphabetical order.
13 Corners American Malt Whiskey
Aged at least 3 years and 5 months and bottled at 80 proof by Wishkah River Distillery Aberdeen, WA.
- Nose is very light aromas of alcohol fuel oil and whole wheat bread.
- Flavors of soggy toast clove and milk chocolate.
- Finish complemented by a lasting light malty and almond flavor and a bit medicinal.
Copperworks Distilling American Single Malt Whiskey
Aged at least 2 years 6 months and bottled at 106 proof by Copperworks Distilling, Seattle, WA.
- The nose is very light of smoky cocoa beans a touch of cinnamon.
- The taste is lots of caramel and graham cracker with black pepper.
- Finish is dry and malty with a burnt sugar sweetness.
- We found it to be a bit hot at 106 proof, but a few drops of water opened it up nicely.
Four Spirits Single Malt Whiskey
No age statement, bottled at 80 proof by 4 Spirits Distillery Corvallis, OR.
- This was the wildcard of the bunch. Aromas of banana popsicle and chai tea.
- Flavors very sugary reminiscent of custard and bananas foster.
- A short fruity, grassy finish.
Idle Hour Malt Whiskey
Barrel aged to taste and bottle at 88 proof by Seattle Distilling Seattle, WA.
- Aromas of peach pie, caramel, and grain.
- Flavors a little bit hot reminiscent of lightly burnt wheat toast.
- Sea salt air finish that ends a bit medicinal.
Madam Damnable Washington Single Malt Whiskey
Aged three years and bottled at 88 proof by Sound Spirits Distillery Seattle, WA.
- Nose is rising rye bread with white pepper and hazelnut.
- Flavors of rye toast moss and black cardamom with a spicy rye finish that burned a little bit. Few drops of water took off the excess spicy bite.
- Finish of modest peat smoke and caramel.
Ransom Spirits The Emerald 1865
Aged three years and bottled at 87.6 proof by Ransom Distillery Corvallis, OR.
- Noses pleasant and balanced shortcake allspice and brown sugar.
- Full-bodied and rich flavors of butterscotch pancakes almond and a dusting of clove.
- Finishes smooth and malty.
Rogue Spirits Oregon Single Malt Whiskey
No age statement and bottled at 80 proof by Rogue Spirits Portland, OR.
- The nose is very light gunpowder phenolic with aromas of orange piecrust demerara sugar and hazelnut.
- Flavors of buckwheat pancake peaty smoke hazelnut and nutmeg with a waxy texture.
- The finish is lasting malty mushroom and smoke.
Tualatin Valley Distilling Oregon Single Malt
Aged at least 6 months and bottled at 92 proof by Tualatin Valley Distilling Hillsboro, OR
- Almost no nose cinnamon cookie with clove moderate alcohol presence and a slight medicinal quality.
- Flavors very light of barley biscuit pecan a touch of caramel with a white pepper burn.
- A lingering finish of pepper spiciness.
Westward American Single Malt Whiskey
Aged 3 years and 6 months, bottled at 92 proof by House Spirits Distillery Portland, OR.
- Aroma doughy cinnamon roll prune and a light iodine aroma.
- The flavors are ready yeast general and malt.
- Finish of burnt caramel, with a bit of mushroom funk.
In closing I would like to add that this was an exceptionally enjoyable tasting and I’m very excited about all of these products and what the future holds for American malt whiskey. It is my firm belief that American malt whiskey will become the next big category in American spirits so you heard it here first. I’m very excited to have so many excellent products from so many Northwest distilleries.
Now that you’ve done the blind tasting notes, here are all the bottles from this taste test.