For years, drinkers heard the words “single malt” with a Scottish burr—the term has been associated with a type of Scotch made at a single distillery. But American single malt has come into favor with distillers and bartenders lately and if you’re expecting it to taste like Scotch, you’ll be disappointed in a delightful way.
This is a completely different drink.
“Actually, single malt whiskey was the first thing we made, back in 2014,” says James Fowler, founder of Sugar House Distillery. “Although it was a hard sell at first.”
The standards of identity, the rules set by the government to define spirits and the way they are made (dictating the percentage of grains in the mash, the distillation and bottling proof, the aging, whether it’s permitted to add color or flavoring,) all laid out in a three-inch thick book. (No wonder moonshing is popular—so many rules!)
Those standards still have not been set for American single malt whiskey.
It’s in the works—the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission has proposed standards: 100 percent malted barley, single distillery, matured in oak casks to no more than 160 proof and bottled at 80 proof,) but at the time I talked to Fowler, the proposal hadn’t been approved yet.
So why was Fowler intent on making such an uncanonical spirit? “Well, barley is a big crop in Utah and Idaho,” he answers. “It just makes sense to make liquor out of local resources. Also, it’s delicious.”
When I arrive at the distillery, the “tails” are just being cut out. Fowler gives me a taste of mash—an al dente porridge-like mess with a shockingly sweet taste. It could make a good breakfast cereal. (Actually, unmalted, it is a good breakfast cereal. Though a little less sweet.)
All that sweetness becomes alcohol in the end. Sugar House buys kiln-dried sprouted (or malted) barley, so it gets a toasty flavor on top of the sweetness—in Scotland, the barley is roasted, often over peat. Then it gets even more caramel and toast—and deeper color—from the charred new American oak barrel.
So how do you drink the stuff? “As a general rule, barley doesn’t play well with others,” says Fowler. “American single malt is really a sipping whiskey.”
That’s good. We’re heading into sipping season.
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