American single malt whiskey is growing fast. The old-school style offers both an alternative to the heavier mash bills of rye and bourbon and a less expensive single malt than the juice from Scotland and Japan. Wins all around.
The definition of American single malt is pretty simple. These are whiskeys made with 100 percent malted barley. The barreling/aging doesn’t have to be done in a specific barrel (as it does with straight rye or bourbon), which means there’s a little more room for experimentation. Some distillers source specialty barley grown to make the best beers in the world, others import iconic barley from Scotland, while other distillers grow their own barley around the rickhouses. It’s a fascinating style that has a lot to offer the whiskey drinker looking to move beyond American bourbons and ryes or anyone looking to find a US compliment to Scottish single malts.
For this blind taste test, we’re doing something a little bit different. I’m tasting six American single malt whiskeys from all over the country. Then I’m adding two ringers. One is an Irish Single Malt from Teeling. This is to see if “single malt” whiskey outside of Scotland has a universal vibe. Will I be able to spot it on sight and taste alone? How will it compare? The second ripple is a Kentucky Malt Whiskey from Woodford. This is a malted barley whiskey that’s treated like bourbon — at least 51 percent malted barley instead of corn and aged in new oak. Will this dram blend in with the others or stick out like a sore thumb???
The full list goes a little something like this:
- Westward American Single Malt Whiskey (WA)
- Courage & Conviction American Single Malt Whisky (VA)
- Balcones Pilgrimage (TX)
- Boulder American Single Malt Whiskey Bottled-in-Bond (CO)
- Teeling Irish Single Malt Whiskey
- Woodford Reserve Kentucky Malt Whiskey (KY)
- Boulder American Single Malt Whiskey (CO)
- Courage & Conviction Bourbon Barrel Finish American Single Malt Whiskey (VA)
I’ve also included a couple of expressions from the same two craft brands to see if they really change all that much. Is a bottled-in-bond the “good stuff” in American single malt like it often is with rye and bourbon? What about a cask finishing? Will it make that much difference? Let’s find out!
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Scotch Whisky Posts of 2021
- A Blind Ranking Of Affordable Blended Scotch Whiskies
- Our Favorite Scotch Whisky At Every Price Point From $30 To $500
- We Blind Tested Blended Scotches In The $40 Range And A Clear Winner Emerged
- The Best Bottles Of Scotch Whisky Between $50-$60
- Blind Scotch Taste Test — Which 12-Year-Old Single Malt Whisky Is Best?
Part 1: The Taste
This is very fruity and malty on the nose with a touch of cream soda and mild spice. The palate is vanilla forward with wet tobacco, a touch of eggnog spice, and a dry grain backbone that’s almost toasted. There’s a wet leather that leads towards a slightly dry dark cocoa powder on the very end.
This is really buttery with nice bourbon caramel and a light malty foundation on the nose. The palate leans into tart red berries with dry cedar bark and creamy/dry dark chocolate chili pepper vibe.
This draws you in with rich honey that leads toward a spicy peach cobbler touched by soft leather and stewed pear with saffron. The taste is milk chocolate that leads to a ripe pear and a honey candy. The flavors are so clear, defined, and delicious that I wrote “wow” in my notes.
The mid-palate picks up an apple blossom floral note next to a very bespoke apple soda that’s touched with salted caramel, like the most high-end caramel apple you’ve ever tasted. That leads towards an end with a mild choco-spice creamy dryness and a lingering sense of orchards in full bloom.
I can’t see anything beating this. Wrap it up!
Okay, this is good too. The nose is a mix of beautiful cherry Coke next to vanilla pudding with a dusting of dry brown spices. That cherry Coke vibe continues into the palate with a malty backbone and a turn into black licorice and anise. The end is so soft and malty it’s like a warm hug.
This is very light. The nose is all holiday cake spices, nuts, and candied fruits. This is already completely different. The palate is dry and grainy malts and dry cedar with a touch of florals, nuts, and spice on the end.
This has to be the Irish whiskey.
Woah! This is drastically different again. The nose is raisins and raw leather next to a savory fruit. The palate has an Almond Joy vibe with cedar and more of that raw leather chewiness. The end is more Almond Joy with a touch of raw pumpkin.
This has to be the Woodford if the last one is the Teeling.
There’s some big fruit on the nose with a touch of nuttiness and maple syrup. There’s a distinct lemon-lime oil spritz on the palate with Caro syrup sweetness and a plastic fake fruit candy vibe. The end is almost sweet enough to feel like grape soda.
This opens with a note of vanilla next to cedar, Graham crackers, and spicy malts. The palate has a chocolate-orange note leading towards more sweet crackers and cinnamon candies. The end veers a little less sweet with a melon candy vibe on the finish.
Part 2: The Ranking
Okay, since this is a little different, I’m calling out numbers five and six as the Teeling and Woodford respectively. There’s no way those were the same category. Number five was super light on the color, so that’s easily the Irish whiskey.
Turns out, I was right. In that case, I’ll address those first but not rank them since this is about ranking American single malts.
x. Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Malt Whiskey — Taste 6
Average Price: $40
This expression is sort of like Scotland meets Kentucky in a bottle. The mash bill utilizes 51 percent malted barley. So, it’s not a single malt whisky (those are 100 percent malted barley mash bills). The bill is then supported by a big dose of corn (47 percent), and a dash of rye (two percent). The hot juice is then treated as an American bourbon or rye and is aged in new American oak (single malts generally mature in old bourbon or sherry barrels).
