*Sincere thanks to Westland Distillery for the sample.
Seattle’s Westland Distillery is something of a rarity in the American Craft Distilling scene. A great many small, new distilleries are excited about the prospect of making a whiskey, but the time and financial patience needed to see that whiskey come to fruition also means that more easily produced spirits like gin and vodka feature heavily in their early plans so that there’s a bit of cash flow while the barrels work their slow magic. Despite it requiring a wider range of attention, there’s nothing wrong with this plan. If a distillery is making a good product, they have a good chance of succeeding. Westland, however, took a much more focused approach.
Founded in 2010 by two friends, Emerson Lamb and Matt Hoffman, Westland Distillery from day one has made single malt whiskey its primary focus (there may have been an early gin, but details on that are fuzzy.) Rumors have swirled that the company is very well-funded. That may be neither here nor there, but if true, that financial cushion has given Westland the luxury of patience when it comes to developing and aging their spirit. They reportedly were able to invest in and then fill many more barrels than most new distilleries, giving them a much broader stock to work with when creating their expressions. Recently, Lamb has left the company, while Hoffman remains in his role as master distiller.
American single malt whiskey is a relatively under-explored branch of the whisk(e)y tree. It’s hard to come out from under the large shadow that single malt Scotch casts. But as more distilleries arise, a few more American single malts are showing up on shelves. The development of Westland’s single malt owes a lot to beer brewing, and the production of their whiskey distinguishes itself in several ways. First of all, the grain bills are made up of several different types of malt more familiar to brewers. In comparison, Scotch producers typically malt only one kind of barley in one way. Secondly, instead of the more widely used distillers yeast, they use a Belgian’s brewer’s yeast, though as those two yeasts are somewhat similar, I’d think the differences would be subtle. Third, they use a longer fermentation time than their Scottish counterparts, which, very generally speaking, produces slightly more complex, fruit-toned esters in the wash. Lastly, they use a lot of new American Oak for maturation, along with some re-fill American Oak bourbon and sherry casks. Again, by comparison, single malt Scotch is usually aged in re-fill American oak, and only recently have producers begun using new oak casks more.
Do these variations add up to a distinct product? From the popularity and accolades Westland has garnered thus far, it would seem so. As the “flagship” of their core range, the Westland American Single Malt Whiskey seems an obvious place to begin a look at one of the more widely respected American craft distillers. Several different kinds of malt are used for this expression: local Washington Select Pale Malt, Munich Malt, Extra Special Malt, Pale Chocolate Malt, and Brown Malt. The whisky was aged for two years in heavily charred, new American oak casks.
The Nose: Crisp and initially light-seeming, but there’s a taut complexity lurking. There’s cold apple juice and tart cherries initially, along with a nice piece of sponge cake. Close behind that are notes of honey-sweet cereal grain and malt. Subtler hints of cocoa powder, instant coffee, and slightly medicinal cherry cough drops lie further in the background along with vanilla bean, green-ish oak, and clove.
The Palate: Youngish to be sure, but more mature than I was expecting. More cherry cough syrup to begin with now with a bit of juicy orange and caramel as well. There’s sharper edged, roasted grain here, with some vanilla syrup, and a swell of dark, dark chocolate. Towards the end, rough-hewn, tannic oak with spice notes of pepper, clove, and raw coffee beans.
The Finish: Longer than expected with grippy notes of unsweetened chocolate, fine ground pepper, clove, and a tiny bit of anise.
Thoughts: A young whisky, yes, but impressively complex and drinkable. There are few similarities to Scotch single malt. There’s a subdued fruitiness and a unique, roast-y complexity to the grain, which progress nicely from soft and sweet to bold and pleasantly bitter. Kudos to Westland for bottling this at 46%. It’s quite nice at strength, but I found a few drops of water help open it up even further. It’s always hard to judge young whiskies from new distilleries, it often feels like I’m evaluating potential more than how good the whisky is at that very moment. Westland’s Single malt is that rare combination of great potential and a pleasing, realized whiskey here and now. If you enjoy exploring and supporting new American distilleries, Westland’s whiskeys are not to be missed.