Deciding to start making malt whisky must be one of the worst business proposals ever. Investing in an operation that will have expenses from day one, but no income for many years seems like something for either the foolhardy or the extremely wealthy.
Here in Sweden, as well as in several of the other Nordic countries, new distilleries face a long period of initial economical uncertainty. The successful ones (like for example Mackmyra) survive the start-up period by releasing early bottlings of basically unfinished product. The idea of letting the buyer follow the process of the distillate maturing from raw spirits to finished whisky has proven pretty successful. The few remaining of their first preliminary bottling recently sold at auction for just under 900 USD.
Even when making typical American whiskey-types like bourbon and rye (requiring only a comparatively short time´s maturation before marketing) we still see that the companies need to produce something else to tide them over the first years. Examples of this is the High West and FEW distilleries that I´ve written about earlier. In light of this, it´s not that surprising that domestically produced single malt is not a very big thing in the US. A handful of producers exists, and here I´m tasting two of them.
Wasmund´s Single Malt Whisky, 96 proof (48%).
Another one from the Copper Fox distillery, this time made from locally produced barley malted at the distillery. Like their rye, the malt for this whisky is dried and flavoured in a kiln fired by applewood, cherrywood and oak. Pot stilled in small batches and matured in barrels together with chips of applewood, cherrywood and oak. My particular bottle was from batch no 50 and 42 months old.
This whisky (yes, Bowmore-schooled Rick Wasmund is dropping the “e” for this brew) illustrates the above mentioned problem for enthusiasts turned distillers. By an interesting tweak of production techniques, Wasmund bypasses these type of economical concerns by using a process that gets the wood into the whisky much faster, and thus the bottle on the shelf earlier.
So, what does it taste like? The colour is dark, redbrownish amber. A nose that despite being completely different still shares some components with their rye tasted earlier. Initially there´s some alcohol harshness that quickly dissipates after adding a few drops of water (it´s 96 proof after all). After that follows tones of apple and cherry wood, cherries,dried apple, malt and ending with an earth-like note almost like molting leaves. In a tasting glass with a few drops of water the most prominent components are apple- and cherrywood smoke, with a fairly short finish of dry earthiness and a sort of watery mouthfeel.
It´s really fun to have tasted this whisky but the overall impression is of something lacking depth. I think the fruit wood idea for flavouring the malt is brilliant, but would very much like to taste this distillate after it´s spent 10+ years in a barrel.
McCarthy´s Oregon Single Malt, 85 proof (42,5%).
Started by Steve McCarthy in 1985 in Portland Oregon, the Clear Creek Distillery has a long product list consisting of fruit brandies, grappa and liqueurs. Combining European brandy tradition with fruit grown in their own orchards they´ve managed to produce eau-de-vie with reputed high quality. Regrettably, I´ve been unable to find any of these in Sweden.
Their malt whiskey is a group effort with no less than three different parties involved. The peated malt is imported from Islay´s Port Ellen, also used by both Lagavulin and Laphroaig. Widmer Brothers Brewing Company then ferments the malt which is finally distilled by Clear Creek in a pot still. After three years of aging in a succession of barrels of Oregon oak (old and reused, slightly newer, brand new – in that order) it´s bottled with batch number and bottling date on the label.
Straw coloured. The nose dominated by fairly strong peat, with some oak and resin thrown in. Like the Copper Fox a pretty light mouthfeel. Beginning on the light side, the middle then reveals oak, malt and peat. The finish is medium long, dry and with a hint of bitterness.
Not at all bad, but would absolutely like to see what it would become after an additional 7 – 10 years of barrel-aging.
Old world vs New world
I know it´s very unfair, but I still did it. I compared these two American single malts with a 25 year old Highland Park. Although both the Wasmund´s and the McCarthy´s have distinct characters of their own, both the nose and palate shows huge differences in depth and complexity compared to the Highland Park. If the considerable difference in quality is proportional to the equally significant difference in price is another question. Still, if you´re aiming for excellence shortcuts are not going to work.