This is so funky. Those savory notes are wild but so enticing. Still, this was so far from the rest of the group, it kind of felt weird tasting this next to the other whiskeys. That just goes to show you how much difference a 51 percent barley and 100 percent barley mash bill can make.
x. Teeling Single Malt Irish Whiskey — Taste 5
Average Price: $60
Teeling might be producing the most interesting whiskey in the game, not just the Irish whiskey game. This Irish single malt is created by vatting 100 percent malted barley juice that’s aged in sherry, port, Madeira, white Burgundy, and Cabernet Sauvignon casks. It’s rumored that some of those barrels are up to 23 years old, which is wild for a whiskey at this price point.
This was definitely more of a classic “single malt” than the Woodford. Still, this was too different from the rest of the bunch to really rank it amongst them. It stood out, it’s really good, time to move on.
The Actual Ranking
6. Boulder Single Malt American Whiskey — Taste 7
Average Price: $79
This craft whiskey from Colorado is made with 100 percent locally grown barley. It’s slowly fermented and distilled in-house on an old-school Scottish copper pot still. The juice is then aged in new American oak, much like bourbon, for four years before it’s cut with Rocky Mountain water and bottled.
I guess it turns out that bottled-in-bond in American single malts means the “good stuff” too. This really didn’t come anywhere near the heights of its sibling on this list. It’s not that it’s bad by any stretch. It’s just fine by all accounts but doesn’t have the “wow” factor.
5. Courage & Conviction American Single Malt Whisky Bourbon Barrel Finish — Taste 8
Average Price: $85
This is the classic Virginia single malt made with locally grown barley and distilled at the farm in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains. The juice then is filled into ex-bourbon barrels (from Kentucky only) and left to age until it’s just right.
This might have dropped a little lower by being the last dram. It did feel a little muddled compared to the rest of the drams on the list. Still, I can see mixing with this very easily thanks to those more bourbon-laden notes.
4. Courage & Conviction American Single Malt Whisky 2021 Edition — Taste 2
Average Price: $75
Virginia Distillery is one of those craft distilleries you’re going to be hearing more and more about in the coming years. Their Courage & Conviction is the second in a series of single malts the distillery plans to release in this line. This expression is a single malt blend of 100 percent malted barley distillate that’s aged in ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and ex-Cuvée wine casks. The blend is a split of 50 percent from the bourbon cask and an equal measure from the sherry and Cuvée casks.
This is really well-rounded and super easy-drinking. I kind of feel like numbers four, three, and two are all really close in this ranking. I can’t really find a single fault here besides the next three just had more going on.
3. Westward American Single Malt Whiskey — Taste 1
Average Price: $75
Portland’s Westward Whiskey has its roots in Pacific Northwest craft brewing culture (similar to most craft distilleries in the PNW). This juice is emblematic of how important the first step of whiskey — the fermented mash that is, basically, beer — is to the whiskey-making process. And while Westward’s Stout Cask Finish was getting all the love this year, just last year this expression won Double Gold in San Francisco.
This was a great opening dram. It rang true and deep on the flavor profile. Still, there were two bottles that shined a little brighter today.
2. Boulder American Single Malt Whiskey Bottled in Bond — Taste 4
Average Price: $75
This Colorado whiskey is a fascinating experiment — asking what a single malt that’s treated like a bottled-in-bond bourbon might taste like. The juice is made from 100 percent malted barley. Then is spends four years in a bonded warehouse aging in new American oak. It’s then bottled at 50 percent ABV per federal regulations.
I really, really like this. I can see sending this to friends as something new they should try. It’s well-done, has clear flavors, and feels very welcoming. No notes!
1. Balcones Pilgrimage — Taste 3
Average Price: $76
This single malt starts with Golden Promise malted barley in the mash with proprietary ale yeast and local Texas water. The distilled juice is then loaded into used barrels like all of the world’s great single malts. After a few years of aging under the hot Texas sun, the whisky is transferred into French Sauternes casks, bringing a distinct dessert wine vibe to the juice. Finally, the whisky is bottled at cask strength from very small, one-off batches.
This was the best dram today and it wasn’t even close. This juice might be a masterpiece. It’s so refined while having such a clear tasting profile that’s 100 percent accessible from top to bottom.
Goddamn, this was good!
Part 3: Final Thoughts
I really thought it’d be a lot harder to find the Irish single malt and that Kentucky malt. It was not. Taking those two expressions out of the ranking, there was still a lot of distance between some of these, even from same the distilleries. Boulder’s Bottled-in-Bond really is in a different league than their standard expression.
Then there was that Balcones. I’ve drunk a lot of that juice over the years — even spent a day in the tasting room with Master Distiller Jared Himstedt tasting so many of their barrels that I lost track. But this dram blind blew my socks off. It’s truly great whiskey that I’m going to buy a case of, pronto.
Overall, I feel like Amerian single malts are a great palate cleanser for the heavier world of American ryes and bourbons. This was a lighter tasting than the ones I regularly do, all things considered. There were new and easier flavor notes to enjoy — making the whole lineup really enjoyable.
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