A few months back while planning a whiskey tasting seminar, I decided to explore the alternative side of American whiskey – single malts. After running through a list of American single malts in my mind, suddenly Westland Distillery hit me all at once. Not only were they all over the news after the Remy Cointreau purchase late last year, but the East Coast Sales Manager for Westland was quick to contact me when he heard about my class.
The American Single Malt Whiskey Movement
Westland soon became the basis for my west coast visit. They are at the forefront and one of the most vocal in the market for TTB regulation and legislation around what American Single Malt means and how to ensure quality. So what does being an American Single Malt entail? Are there any guidelines to follow? When you walk into a liquor store do you want this to be, next to the Single Malt Scotch or over with its fellow Americans? Are the rules for production the same as Single Malt Scotch? All of these questions are still being determined and the unraveling story is quite interesting to watch. You can find a large amount of Westland’s work and the work of other American Single Malt producers here at American Single Malt Whiskey Commission.
Westland Distillery started in 2010 when founder Matt Hofmann and Emerson Lamb bonded together to create Westland American Single Malt. Matt attended Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh which is something I have thought about many times myself throughout my whisky career. The year 2012 was when the distillery moved to its current, up and coming alternative home of SODO. The building was once a crane factory and it took 18 months to retrofit the industrial facility. Now Westland is neighbor to many aspiring breweries and cannabis shops. The nickname SODO comes from people shortening this area that is “South of Downtown” and at one point actually meaning “South of the Dome”. In 2013 the first Westland release was unveiled as a 375 mL bottle called The Deacon Seat.
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The Core Five Malt Mashbill (Plus 1)
Deacon Seat is no longer, but the core product line that Westland has built their reputation around includes American Oak, Sherry Wood and Peated. Each of these have a 5 malt recipe while the peated has a 6th malt.
- Pale Malt – from Washington State
- Munich Malt – from Washington State
- Extra Special Malt – From Wisconsin
- Brown Malt – From the UK
- Pale Chocolate Malt – From the UK
Washington State and its Skagit Valley are known for having some of the most fertile soil on earth proving to be a great location for barley growing. There are maltsters in Washington State that can malt their local grains and then the alternative grains from Europe arrive in bags. All of their peated expressions use heavily peated malt that comes from Bairds Malt Limited in Inverness.
Westland Distillery has a roller mill that can handle all of the milling needs on site. Once the grains are milled they are then moved over to the 5,000 liter stainless steel mash tun. They can run about two mashes per day and these two batches of sugary wort that are collected are then transferred to one of the five 10,000 liter fermenters or washbacks. With this production cycle they will typically go through about 5,400 pounds of barley per day. For fermentation they use a Belgium brewers yeast that is typically used for saison style beer. I love this style beer, so that perked my ears right up! Typically fermentation will run for about 4-6 days. All of their stainless steel mashing and fermentation equipment comes from Newland Systems which is a brand name I have not seen yet on any of my distillery visits. Although, both of their copper pot stills are made by Vendome Copper & Brass Works. There is one wash still and one spirit still. Both are combination stills that have a column on top of the copper pot. The plates have only been left in place for the wash still, otherwise for the spirit run there is no rectification or column distillation happening. The wash still is 7,560 liters and the spirit still is 5,670 liters.
Cask Maturation Near the Ocean
Westland has always utilized regular sized casks and no small cask aging. Most of their barrels come from Independent Stave Company. The majority of cask aging and bottling is done in Hoquiam, Washington. This is about two hours south of the SODO distillery location and is nestled right on the Pacific Ocean. Surrounded by the brine and damp humid air of the ocean, the casks tend to have about a 2% angels share in this area. The temperature in Hoquaim will sit at around 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit all year. At the present moment they have over 40 different style casks including sherry, port, Garryana, ex-bourbon and new American oak. The oldest cask in the warehouse right now is of course from 2011.
Let’s Talk Peat – Cedar, Crab Apples, Labrador Tea, Lavender, Rosemary & Heather
Now let’s talk about what is really starting to create waves in the whiskey community, which is their peat and Garryanna Oak. Right now, when we have peated malts here in the United States that peated malt is coming from either the Islay region or the highlands of Scotland. For many years eager consumers have been hungry for a truly American peated whisky. This is difficult since most of America’s peat bogs and wetlands are under government and state park control. Washington and its coastal regions have acres upon acres of lovely peat bogs. As we all know, peat flavor is determined by what has grown and decayed in that region. According to David, the area they would like to harvest is full of cedar, crab apples, Labrador tea, lavender, rosemary and heather. A very herbaceous mix!
The Hunt for Garry Oak – Quercus Garryanna
Not only is Westland in the hunt for access to peat bogs, but they also have the ongoing battle of gaining access to the endangered species of oak called Garryanna. Quercus Garryanna also known as “Garry Oak”, used to range from Northern California to British Columbia.
Westland’s website has a great story about their quest for this endangered oak and how they are working to plant new saplings every year. 250 new Garry trees will be planted this year alone.
Without an established economy in place for sourcing Quercas Garryana the Westland team must be creative. They discovered they have to get out there, talk to people, ask questions and be willing to track down even the smallest stashes of oak. Their plans call for filling 500 casks made from Garry over the next five years. Westland is working to plant new saplings every year. 250 new Garry trees will be planted this year alone. In the meantime, getting out there, finding and creating the industry from the ground up is the only option.
David McCowen walked us around and was a wonderful host with patience for all of my detailed questions. We got to try through many unique single casks and their highly anticipated peat week, but first we will take a look at the core range that shouldn’t be overlooked to all of the special editions. One thing I really like about Westland is their transparency online. I have added links bringing you to each of these expressions on their website to get an in-depth look at how it was made.
A quick look at the Westland core range of whiskies include…
- Westland American Single Malt is aged at least two years in new American oak and 1st fill ex-bourbon casks and bottled at 46% ABV.
- Westland Sherry Wood American Single Malt is aged at least two years in sherry casks from their partner in Spain. 50% of this blend is aged in Olorosso and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks and married with another 50% that has been aged in new American oak and bottled at 46% ABV.
- Westland Peated American Single Malt is aged at least two years in a combination of new American oak and 1st fill ex-bourbon casks. It uses a 33% peated malt in the mash bill making it a total of 6 different barleys and is bottled at 46% ABV.
Special single cask and seasonal releases include…
- Garryanna Oak is the latest release from June 2017. Only 2,600 bottles were released.
- Peat Week is aged three to five years and bottled at cask strength of 54.5% ABV from a blend of 7 hand selected casks. Five of the casks are new American oak and the other two are 1st fill ex-bourbon. Only 1,500 bottles were released with 3 unique labels.
- Single Casks – They have released multiple cask strength single casks throughout the United States. Most display their unique regional area code.
Although this was the first stop on my West Coast distillery trip, it was the most influential. With the amount of milestones Matt Hofmann and team have been able to achieve not only for their own product line and brand, but for the American Single Malt category as a whole is extremely impressive. Trailblazing your own category in a part of the country that was never thought of as premier whiskey producers just shows you that the bubble of American Whiskey isn’t going to burst, it is just going to sprout out in new directions. A must visit if you are in the Seattle area and we can’t wait to see how Remy helps them grow!